Why are 12% of green burial cemeteries Catholic?

Memorial boulder with name and symbol of cross at Maryrest Cemetery   Photo: Tom Bailey   

Memorial boulder with name and symbol of cross at Maryrest Cemetery  Photo: Tom Bailey   

We often emphasize the physical aspects of green burial and what it does not do to the environment, but people bury (or cremate) their dead because the body of someone we know and love represents something more to us than simply a physical husk like a pea pod or clam shell.

Last week Brant Huddleston interviewed me for his blog Dance2Death Afterlife. I had sent Brant a copy of The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide: State-by-state where, how and why to choose green burial. Being a good host, he read the book and sent me a list of questions we might address in a podcast. One was:

"It appears most of the religious sites in the guide are Catholic. Why do you think that is?"

Of course I had known there are a number of Catholic green burial grounds but I didn't twig to how large a percentage until I added up the entries in my book: 15 out of 125+ cemeteries, or roughly 12%. Jewish burial is often referred to as approximating green burial; embalming is not generally used, burial is in a plain wooden box that may have holes drilled to speed decomposition through contact with the earth. While a few Jewish cemeteries have opened dedicated natural burial sections, Catholic dioceses across the country are embracing the new movement toward green burial which not only eschews toxic embalming, burial vaults and painted steel caskets but considers the land and the landscape of the cemetery itself and the possibilities for human burial to add value them.

The embracing may be due to the Catholic Church having taken the trouble to square green burial with church doctrine. In an article titled "The Ecology of Burial: Choices reflect belief about life after death"1, Opus Dei Father Paul O'Callaghan, an expert on church teaching about end-of-life questions and a professor at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said burial methods often indicate underlying attitudes about the afterlife.

Christians recognize "in all humility, that the body has to go back to where it came from, it goes back to the earth," said Father O'Callaghan, noting that the words "human" and "humility" both come from the Latin word "humus," meaning earth.

"The authentic Christian practice" is burial "followed by natural decay." The eventual resurrection of the body promised in the Creed will be the "fruit of divine intervention."

After an October 2016 Vatican release of instructions placing severe limits on cremation for Catholics, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, noted that it was appropriate to allow the natural decay of the body while protecting the environment but not to see the body of the deceased primarily as fertilizer for plants and trees.2 

Because burial is important to Catholicism as a symbol of faith in the resurrection and also the dignity of the human body and the integral part it plays in a person's identity, the church considers a natural burial as meeting the Catholic concept of afterdeath care when the funeral rites are observed, including the Rite of Committal, and a memorial includes the deceased's name and the symbol of the cross. 

Andrew Schafer, Director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, my own diocese and owner of Maryrest, the first cemetery with green burial I ever visited, said, "For Catholics especially, (natural burial) can be an expression of profound reverence for the body and the sacredness of life, a deep respect for the integrity of creation and God’s good earth, and of course, it emulates the most famous burial of all,” that of Jesus wrapped in a shroud and buried in a rock tomb. 

Modern green burial is still in its infancy but just as the movement has become more concise at defining what it entails in physical terms, its embrace by more people should help define it in terms of spiritual and philosophical as well as environmental terms.

1 http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2017/the-ecology-of-burial-choices-reflect-beliefs-about-life-after-death.cfm 
2 http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2016/final-resting-place-vatican-releases-instruction-on-burial-cremation.cfmIn