BACK TO THE LAND FOR GOOD
by by Cynthia Beal
Each year, caskets and vaults made from over 100 thousand tons of steel, 10 tons of copper and brass, 30 million board feet of hardwood timber, uncounted tons of (eventually leaching) plastic, vinyl, fiberglass, chipboard, and 1.5 million tons of reinforced concrete accompany Americans to the grave. Embalming fluid is still in regular use in the US, even though it’s a known workplace health hazard, and the act of embalming flushes body parts and fluids into public water systems. Given that just less than 1% of us die each year, even with a 60%+ cremation rate, we still have a lot of room for improvement in the Last Steps department.
Most of us know something’s not right with how the funeral process is operating. We’re upset over high funeral prices (a final extension of health care costs now spiraling out of sight). We endure regulations that seem out of touch with reality, favoring business and penalizing choice. We dislike harming the environment with our last acts, and we wonder where the nature-friendly alternatives are and why they aren’t actively promoted?
Our ignorance is understandable. We get little contact with death until we’re needed to help make (or pay for) arrangements for a friend or relative. In this pressing situation, we’re often confused and go to funeral businesses that, in their turn, are now trained by company sales teams to steer us toward what they “need” us to buy. That’s not a formula for buyer-satisfaction.
Today, people are looking for something natural, aligned with environmental and life-affirming values. An increasing number of us are choosing to live a more natural lifestyle, so we might wonder why we can’t have a more natural end. Additionally, a natural burial’s cost can be much less expensive than a conventional funeral, which typically runs $6,000 to $10,000 or more.
Natural is Traditional
Prior to the modern era of professional funeral management, death was the province of the family. People died at home, cared for in their last days by relatives and friends. Funeral homes were small family-run businesses with deep ties to the community. They offered a dignified ride to the cemetery and had a nice “front parlor” for visitation, should the family home be inadequate for a good wake. Many undertakers didn’t embalm, and profit wasn’t their sole reason for being.
Funerals were simple affairs. Respect was a matter of course. Strangers were not in charge and dignity was conferred in the sincere, if sometimes clumsy, personal acts of caring for and carrying our dead. We did this safely, and joyfully, and naturally – and we often did it for almost free. And what we did back then is what’s commonly referred to today as a “natural burial.”
The current movement “back to tradition” has its modern genesis in the UK, when Nicholas Albery created the Natural Death Centre to promote the DIY funeral, and Ken West added “woodland burial” to the first municipally owned cemetery in the city of Carlisle in 1993.
In England especially, sustainability is encouraged and praised by government and church groups alike, with historic and municipal cemeteries receiving conservation funding and volunteer-training programs. Even existing cemeteries, ideal for permanent planting projects because of their protected-land status, are looked to for seed banking and wildlife habitat. Citizens are now being allowed to elect short-term grave-lease options and even permit grave re-use. 15 years and 250-plus natural burial sites later (with over half of them municipally owned!), the UK movement is alive and well and spreading to the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere.
The US differs from the UK in that we practice a near-universal use of concrete, plastic, or metal burial vaults as outer-containers for coffins. This is not law, but conventional cemetery landscaping practice to facilitate tractor mowers and vault-placement equipment. We still have a plentiful supply of existing cemetery land, and a good deal of that may be suitable for natural management, just as it was in the UK.
Therefore, in order to encourage the procedure to spread fast and wide, the majority of US “natural burial” efforts are best focused on “vault-free” burial and existing cemetery conversion to sustainable landscape management. An emphasis on existing cemetery conversion (preferably publicly owned, for best taxpayer benefit) ensures availability in the near term, lower start-up costs, and more access to all.
Natural is Biodegradable
Natural burial supporters favor biodegradable coffins and shrouds of willow, bamboo, felt, non-toxic plywoods, recycled paper, cardboard, and natural fiber. These are used for both burial and cremation. In only a few short years, willow coffins comprised an estimated 6% of coffins sold in the UK, and paperboard now gives MDF a run for its money. Contrast this to the US where approximately 80% of caskets used in burial are metal, with the remainder mostly chipboard or exotic hardwood-veneer.
The woven “basket caskets,” pricier than cardboard and wood, are handmade from sustainably farmed fibers like willow and bamboo, and keep the weaving arts alive. The machine-made cardboards are from waste-stream fiber and offer a low-cost option when price is a principle. And the wood-fiber kits are sturdy, buy-ahead affairs that can be easily stored till needed, and decorated by friends and family.
Trees and bushes planted on or near graves provide comfort with their message of “life goes on” and are one of the most preferred ways to visibly mark graves. Families should ensure that loved ones are not wearing synthetics when buried or cremated, and non-degradable materials like screws, staples and ‘extras’ should be used sparingly, if at all. Natural burial is the act of returning the body’s remains to the earth in a manner that allows its elements to be reincorporated fully into the soil over time. – Natural Burial Association
Elements of a Natural End
When speaking about “natural burial” most people mean the full spectrum of experience at the end of life, and not just the act of burial itself. This can be confusing, as issues range from where someone dies or lies in honor, how the funeral is conducted, if the body is embalmed, cremated or buried, the burial depth (for decomposition), how the grave is marked and recorded, how cemetery land is managed, how much it costs, and who pays. Many folks who want natural services have already chosen cremation, and their needs must also be taken fully into account in the “natural” conversation.
Issues usually fall into one of four categories: the funeral (what happens just after death, before burial or cremation), the disposition (in this case burial, the actual act of earth interment; cremation is another form of disposition), memorialization (what marks your physical body on the land), and the cemetery’s land management practices after the burial has taken place.
The funeral (and funeral prep) may take place at your home or the funeral director’s; the disposition (and interment) can be at a crematory or cemetery, as either a shallow-earth vault-free burial or cremation at an energy-efficient facility; the memorialization (a headstone, a tree, etc.) can be separate from the death, occurring months or years later and can include ashes scattering or placement; and sustainable cemetery management practices may vary from cemetery to cemetery, even though a natural burial is offered.
These distinctions are important, especially when products and services come from different places. Families under stress at the last minute can get frustrated if they can’t get everything easily in one place, but providers of one category often have little control over providers of another, so it’s helpful to keep the distinct elements in mind.
For example, the funeral director may offer natural funeral services (a viewing without embalming, biodegradable coffins, home-funeral facilitation, handmade invitations, a local-foods reception, organic floral tributes, etc.) but have no influence over the burial or landscape practices of the cemetery. SOLUTION: Arrange for funeral services independently with a trusted provider, in advance if possible. Ask your provider to help you find cemeteries that provide vault-free or natural cemetery options, but be prepared to shop around on your own.
An existing cemetery may offer vault-free burials for bodies, cremated remains, or biodegradable coffins, but may not recommend any funeral directors who offer natural services for fear of playing favorites. SOLUTION: Most funeral services providers can support natural procedures. Support those that advertise, because they’re less likely to be “greenwashing”. Check out www.naturalend.com for a list of providers that pledge to provide the “natural basics”.
A memorial tree, stone, bench, or other artist-made item may not be allowed in the cemetery you choose. SOLUTION: Consider a highly personalized memorial space in your own home or garden, or contribute an art piece to the public portion of a cemetery or park, rather than commemorating a specific natural grave.
A city-run cemetery may accommodate family-directed funerals and practice sustainable landscape management but may not sell biodegradable coffins, urns, or shrouds. SOLUTION: Federal FTC law requires funeral homes to accept coffins purchased elsewhere by the family, without charging additional fees. Complain to your state’s Mortuary and Cemetery Board if you meet resistance in acquiring natural products. Handmade biodegradable coffins are available online, and any funeral director can stock them at any time.
Last Steps for Last Rights
The first art we ever unearthed was burial art, and graves are where we’ve found some of the best stories about who we are and how we’ve evolved as people. For many folks, how we care for our dead is one of the things that makes us human. And yet, though it’s one of our oldest rites, natural burial is still “new” and may be hard to find for some time to come. (See "A Quiet Revolution at Sunset Hills" below.)
Arranging for a natural burial today takes pre-planning. You’ll need to go on a hunt for what’s out there, and it won’t always feel easy. My advice is to have a clear vision of what you want – not what you think you might be allowed to have, but what you really want. Then be persistent in your pursuit. If someone says “no,” ask “Why not?” If the answer isn’t chapter and verse of a law, remember that it’s only an interpretation until you see the law. And cherish the conversations you’ll have with family and friends along the way. They may be some of the most insightful and honest of your life.
The bottom line: Your body is yours. You’ve nourished it over many years. You should be able to put your body away again when you’re done with it, back where you think it belongs. And if you want to send it harmlessly on into that Great Forest of the Beyond, tucked neatly into the natural order of things to sleep your sleep eternal, then that should be your last rite, too.
Cynthia Beal is founder of the Natural Burial Company and author of Be a Tree: The Natural Burial Guide for Turning Yourself Into a Forest at www.beatree.com. She can be contacted by phone at 503-493-9258, or by visiting www.naturalburialcompany.com
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