Natural burial

Updating the guide to reflect a growing green burial movement.

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It's been a busy time in the green burial movement. Symposiums, town meetings, articles in big and small newspapers, and a bunch of new cemeteries to add to The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide. To update the 2017 digital editions I've added 17 cemeteries. An additional eleven are not quite ready to open, decided their operations weren't a good fit for the guidebook or simply didn't answer my query. Only one had to be removed, and that was because the owner died and though existing contracts are being honored there will be no new contracts for plots sold. Considering the book had 126 cemeteries as of last fall, this is a 21% increase in cemeteries. Not bad!

Another measure of green burial's health is the attitude of the people involved. My impetus for writing the guidebook came from research for a more general book starting five years ago, when it took at least a month to open a dialogue with a cemetery and complete an entry. I recently completed the process with Chassell Cemetery in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from start to finish over three days last week! I think cemeteries are more eager to promote themselves and their options as they see public interest soar. I'm also more efficient with understanding what's needed, and comments from readers help focus on what is useful and of interest.

2017 was a time for expanding my firsthand knowledge of the cemeteries. Burial grounds with green options exist in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia. This is up two. Last year my husband and I toured up the Hudson River Valley and down through the coastal states of the South, checking places out, taking lots of photos and using the book as a guide ourselves. Where possible we met with the people who run the cemeteries. The photo at the top of this article shows me with Glenn Jennelle, manager of Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

Responding to criticism by a judge in a book contest who really liked it, I've made the tables of content interactive in all regions and the complete guide. This means readers can navigate to features through clicks, and not just scrolling. As ever, Tom Bailey partnered the guide, both as photographer and book designer.

Thanks to all of you who read my blog and help spread the word about green burial, especially by creating community.

If you previously purchased a digital guide, look for an email containing a link to download a free update. This applies to people who bought the bundle. The print edition will not be updated at this time.

If you haven't already purchased a guide, there's no time that's not a good one to do so.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.