Green Goodbyes

by Glen Scherer

On a trip to India in 2002, I came across something beautiful: a forest cemetery. It had no headstones. Instead, a sapling planted by a mourning family marked each grave. The cemetery was laced with trails and dotted with benches—a peaceful haven for the living and the dead. The day I strolled there the young trees were alive with bird song.

I was struck by the simplicity of this sacred grove, and thought, what a good idea! Today, it’s a concept slowly taking root across America. As of 2013, there were 35 natural cemeteries in 23 states certified by the nonprofit Green Burial Council.

What’s wonderful about natural cemeteries is that no two look the same—unlike their counterparts with sterile lawns and marching rows of granite headstones. Each natural cemetery offers the solace of its unique native setting.

South Carolina’s Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first modern U.S. green cemetery, founded in 1998, boasts 220 plant species and a bubbling brook. Texas’ Eloise Woods Natural Burial Park features walking trails winding among native cedars and holly. Washington’s White Eagle Memorial Preserve is set within 1,100 acres of oak and ponderosa pine. New York’s Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve draws on the expertise of naturalists to attract meadowlarks, bobolinks and other birds to its memorial meadows and groves.

A green burial in a natural cemetery truly makes sense: It is far less expensive than a conventional burial. And it does no environmental harm. It requires no embalming fluid of toxic formaldehyde. Instead, the body is preserved until interment with refrigeration or dry ice.

A natural burial replaces the cement or metal burial vault with a hole in the ground. Caskets aren’t steel with brass handles, or made from rare endangered woods like teak. Instead the body is wrapped in a simple shroud, or laid to rest in a coffin or wicker casket made from locally harvested wood. The marker may be native stone, wood, or a living tree or flowering shrub. Graveside visits include walks through woods and meadows and the comfort of knowing a loved one has been reunited with living nature.

The very slow growth of natural cemeteries in an age when we urgently need to conserve every resource speaks to the human and American condition. Though most of us agree that the earth and our human future may be in jeopardy, we’re slow to change.

It’s hard enough to surrender entrenched habits, and even harder to change long-standing rituals like the way we bury our dead.

Adding to that resistance are the industries and workforces that support human habits. The U.S. death care industry with its crematoriums and cemeteries handles 1.8 million funerals annually and is a $15 billion business largely dominated by ten corporations that surprisingly includes Wal-Mart and which both sell caskets online.

A shift to green burials and natural cemeteries would save resources like 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults—manufacturing concrete is one of the largest single contributors to climate change. It would save 90,000 tons of metal caskets and 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid annually, plus the energy for cremation and tons of fertilizer and pesticide used to maintain cemetery lawns.

Where do you want to your resting place: a windswept granite lawn or beneath an oak tree amid wildflowers? Your choice could make a difference for your children and generations to come.

To locate a natural cemetery, see Glenn Scherer lives in Hardwick Vermont. © Blue Ridge Press 2013.