Green burial cemetery

Taking perpetuity out of grave rights.

Sign on roadside barn near Duck Run Natural Cemetery.    photo by Tom Bailey

Sign on roadside barn near Duck Run Natural Cemetery.   photo by Tom Bailey

Americans believe in the perpetuity of their graves. Yet cemeteries don't sell plots of land, they sell burial rights. The ownership entity holds the property whether as a private for-profit or nonprofit corporation, a municipality or a religious organization. Since you don't own a plot, this means you have the right to be buried in the space in perpetuity--technically forever. The cemetery can't do anything else with the space, like bury someone new in it. In conventional cemeteries with embalmed bodies in long-lasting hydro-sealed caskets protected by concrete vaults perpetual rights make a certain sense. But for natural burial, which is about getting out of the way of the agents that would turn a human body back to the soil, isn't perpetuity a bit silly?

Granted the most difficult thing to overcome might be Americans' knee-jerk reaction to the idea of disturbing graves, but I decided to look at what is done elsewhere, and what may be underway in this country to change the equation.

The idea of perpetual grave rights originated here and became prevalent as burial moved out of communal churchyards and town burial grounds to cemeteries which sold plots to a general public. In much of the rest of the world, contracts for burial space are more like leases. When a lease is up, in some places you can renew it, in others your exclusive right to the plot ends and the ground can be reused. Remains (bones mostly) are either removed from the grave and placed in an ossuary or the grave dug deeper so that it can hold the bones at the bottom and a new burial above. Grave leases that include the right to erect a memorial will specify what happens to the memorial at the end.

Perpetual care marker at Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, WI. Photo by Claire S. Bjork

Perpetual care marker at Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, WI. Photo by Claire S. Bjork

Judging by our predilection for permanence in burial the renewable burial plot is on the cutting edge of afterdeath care options. However, two green burial cemeteries in the US and one in Canada offer graves that can be reused. I was curious what prompted them to go against the grain (out of roughly 135 cemeteries which I surveyed).

For two of them sustainable use of land is the primary reasons for not opting simply for perpetuity. Their arguments are especially poignant in light of one of green burial's most difficult issues: the fact that burial takes up so much space. This is the one argument that less-environmentally sound cremation has over it. 

Mountain View Cemetery is a 106-acre historic urban cemetery in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia with Glen Hodges as cemetery manager. "Mountain View is quite unique in that we have been practicing 'sustainable' interment for more than 100 years. Since shortly after establishing the cemetery in 1886, we have always allowed families to re-use existing burial space. With the family's permission we reopen an existing grave, remove the human remains, deepen the grave, place what is left of the human remains back in the bottom, cover it with a couple inches of soil and the site is then used for another casket interment. Of the 85 casket burials we do in an average year now, probably one-third involve some kind of re-use and a 3rd or 4th casket being interred in an existing grave."

Glenn Jennelle is general manager of Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, which offers what it calls "renewable" lots. 

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"Renewable lots are used in the UK and it works out well for them. They rotate on a 50 year basis. Think of the land that is saved by this way of burial. In setting up our own renewable options our owner and I thought 75 years would be more appropriate. If anything remains in the grave, mainly bone fragments, they would be left alone and then, our hopes are maybe a grandchild or great grandchild would want to be buried in the space. We have two folks interred this way and a few more renewable lots sold. It's something new and it takes time. We furnish headstones at no charge for this type of burial, and after 75 years they will be placed in the memorial walkways near the grave site."

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But from Hunter Mohring came an explanation that aligns renewable grave use with the part of green burial that most resonates with me--recycling the human body back into the soil. Hunter is administrative steward of The Meadow, a nature preserve and natural burial cemetery in the southern portion of the Valley of Virginia nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Spine. The Meadow offers what it calls "successive sites." Hunter has sold over half of The Meadow plots as "successive" rather than perpetual. Reuse is the most natural thing to do yet as old as that idea is, it's too "new" in our current culture so The Meadow offers both successive and perpetual graves.

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What Hunter likes about the idea is that it is completely and directly aligned with the ideals of both "natural" and "sustainable." "When one's primary reason for using natural burial is to honor and participate in Earth's life cycles and contribute to the sustainability of all life, it seems counter-intuitive to lock in one use by one person forever, thereby petrifying and/or preventing the natural life-impetus embedded in the 32 square feet of land and the environment around it. All life depends on soil and all soil requires lots of dead organic material; one might think of soil as constantly hungry and thirsty. If it's not supplied with its needs, it can't play it's part in the nurturing of new seeds, new plants, new wildlife."

From a financial point of view, says Hunter, if the cemetery were to ever approach full and every grave was perpetual, the life cycle of The Meadow's 5 acres would stagnate. With no room for new burials any reason to operate the cemetery and all income for its maintenance would be removed. Typical operating procedures render a cemetery unsustainable.

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Will these few cemeteries be the start of a trend? Who knows. I hope so. Modern green burial is still a new concept and while its precepts and intentions are set, the way to get there isn't fixed which means there's room for tweaking. I feel we have to address the issue of perpetual grave use or risk being called too timid to do the best thing. Calling for cemeteries to offer renewable plots won't be enough if we don't also change our attitudes toward grave rights.

"Fifty years may seem short for rotating graves, but it is enough to allow the 'natural thing' to happen to a body and then free life to do its next natural thing," says Hunter. "Seems right and fair to me."

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Can plastics ever be suitable for green burial?

Burial of my father at Steelmantown Cemetery   photo by Tom Bailey

Burial of my father at Steelmantown Cemetery photo by Tom Bailey

What if you bury your dead father naturally in a shroud, shallow enough so the soil can use his nutrients in a lovely forest setting. He's in a renewable plot and decades later when the cemetery opens the grave to put someone new in, there's nothing left but nice clean bones--and a plastic ziplock bag.

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Oops!

Turns out your father was autopsied and his organs placed in that bag so they could be sewn up with the body.

Unlikely? This circumstance came up at the National Home Funeral Alliance conference in September in a panel discussion with various experts including a medical examiner and mortuary board member on how to interface with the organizations and authorities that handle death. A suggestion was made that in this situation morticians use compostable or plant-based plastic instead of a standard ziplock bag. My hand shot up and I voiced my protest.

When I create an entry for a green burial cemetery in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide, I indicate that any burial container must be made of biodegradable material. According to Merriam-Webster, a biodegradable material must be "capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things (such as microorganisms)."

For something to biodegrade it needs to be food for things like bacteria and bugs. Living organisms that die (like humans) are food for other living organisms, and so are biodegradable. But manufactured substances are not automatically biodegradable. Plastic is a classic case in point. Though plastic is made from petroleum, a carbon-based substance which was formed from the bodies of dead organisms millions of years ago, it is not attractive as food and so will not biodegrade. If left in the air or in the sea it will eventually mechanically degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, but these won't become organic bits that are useful to other life.

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But what about plant-based plastic?

You may have picked up a drinks cup or bought a ketchup bottle or water bottle made of plant-based plastic. This simply means that the carbon compounds used in manufacturing come from plant material such as corn instead of petroleum. Environmentally this may be a better choice than pulling more oil out of the ground to make new plastics, and theoretically when it does break down it's not toxic. But it doesn't guarantee the biodegradability of the plastic, which is determined by the resin used and how readily the chemical bonds break down. Because plastics are often used as packaging, anything biodegradable must by definition not decompose under ordinary circumstances. Anything used to carry food or other consumer items, such as plastic bags and boxes, is particularly difficult as it would be mayhem if carrier bags degraded in sunlight or over time and spilled groceries unpredictably.  

Even biodegradable plant-based plastic is not particularly attractive to the decomposers, so it's also come to be known as compostable plastic. According to UrthPact, a company that makes Earth-friendly products from bioplastics or recycled plastic materials including compostable plastics, to be certified compostable a material must:

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  • Break down completely into organic matter
  • Break down 90% in 84 days
  • Be consumed by microorganisms in the compost at the same rate as natural materials such as leaves and food scraps

Vegetable-derived plastics like UrthPact's must be composted in a commercial compost system where higher temperatures and greater concentrations of bacteria are used. They will not break down easily even in a backyard compost pile. Compost piles also need just the right amount of air and water to work, and size matters--the larger the pile the more likely it is to work. Commercial composters recreate the conditions under which these plastics are designed to biodegrade. 

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But humans are not buried in compost piles, they are buried in soil. The same agents that act to decompose a human body underground also act on anything buried with the body. Initial decomposition in an unembalmed body is carried on by microorganisms in the body itself, which are then joined by organisms in the soil. A bag sewn into a body would have to be attractive to either or both types of organisms.

It seems cruel to deny natural burial to someone because they've been autopsied. So what's the solution if we want to be true to the principles of green burial but still reasonable? It makes sense to use a bag made of material that's already okay to bury--paper, or cotton, wool. Perhaps to be waterproof or even water resistant such a bag could be coated with something like beeswax, which though not easily biodegradable is at least "natural." The product would have to be readily available to coroners and morticians, but I think if you make it easy for someone they generally will do it.

The Green Burial Council states "All GBC approved caskets, urns and shrouds must be constructed from plant-derived, recycled plant-derived, natural, animal, or unfired earthen materials, including shell, liner, and adornments."

I asked for clarification, and the GBC agreed with the statement that "While the Green Burial Council is taking into consideration the use of new plastics, it will always stay true to its environmental aims and do so only after much consideration and research."

You really don't want to bury something that's going to last longer than your remains.

To paraphrase the bible, naked we came into this world and naked we shall return.

 

Dear Ancestor...where are you?!

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My family is not great at memorialization. I can't point to a historically wonderful headstone marking our presence in this country, even though all branches that led to me arrived before the 20th century. We don't have a family cemetery plot. Anyone who died in the last thirty years was cremated and their ashes scattered. As Palmer's poem hints, graves are where ancestors mix and markers help the living find the dead.

When my father died last year we buried him at Steelmantown Cemetery in south Jersey because it's a natural burial ground and also because family members live nearby, which meant something as I'm 2 1/2 hours away. Like most such cemeteries Steelmantown limits individual grave markers to natural field stones, regulates engraving and oversees placement. For reasons having to do with the scattered nature of my family we haven't gotten around to finalizing a stone, though we did pick one out from the piles that Ed saves from digging in the cemetery. I thought the memorial would be important, but the shear emotional content of my father's burial looms so large that I don't miss the marker. 

I would however be very upset if the position of the grave were lost because Steelmantown is a forest and much as I want my father to become part of the landscape, I also want his death to be individually known. The fact that my recent relatives were all scattered to the winds at death leaves a hole--I have no place to visit them.

Doing away with polished headstones is a big part of green burial. It both adds an alternative to the impersonal grassy cemeteries of conventional burial and fits in with the concept of burial as part of a natural landscape. But we shouldn't lose sight of the importance humans place on memorialization. On being remembered. Bob Prout, funeral director and green burial advocate, once told me that beyond the first generation of mourners very few graves are visited, yet we need to heed the sensitivities of families. Like me.

As the green burial concept expands and more cemeteries come on line, the option becomes local. Now if you want green burial your choices will be limited by location. You should still be sure to think about and accept consciously a cemetery's grave marker policy. Burial grounds in sensitive ecological areas and ones that are creating a new landscape often opt to prohibit human traffic once the body is committed to the earth, and provide instead for group memorialization on a wall or scattered boulders. Others like Steelmantown allow engraved fieldstones that match the geology of the area. All define and record graves so their locations don't get lost as the landscape is restored.

The absence of grand grave memorials can be be shown in a positive light. Their lack should not be viewed as a negative.