Let’s get beyond the idea of perpetual care.

Perpetual grave in a corner churchyard at a busy intersection in Orange, New Jersey   Photo Credit: Tom Bailey

Perpetual grave in a corner churchyard at a busy intersection in Orange, New Jersey  Photo Credit: Tom Bailey

Let’s get beyond the idea of perpetual care.

Someday someone's going to be left with your body. What do you think should be done with it?

Each year 2.7 million people die in the US. That's a lot of bodies to take care of. A cremation rate of around 50 percent still leaves well over a million. Conventional cemeteries bury on average 1250 bodies per acre. Natural burial cemeteries generally bury in the hundreds per acre. Taking an average figure combined we would need around 4000 acres. This could be accommodated on a single square of land roughly two miles by three miles. That seems ridiculously small and doable in a country as vast as ours.

 But hang on, those figures are per year because grave rights are purchased in perpetuity. In just 10 years we would need 62.5 square miles, in 100 years we would be need 625 square miles, and on and on. Because people like to be buried either near where they live or someplace else meaningful, this would mean setting aside more and more land in prime locations just to bury our dead.

So why then do I advocate for green burial? Because I believe it's important for humans to see ourselves as part of the cycle of life rather than outside it, to seek "material immortality" in the words of Rachel Carson by allowing our bodies to go simply into the earth and the nutrients in our flesh recycled into new life.

So how could we do this and not sink under cities of the dead?

By foregoing perpetual care. Most European cemeteries lease burial plots for a set number of years with the option of paying a high price to get a perpetual lease. But in the US grave rights are eternal.

Most bodies buried naturally (i.e. in a shroud or biodegradable coffin) decompose to the skeleton in a dozen years or less. If cemeteries as they do in Europe were to institute a method for respectfully handling the skeletons, we could manage natural burial grounds to recycle the dead through the generations. The British Parliament is considering a rule change to allow cemeteries to remove bones and rebury them in a smaller box several feet below the original burial site, permitting a new body to be buried in the same grave. For natural burial cemeteries, markers if used could be reset in a wall for preservation. 

Another way to truly follow up on the idea of using natural burial to restore or preserve open land could mimic crop rotation; if a natural burial ground is filled sequentially, i.e. plots assigned at death next to the last ones filled, when a section is full it could lie fallow for a period of time while another section is opened. You could let bodies lie for a longer period and get the advantage of undisturbed meadow or forest instead of digging the land frequently.

We could make green burial not only an environmentally friendly option but also a sustainable way to use the earth.