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16 September 2007

Green Burial: When Dust Really Returns to Dust

When the funeral train following Chris Nichols’ plain, pine coffin arrived at his grave site one spring morning three years ago, this is what it saw. A simple cavity dug into the red earth of a southern pine forest, bunches of needles and rose petals strewn into and around the hole. No concrete burial vault lined the grave. No granite stone loomed at the head. Chris’ final resting place was a natural part of this living landscape, and his burial here – with its wood coffin and unembalmed occupant – allowed what remained of the 28-year-old stonemason to join it.

Pictures Courtesy of Ramsey Creek Preserve

This photograph, which was taken at the Ramsey Creek Preserve, a “green” cemetery in South Carolina, makes a powerful statement in favor of natural burial. Death is not simply the end of life, the image suggests; It’s caught up in a grander, natural cycle – of decomposition and rebirth, of growth and decay – that sustains and perpetuates all life. Our challenge, as naturalist Ed Abbey put is to “get the hell out of the way” of that natural process like Chris Nichols did and let it work.

An emerging green burial movement is taking up Abbey’s call. Eschewing chemical embalming and bulletproof metal caskets, elaborate and costly funerals, more and more are embracing a range of natural burial options, new and old, that are redefining a better – and greener – way of death.

Some families are finding natural return in the half dozen green cemeteries that have sprung up around the country in the last decade with a score of others in the planning stages. Like Ramsey Creek, they offer vaultless, embalming-free burial in wild, bucolic settings. Caskets are optional – cloth shrouds are just fine – but if used must be made from readily biodegradable materials, like cardboard or pine. Headstones are cut from small fieldstones that are native to the area and laid flush to the ground.

Others families are taking a page from earlier, more sustainable burial traditions, by creating private cemeteries on their own rural lands – and then calling the local carpenter to craft a simple wood coffin when the time comes. There’s even a growing trend in home funerals. Half a dozen organizations run workshops on how to bathe and dress a body and lay it out for wakes and funerals in the home, without using the funeral director or his funeral parlor.

Cremation is also coming into vogue. About 30% of Americans are choosing the hearth over the grave; Some claim by mid-century that percentage will double. Thanks in part to JFK, Jr’s watery sendoff off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, more of us are choosing to return what remains of our deceased to aquatic environments. With the help of an Atlanta-based organization called Eternal Reefs ashes can become part of a life-generating memorial under the sea. Families mix the ashes of their dead with concrete to form a waist-high honeycombed dome called a memorial reef ball. After curing, the reef ball is loaded onto a boat and dropped onto an established artificial reef site in the ocean, where it becomes habitat for fish.

I spent two years traveling the country talking to families who had chosen these green alternatives to the modern funeral. They did it for a number of reasons, they told me: To save money (green burial costing hundreds and low thousands of dollars versus the average $10,000 for the funeral home sendoff). To preserve natural resources (including the metal that’s poured into coffins and vaults every year, enough to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge). To have funeral services that reflect the values of simplicity and self-sufficiency that have guided their lives.

Mostly, though, they did it for the reason Chris Nichols expressed when, lying on the bed on which he would soon die of cancer, he told his older brother, “I want to join all the other living organisms in the ground.” Chris got his final wish at Ramsey Creek. To go there today is to see how well his legacy lives on.

This article was written by Mark Harris from Grave Matters. Mark Harris is an environmental journalist and the author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (Scribner, 2007). If you are interested in contributing to the thinking process and become a guest writer on The Thinking Blog, find out more information here and be my guest!

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