In Raleigh, a Historic Oakwood Cemetery

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The last few decades have added green burial as a reason to choose a particular cemetery, along with location, family and looks. Maybe you're in the envious position of being near several green burial options. If one is a dedicated natural or conservation cemetery wouldn't you just choose that? Not necessarily. Even couples see things differently; take Robin Simonton and her husband.

Robin is executive director of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina and she purchased a plot in her own hybrid cemetery with a dedicated section called Mordecai's Meadow within the conventional grounds. Her husband wants to be buried in a nearby cemetery that has a separate natural burial section in the woods, across a pond from the conventional cemetery. Both are valid green burial options. For Robin, ties to Historic Oakwood outweigh the lure of greater levels of natural.

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Historic Oakwood's entrance is in a lovely old city neighborhood of Victorian houses. A granite gate gives onto the grounds near the site where the cemetery's presidents are buried. We drove in on a misty-cool summer morning and were met by Robin, who led us down narrow cemetery lanes with her little car looking like a bucking bronco from the back as we tried to keep up.

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Mordecai's Meadow is at the edge of the cemetery, bordered by a street. A tall hedge hides traffic and houses. Robin plans to add more plant cover but if one is looking for "natural" this is not it. Yet what strikes me standing on the grassy rectangle is that asking to be buried here is a conscious move to follow the principles of green--to really make sure your body is not inhibited from decomposing back into the earth, and that you take very little "bad" stuff to the grave. You're saying, "I like this cemetery but I don't agree with the general policies on burial vaults, caskets, embalming. Show me what else you can do." 

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When I asked Robin how the cemetery got started with green burial she credited neighbors with opening up the conversation. People who live along the street opposite the hedge have supported the cemetery's move to develop Mordecai's Meadow; many bought plots in a row under the hedge in the order of their houses. The name Mordecai pays tribute to the original landowners of this peaceful urban cemetery.

Robin has about 143 usable plots (trees and rocks render some areas unusable) with room to expand into a nearby section. She wants to work the kinks out. It's not a forest or a true meadow; she's constrained in how she lanscapes by a board that is skeptical about the upkeep of native plants. Not much money is available; green burial helps keep the cemetery going, as it does at other cemeteries I've visited, but Historic Oakwood performs 5 burials per week in the conventional section, a pretty good rate. Robin has to work within the budget and policy constraints of the cemetery board whose goals often differ from the benefits of green burial. She did her homework before trying to sell the concept; calling in experts and making sure she understood herself what it entails.

Like many cemeterians I have met, Robin expends alot of emotional energy on each green burial. Partly this is because family and friends are vested in the proceedings, and also because green burial requires more hands-on guidance than conventional burial. Robin attends each green burial and was startled at her first shroud burial to realize how little separated this body from the living, and how little it affected the mourners, who crowded close and stayed around rather than splitting immediately. Mordecai's Meadow's most recent interment is a young man who committed suicide; his parents heard about green burial and sought it out for him. It's his plastic flowers in this picture.

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Robin has sold over 60 plots. One customer wanting to purchase next to a famous person will eventually be laid to rest near a locally known chef. "She'll cook for all of us," said Robin. The chef's plot is also near Robin's, situated where she and I stand in the photo. (I don't say anything about her modesty as a pioneer in green burial.) She doesn't figure on burying her eventual neighbors, as they should have many years left on earth. 

Robin believes that green burial is a viable concept for Historic Oakwood Cemetery, that it fits with the organization's goals, especially that of offering customer alternatives. Green burial is a way for ecologically conscious people to give a bit back to the environment at their end. 

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Should natural cemeteries accept urns that include tree seedlings?

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Natural burial cemeteries are about a natural landscape and the trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, and animals that make it. But is that landscape created from plantings on graves?

I recently received a question from Isabelle Bolla at Bios Urn: "Does your book discuss places biodegradable urns can be buried? I know some green burial locations permit it, while others do not."

While I concentrate on full body burial and not cremains in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide, it was an interesting question because a Bios Urn is more than just a biodegradable urn; it's designed to turn the ashes of a person or pet into a tree. "Thanks to its design and manufacture, the urn provides proper germination and aids in growing a tree with a person or pet’s ashes."* The answer to Isabelle's question lies in whether a cemetery allows outside plantings.

I collected information from virtually all cemeteries in the US that practice natural burial to create the guide and this information allows me to see trends in many practical aspects, including planting policy. While regulations vary considerably the majority of cemeteries that do allow shrubs, trees or flowers on graves usually keep a list of acceptable plants. This is especially true where land is being restored or a particular landscape created, such as meadow or forest, though many of these don't permit customers to do planting of any kind.

Isabelle's question came not long before my second natural burial cemetery tour, so I took the opportunity of asking cemeterians whether they accepted urns containing seedlings. The first answer surprised me.

"What if the tree dies?" said Robin Simonton, executive director of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina. "How sad is it for the family to see that?" 

Sad for the family, and a potential nightmare for the cemetery. If a plant dies, who has responsibility? The cemetery clearly does if its staff plant and maintain the landscape. "Plantings as decoration are permitted with written approval," says Historic Oakwood's green burial guidelines. "Plantings are allowed from a list of noninvasive species native to the area" at Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, North Carolina. "A native tree or wildflower may be planted on certain sites but must coincide with overall restoration goals" at Greenhaven Preserve in Eastover, South Carolina. If one of these cemetery-approved, family-planted trees dies, does the cemetery have to replace it? Even if families are told they are responsible for watering and maintenance, in our litiginous society will they refrain from going after the cemetery? Wildwood Cemetery (a conventional cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania) says it is not responsible for watering any plantings or for deer damage. How does that work?

It is surprising how few cemeteries don't allow plantings. Almost alone is Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana, which stipulates "No decorations of any kind are permitted in the natural burial area. No trees or shrubs may be planted and no other plants seeded or set out on the graves." Greensprings Natural Burial Preserve in Ithaca, New York forbids any planting of trees and shrubs in its meadow areas but allows approved grasses and wildflowers. Even this is chancy, as Greensprings is attempting to cull non-native invasive perennials.

Other cemeterians I talked to expressed similar concern about being stuck with nurturing trees or other plants. Some, like Carolina Memorial Sanctuary in Mills River, North Carolina, which started out allowing planting of approved native plants are becoming stricter. Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, completely controls planting, which is decided on and done on plans by an advisor. Isabelle says Bios Urn encourages native plants but that's not the same thing as requiring an urn to conform to a cemetery's requirements, and regional differences as well as cemetery landscape preferences vary considerably. Bios Urn lists 6 pretty generic tree options for North America, Europe, South America and Asia on its website and I would bet that any of them might be considered non-native somewhere.

Bios Urn clearly offers customers the option of including their own seed and cemeteries could ask that urn companies consult with them but that adds a layer of complexity and work for places which don't necessarily have the extra time or interest to do that. The easiest solution might be to ban plantings and avoid the issue entirely, or as do Preble Memory Gardens in West Alexandria, Ohio and Mound Cemetery in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, encourage families to donate plants or trees to be planted in the cemetery in memory of their dead but considered property of the cemetery.

* https://urnabios.com/

Why don't all cemeteries have signs on their natural burial sections?

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve near Schenectady, NY photo by Tom Bailey

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve near Schenectady, NY photo by Tom Bailey

Green burial sections of hybrid cemeteries are generally lovely places. Why are they reluctant to put up signs?

I recently visited seven cemeteries on a two-day tour up the Hudson River. Though all are in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide, they are too far from home for individual day trips and my contact had been from a distance. Would it be overwhelming to see so many in a short time? Too much like If It's Monday this must be Schenectady? As it turned out, the back-to-back visits provided a perspective I wouldn't otherwise have gained.

All seven are what's known as hybrid cemeteries--working burial grounds that opened green burial sections. The sections vary in size from a few rows of plots to several acres, and most have room to expand. Why then aren't they all well advertised? Is it lack of marketing instinct?

According to Dick Hermance, cemeterian at Rosendale Cemetery in Tillson, New York, his green burials, divided between meadow and woods, outsell conventional graves. "Our green burial section is keeping the conventional cemetery alive," says Dick. Many of his customers who would seek conventional burial are choosing cremation instead. As seen here, Dick's green sections are well marked. When you visit Rosendale, an otherwise unremarkable municipal cemetery, there's no mistaking the burial options.

The meadows in Albany diocesan cemeteries Most Holy Redeemer (top photo) and St. Michael's Meadow at Calvary Cemetery are attractive and the diocese has no problem with making their presence prominent.

But another diocesan cemetery, this one St. Peter's Cemetery in Saratoga Springs, does not sign its meadow, though the brick apron which overlooks the meadow would be a logical place for a sign. It even has a lovely name--Peaceful Meadows Natural Burial Ground.

 

In Schenectady we visited Vale Cemetery, tucked into a rundown neighborhood and connected by a bike path to a large municipal park. Together they provide well-used green space for city dwellers. Here a prominent sign beside the path announces birding opportunities. Directly in front is The Dell, Vale's ample and well-designed green burial section along the banks of a gently-sloping basin abutting woods that separate off the park. Sign for it? Nope. I wrote to Bernard McEvoy, vice president of the cemetery, who replied "A sign for the Dell at Vale is being made up." They get about an inquiry a week, which is pretty good, but considering the section opened in 2013 one might be excused for thinking a good sign from the beginning would have helped bring in more business than the "8 lots sold and had 2 burials there."

Fultonville's green burial section, uphill and beside the historical cemetery, is labelled only with the letter E, its section designation on the cemetery map.  

Capping the trip was a visit to the Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery and its 2-acre Natural Burial Ground set back on a lane into woods well-marked by a carved sign.

Developing a natural burial ground requires work. It also needs vision, because land dedicated this way is unavailable for conventional burial and even with room to expand, space in these seven cemeteries is not infinite. 

Despite increasing visibility for green burial and its providers the Green Burial Council is the only organization with a large presence. It certifies providers, offers education and advocacy, and announces when cemeteries and businesses achieve certification but marketing help is not one of its missions. It's not a trade group.

Conventional cemeteries and funeral directors have trade organizations with overlap for green burial/green funeral providers. Some of this is a numbers game; as with anything you need enough bodies willing to go to meetings and lend a hand. Getting help from organizations with roots in the business could take more efforts to show that green burial can help them prosper, not simply hurt their business. 

Labels don't tell all at Countryside Memorial Park.

Ranch road running alongside Countryside Memorial Park, La Vernia, Texas photo by Tom Bailey

Ranch road running alongside Countryside Memorial Park, La Vernia, Texas photo by Tom Bailey

Sunny Markham and her daughter Chrysta Bell Zucht are using green burial to create Countryside Memorial Park, a new cemetery around a handful of historic graves in Texas ranch land a half-hour east of San Antonio.

I visited Countryside in June with my husband Tom Bailey, winding through creek-drained green land past where a dead horse was being lifted off the side of the road, to a pretty stretch with a grove of trees on one side opposite open land surrounded by a fence with a sign saying "Beall Cemetery Est. 1854." Sunny and her cousin Susan Everidge, who used to work in the funeral home business and is now burial coordinator for Countryside, met us at the entrance. Sunny and I spoke when I set up Countryside's entry for The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide but this was our first meeting face-to-face.

I form mental pictures from descriptions of cemeteries but reality takes on its own charm. Green burial cemeteries vary significantly. In the guidebook the descriptive section and stories of how they came about are the most popular parts. With these visits Tom adds to our stock of photos.  

Countryside Memorial Park is on land purchased by Sunny's husband and now in Chrysta Bell's name. He found graves in the grass belonging to a burial ground for early settlers, a type often called a pioneer cemetery found in many western states. When he died Sunny, a Breast Health Teacher and Massage Therapist and Chrysta Bell, a musician, followed on his wishes to set the cemetery up for green burial.

 

Certification labels originally created by the Green Burial Council are widely used for defining green burial cemeteries, yet they don't really cover cemeteries like Countryside which begin from a historic kernel that is no longer active. Hybrid, a conventional working cemetery offering green burial as an option either in individual graves scattered on the property or in a separate section, doesn't fit here. The essence of "green" is the same whether a cemetery is hybrid, natural or conservation. The historic graves are probably old enough at Countryside to have no embalming with toxic chemicals and no burial vault concrete or otherwise. Burial is available in a shroud or casket made of biodegradable non-toxic materials, and there's limited use of heavy equipment and pesticides for landscaping. No conventional burial is practiced here; Sunny stressed that, and was concerned that early on they allowed a few polished headstones. 

Natural cemeteries go further to develop a new burial ground and create or preserve a landscape, either forest or meadow, but Countryside is somewhere in between. In springtime Countryside's 1.5 acres are clearly meadow, covered in wildflowers, though in early summer it was hot in the sun, rain was less and the grass browned off around a new grave (this is the natural cycle for the region; a conventional lawn cemetery would have to irrigate to keep grass green). 

 
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This small acreage is really not enough to create a new landscape even with room to expand sideways.

Like other green burial cemeterians, Sunny takes a personal interest in what's included on her property. Here she's propping up a statue of St. Francis of Assisi which someone had set near the tree's base. It's in the non-standard kernel that contributes to the burial ground's character.

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The names on the historic grave markers under the old oak trees are versions of Chrysta's name--Beall, Bell--but there's no relationship.

 

Three hundred plots have been surveyed, and Countryside has 8 full-body recent green burials along with cremains and the historic burials for about 2 dozen all together. The newest graves are along the front fence and not under the old oaks. The land is mowed to maintain the meadow and fenced to keep out the neighborhood cattle.

Each grave is surveyed and given GPS coordinates. Going forward people who want markers may include a flat fieldstone. Sunny is learning to engrave them, which will add one more personal touch to this green burial ground. If you live in Texas or visit San Antonio and are interested in green burial, consider going to Countryside. Like me, you'll find green burial comes alive at the places that offer it.

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photos used in this essay are courtesy of Tom Bailey, Sunny Markham and Susan Everidge.

Digging a grave.

Digging a burial grave at Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park.  photo by Tom Bailey

Digging a burial grave at Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park.  photo by Tom Bailey

When life throws out odd opportunities I find it's best to take them.

During a recent visit to Austin, Texas, I told Ellen Macdonald I wanted to visit Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park, her green burial ground.

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"Do you want to help bury a baby?"

That threw me. "You're having a funeral?"

"Well, not exactly. It's a 20-week-old miscarriage. The family want the remains buried but won't be there themselves."

"Sure," I said uncertainly.

"Good. I'll let you know when I'm going out."

Digging in the earth is a very elemental activity. Soil has consistency; it's dry or wet, clotted or fine, red, light, sandy. It gets under your fingernails, stains palm lines. Potato bugs, worms, beetles, millipedes, live in the top layer along with microbes you can't see. It has odor. When I was a child I dug in it to bury a dead robin and a dead cat, also to help my mother plant her garden. But I haven't worked it much as an adult.

So next morning after Austin rush hour traffic had calmed down but before the heat rose Tom and I headed south of the city and east into farming country, midway between the Austin airport and Bastrop. We visited Eloise Woods almost three years ago and knew Ellen, the burial park's owner and "queen." I'd only just met the woman who would bring the remains. Melissa Unfred is an independent funeral director known as The Modern Mortician.

We arrived first and were walking Ellen's paths when they arrived with Melissa holding a rectangular tupperware type plastic box. We retreated into the shed where Ellen keeps shovels and shrouds. Melissa set the box reverently down. Did I want to see it?

I swallowed and said, yes. In for a penny in for a pound. Muttering about the excess plastic that the hospital used, they unwrapped a tiny form that looked shrivelled because the fluid that made up most of it in the womb was gone. Melissa held up a cheerful flannel bag. Once the remains were enfolded in the shroud and the paperwork was filled out Melissa's work was done.

She left us to collect another body at the hospital. Ellen gathered the flannel. "How much digging do you want to do? There's a grave I dug for a small pet that we could use, but I figure for your education you want the digging."

When I nodded she selected a short-handled pick axe for me.

The site she picked was near a stone bench marking the area called Angel Garden because it's where she buries babies. Ellen donates her time and land to people like the present parents, who would probably never come see the spot. Ellen set the flannel next to the base of a tree marked by small stones.

"Here," she pointed.

I hefted the pick, considered the space, moved the flannel out of the way of a flailing tool, and swung it. Crunch. Ellen's soil is gravel-sandy-loam; diggable in small sections like this but full body adult graves must be opened with a backhoe. I lifted the pick and swung again.

"You'll kill your back. I usually just scrape around and pull the dirt away."

I looked at her gratefully, wondering why she hadn't chosen a shovel for me. Perhaps this was her usual tool.

When the hole was deep enough Ellen placed the flannel in the grave, scattered flower petals across and I pulled dirt over, patted the mound, smoothed it. Ellen would bring soil from elsewhere later to increase the top cover to provide a good smell barrier against animals. She marked it with a stone she'd engraved.

"I don't know if they believe in angels," she said as she corkscrewed the stone into the earth.

There was no life to mourn for with this baby, it was an uncomplicated burial. Had it been an adult, even a stranger, there would have been more emotion for me. I felt pretty good about the job.

We make a big deal of going back to the soil in natural burial, and the way to get there is to dig a hole, put in human remains, and refill. Which is just what I did. Think of how invasive a big noisy machine is for such a personal job. People may open and close the grave when a loved one dies, but most don't. I didn't with my father. Working with the soil at Eloise Woods was satisfying in a way that symbolic throwing shovelfulls of dirt on his grave wasn't. Maybe doing away with the shovel at a natural burial so people have to scoop dirt and pour it out with their hands would allow a better connection with recycling the body back into the earth even if most of the digging is done by cemetery personnel.

 

 

After Ellen had settled the stone we retreated to her shed for water and shelter from the sun. Later she would link a name to the surveyed plot and add it to her cemetery map so a visitor would know who was there.

It won't take long for the earth to take back this tiny form, and that's the point. Dust to dust. Life to life.

Eloise Woods: The esthetics of choosing a natural burial gravesite.

Grave at Eloise Woods.      photo by Tom Bailey

Grave at Eloise Woods.      photo by Tom Bailey

Mystery question for what happens after death: Where is my plot?

No, not the cemetery; I mean, which surveyed piece of land is my body or that of my loved one going to be buried in? 

Problems like this often don't emerge until someone dies. Americans have an aversion to death thinking which makes sense since life's strongest imperative is to live. But a bit of planning improves the chances of getting a green funeral and burial. 

When Tom and I picked out the gravesite for my father's natural burial last summer it was just after he died, but I knew about the process. I'd also been to the cemetery on several occasions. Natural cemeteries change with the seasons, the landscape is an integral part of the experience, and it would have been disorienting to have selected my father's plot in winter bareness and then bury him as we did in full summer with its dense vegetation and insect life.  

But the order in which afterdeath decisions are taken varies with circumstances and on a recent visit to Texas I experienced a gravesite choosing very different from my own. Ellen Macdonald, owner and "queen" of Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park just south of Austin, joined me and Melissa Unfred, an independent funeral director who works with green burial customers, as guests on Shades of Green environmental talk radio and afterward I asked to Eloise Woods to see the changes since my first visit almost three years ago. While Ellen and Tom and I were chatting, Melissa called to say she was with a woman whose husband had just died in the hospital; she wanted green burial for him, could she come out to discuss?

Nan and her friend Madeline arrived in a rattly Ford Explorer, driving up Ellen's dirt lane into the shade of her oak trees. Nan is Thai, and her friend acted as translator and facilitator. Nan ideally wanted Jim laid out on the ground for the vultures to clean his bones so first we had to get across that this wasn't something you do in America, and second that the principles of green burial would be a suitable alternative. How to explain American conventional burial, which we knew would be so different? I made the case that even though earth would cover Jim's body he'd be buried shallow enough that worms and bugs and microbes could get to him to clean his bones.

Once the formalities were taken care of we walked Ellen's paths searching for a gravesite. Ellen knows her property and the reasons people choose to be buried one place rather than another but it all began to look the same and I wondered how one would ever settle on a spot when seeing the cemetery here for the first time. Eloise Woods' 9+ acres flow down a hillside furrowed with ravines, covered with oak and mesquite and cedar forests. But not all is forest; interspersed are small areas of grass that in spring turn into wildflower meadows. As we passed through particularly dense woods Madeline suddenly said that Jim was a desert rat, and wasn't there an open place for him? With a real goal in mind, within five minutes Nun had chosen a spot in one of Ellen's grassy meadow sections. It wasn't what I would have taken but it was her personal choice.

Nun also wanted Jim laid out in her home until the burial, and this could easily be accommodated now that she was in the loop. But imagine your loved one dies in the hospital and you have a sense you don't want embalming, makeup, laying out, the emotional and physical distance from the body that conventional funeral and burial mean, how would you get from point a to point b? How would you even know the points exist unless you had read about green burial/funeral service?

Ellen said she does have families that take care of their dead from transporting, filing paperwork, washing and sheltering the body, to actual burying (though not digging--Ellen's soil is too hard for that) but they are from cultures where communal activity is usual. Perhaps more common is the story she told of a mother who wanted to bring her son to Eloise Woods when he died. Just exiting the hospital turned out to be a major drama as he was very large, and everyone found out really quickly how difficult it is to maneuver a dead body without professional help and morgue equipment. 

Home funeral practitioners take care of these details and since Melissa had been called to the hospital to pick up Jim's body for the funeral home, Nun was lucky. You generally have to be pretty clued in to do all this. If you want to have a say in your burial or the burial of someone you love, educate yourself ahead of time. Pick out a cemetery if not a plot. Choose someone to help you manage--a funeral director, death doula, alternative afterdeath care practitioner. There'll be some expense involved but you're paying for someone else's expertise. If you have a family that wants to work together that's great, but you need to tell them ahead of time and you should all know what you are doing.

I would have attended the funeral but Jim was buried about the time we headed to Austin's airport. If I visit Eloise Woods again I can make a pilgrimage to his gravesite, see how it is settling into the landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide goes to print!

In the next few weeks I will be publishing The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide in a print edition. This applies to the complete edition; the regions Northeast, South, Midwest and West will still be available only in PDF for the moment. Though personally I like the flexibility of the digital format for updating, I've talked to people who don't feel comfortable with the digital book and businesses that want to display a physical copy. And handling a galley proof of the printed guide myself, being able to flip through the pages, reminds me of how much I like a physical book. It encourages browsing; the mechanics of a digital book don't. 

Just five months ago The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide went public, capping several long years of research and outreach into the vision, the dreams, the businesses and the people of green burial, ending finally with my burying my own father in a natural burial cemetery. In May the guide won the 2017 Green Book Festival Wild Card award, and I've given talks and interviews and posted about it. It's not perfect, but just as the field evolves and changes with more people get ting involved and learning about it, I hope to keep the guide adapting to the future. 

Please let me know if what you see is of benefit, if it answers your questions, and if things are afoot in your region that I don't know about. When I hear from readers it connects us up to a giant web--like the ecosystem we wish to be buried in.

DEATH CAFE: Discuss death without averting your eyes.

"What's the one thing you have to do to get to heaven?" was the ice-breaking question asked at my first Death Cafe. The people sitting in a circle of folding chairs came up with all sorts of possibilities. After four or five answers, Marilyn told us.

"You have to die."

We looked at each other, and relaxed. This wasn't going to be a morbid, or religious, chat. Possibly it could be fun.

I've written and posted about Death Cafes for a couple years now, and yesterday finally got my chance to attend what sounds on the surface like one of the more peculiar discussion groups "with no agenda, objectives or themes...(not) a grief support or counseling session." "At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives" (www.deathcafe.com). The Death Cafe model was developed in London, has no staff, and is run in local groups on a volunteer basis by people like Stephanie Kip, founder of this cafe in northern New Jersey, who are dedicated and not afraid to spend alot of time shepherding something along. There have been 4645 Death Cafes in 49 countries since September 2011.

Death Cafes always gather around food and drink and talk. In green burial we emphasize communication; making it easier for families to discuss afterdeath options and death in general. I'd come partly to peddle The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide and was startled to realize when the moderator, a pastor at a local United Methodist church, asked us to introduce ourselves and say why we were there, I could talk for hours about green burial but I don't really address my own death. Yet there I was.

The subject for the cafe was obituaries: What would  someone say about us or inscribe on our tombstone if we had to put aside our accomplishments? There were 12 people and we split into two groups. Most were older than me but everyone was there because it was a space to not feel strange about discussing death. Half had been to at least one previous meeting.

As I worked overtime to think of myself outside the box of what I have done professionally, only pat answers occurred until I realized that my coming to child- and eldercare relatively late in life had made me into an empathic person. 

"As a teenager I was afraid to babysit, but you could say about me that now I have a profound understanding that what I do and say is remembered by children and affects their lives."

Why shouldn't we come up with the good stuff about ourselves while still alive? When my father died my family gave our mother the gift of a celebration of their joint lives rather than a memorial service for just him.  

After sharing, we discussed the future of this Death Cafe, which had been meeting for free in the library where Stephanie worked. She was retiring her job and we'd have to pay going forward, which isn't part of the cafe plan. Nor did we want to be associated wth places of worship; housing for the elderly or infirm; or senior citizen centers.

I brought copies of my guide plus postcards but didn't put them out; this was a place to discuss emotions and ideas, not practical information about what to do when death occurs. There are places for that. Not many venues exist where people don't shut down and avert their eyes at the simple mention of death.

Will I repeat the experience? Possibly, but most days for me are already devoted to some aspect of death. To find your own nearby Death Cafe enter your zip code on the website. It's a bit confusing as the cafes are listed as past or future events, but you can find contact info for organizers who can tell you more.

You can even start your own Death Cafe.  

DEEPDEAD project: Finding traces of human presence in caves, soils and landscapes

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"Humans are ruining the Earth from beyond the grave: Scientists warn decomposing corpses are altering the chemistry of soil." *

So reads the title of an article that came out in late April and spread quickly across the international news. It summarized the findings of Ladislav Smejda just released at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2017 from the DEEPDEAD Project that said chemical traces of human bodies can be detected in soil hundreds or even thousands of years after being deposited. This goes for bodies left on the surface, bodies buried, and those cremated and scattered in scattering gardens. The article's title is sensational to get people to read it, but the concerns are real.

In this space I have elaborated on the problems of burying biodegradable urns filled with ashes because the concentrated ashes appear to poison the surrounding soil, rendering it unfit for planting. What Smejda is saying is that human remains in general contain concentrations of chemicals otherwise considered nutrients that may overwhelm the soil. In other words, natural burial can be too much of a good thing, even as it does so much to reduce or eliminate other environmental downsides of conventional burial.

I wrote to Smejda today hoping he can shed light on what this might mean for green burial. Decomposing animal bodies also contain concentrated nutrients, but animal bodies are not accumulated in cemeteries (except for pets) and are often broken up by scavengers. With land use already an issue for many people, breaking our burial grounds up into ever smaller spaces wouldn't make much sense.

Smejda's presentation certainly didn't negate the goals of green burial. Our afterdeath choices will affect the environment for a very long time. "It's a message to us to consider our present day and future practices and behavior so we potentially direct our impact on the environment in the right way." 



http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4448314/How-humans-ruining-Earth-grave.html#ixzz4hLr8f03m