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The following text is a condensation of my forthcoming book "Be a Tree, the Natural Burial Guide for Turning Yourself into a Forest." While I'm still wrestling with getting it published (things keep changing, so this may end up being 'it' someday', you can read an overview below and get yourself started on the road to becoming a tree...
Natural Burial: The Ultimate Back-to-the-Land Movement
1. Dying to Do the Right Thing
In the United Kingdom, for almost 20 years now, a compelling new consumer movement has been underway. Natural burial grounds — where people are buried in biodegradable containers, without formaldehyde-based embalming fluid or synthetic ingredients, and returned to the earth to compost into soil nutrients with a forest of trees marking the spot—are springing up across this island nation.
Since 2005, when I first began documenting this trend, dozens (if not hundreds) of sites offering some form of natural burial have emerged in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada, with other countries coming on fast. Citizen-driven movements in support of natural burial can now be found in Europe, China, Japan, Germany, and Africa.
[for a bit more history of the UK origins and the emerging importance of sustainable cemetery management, visit this link]
Some groups have started new burial grounds to fill the gap left by conventional cemeteies slow to change. In the UK, where the process is more mature, examples of the shift include Tarn Moor Memorial Woodland, (city--run) the Meadow at Usk Castle Chase (private field) and Clayton Wood Natural Burial Ground (private field).
However, many of the UK's natural burial opportunities are run by managers of existing cemeteries who recognize that by simply returning to the way they used to bury and manage their graves they can offer thse natural fundamentals many people are now seeking AND ensure grave space far into the future. Good examples of these include the Carlisle Cemetery & Crematorium and the Woodland Burial Ground at Brighton-Hove, UK, the Queen's Road Cemetery in Croydon, now experimenting with grave reuse.
Like all cemeteries, they offer plans that can vary widely, reflecting differences in culture, religious preference, ecological ethos, grieving style, aesthetics, etc. Common variables in their cemetery rules are:
- the form of memorialization (what's put on the grave or somewhere in the cemetery to mark the person's life)
- what's permitted inside the grave itself along with the body, including the container
- how much soil is on top and around the buried body, and how active it is
- how the land is managed after the burial has taken place
- the possibility of future re-use of the grave once full decomposition has occurred
In the US, conventional cemeteries are getting on board, making similar changes and, at the same time, beginning to change their minds and rules about
- whether or not the body's in a vault/OBC (outer burial container)
- whether or not the body's been embalmed with microbe-inhibiting chemicals
Cemetery managers vary in what they will or won't allow to accompany the body, depending on their communities, their knowledge, their biases, and their imaginations: the gravesite may have a memorial headstone or those may be prohibited. The grave may be in a historic pioneer cemetery or in reclaimed urban space; it may be in a pristine wilderness area or an existing metropolitan cemetery. There is no "one way" to do it, although there are plenty who will say there is. The challenge is to find the "way" that works for you.
And yet, no matter what style of "natural" is chosen, one thing stands out - a "natural burial" reflects the desire for something simpler, something less 'wasteful' of time, money and natural resources. At its core, it cries out for the body's physical return to the earth, without barriers or inhibitions (in the form of non-degradable vaults or metal and plastic coffins) that prevent its transformation back into the elements it's made of.
The text here changes as the story expands (though I still don't update it enough). And it's exciting stuff to keep track of: New resources - research, legislation, and passionate individuals - are gaining ground around the world in support of the public quest for change in environmentally destructive burial and funeral practices. Environmental managers are discovering issues created by conventional cemetery practice they had no idea existed, along with the courage to face them. Educational institutions are realizing the need for professional training in cemetery management along with concrete research. And as the networking improves, so does the information. (Get more funeral news at the Alternative Funeral Monitor)
In spite of this dynamism (or even because of it) the core of the movement shines brightly: contrary to the proclamations of many, the eco-end-of-life movement is no fad. A "clean death" is as real as our hunger for sunlight in winter and clean cool water in summer. And it frames something frightening - our own mortality - with something that is real enough to ground us in the inevitible, and yet beautiful enough to actually bear. "It" is "natural" and there's a peace to be found in that.
Driving the Change: Land Stewardship, Home Funeral Services, and "Green" Grave Goods
Concerns about pollution, appropriate land and energy use, and the depersonalization of the dying process, as well as a Baby Boom demographic that puts 80 million Americans over the edge in the next couple of decades, are driving the natural burial trend. Two distinct groups stand at the forefront of this sea change: the natural burial grounds proponents themselves and their vocal citizen counterpart, the home funeral movement.
The latter is spurred on by educational and nonprofit consumer organizations who focus on presenting a full spectrum of end-of-life options to the public, like the Natural Death Centre in London, the USA's Funeral Consumer Alliance, and alternative funeral service providers like Rupert and Claire Callender of the Green Funeral Company in Devon, UK.
In the US, a number of family-directed funeral advocates for home funeral practice have come forth, and understanding about the laws and practices are spreading through the educational efforts of Jerrigrace Lyons (Final Passages - Northern California), Beth Knox (Crossings - Maryland), Char Barrett (A Sacred Moment - Seattle), Nora Cedarwind Young (www.thresholdsoflife.orgCeremonies for Life's Thresholds - Washington) Donna Belk (Texas), Karen Van Vuuren (Natural Transitions - Colorado), Tricia Sweeney (Spiral of Life - Portland) and a host of others.
According to Lisa Carlson of the Funeral Ethics Organization, and author of "Caring for the Dead, your final act of love" many home funeral advocates focus on returning control over the death and dying process to individuals and families, encouraging and teaching them to take charge of their own end-of-life affairs in a proactive manner that engages family and friends, returning dignity and meaning to what has become, for many, a sterile and uncomfortable commercial process. For increasing numbers of people, in addition to hands-on participation that means a natural burial, too.
New product companies fill real needs with style
Side by side with this public front are an equally dynamic group of forward-thinking business entrepreneurs and artisan-manufacturers. Some are producing attractive biodegradable burial vessels made from natural and recycled materials, while others are pioneering natural burials by starting modern "eco-cemeteries" around the world, dedicated to modeling the perfection that a natural "heaven on earth" might look like if it were here.
The most progressive of the bunch are actually re-inventing the business from the inside out, taking existing cemeteries (rather than pristine land that ought to stay no-impact) and converting them to sustainable cemetery management techniques so that the process is accessible to everyone, even those in densely populated urban areas that don't use cars! These companies and individuals are doing for the industrialized funeral sector what organic farmers and food producers have done for the agricultural arena in the US and across the world when they first began to serve an unmet but very real consumer demand for clean food, while working to change the conventional practices of a huge industry whose techniques have had a detrimental environmental impact.
And new natural grave goods are stimulating a renaissance in the once-thriving weaving arts: Recycled paper and alternative fibers are made into caskets and coffins. Handcrafted woven items are making a comeback in the form of willow, bamboo, sea-grass and other woven-fiber containers, while fabric artists fashion imaginative shrouds of organic cotton, silk and hemp.
Unique new burial vessels like the Ecopod recycled paper coffin, SAWD's Fair Trade certified bamboo, Somerset Willow's artisan-crafted homegrown willow "basket caskets", FTP's seagrass, hyacinth and banana leaf, Eco-coffins cardboard coffins, and the ARKA Acorn ash-burial urn appeal to environmentally minded folks who want to depart from life as naturally as they’ve lived it.
Each year, more natural versions of traditional funeral goods are coming onto the scene - it's hard to keep up with them all! Many of the manufacturers and distributors are working hard to bring people the information, services and products needed to make even their final act a positive and self-reliant one.
When it's Time to Leave no Trace
For decades, the end of a human life in American society has been managed by a cadre of corporate professionals who package our experience of death just as rigidly as others have packaged our living. Prior to the modern era, death was the exclusive province of the family. Burials were done according to custom and tradition. Respect was a matter of course, for strangers were not in charge, and dignity was conferred in the sincere, if sometimes clumsy acts of caring for and carrying our dead.
Today, however, life moves rather mechanically—and for a hefty fee—out of the raft of boxes above ground and into more boxes below. Once you have died, your body is expertly managed by a professional funeral services team, plumped and preserved from immediate decay with formaldehyde-based embalming fluid, interred in a metal, chipboard, or plastic decorative box (with an optional airtight seal to prevent contact with the elements).
The casket is placed into a rigid liner (deemed unnecessary in most non-American cemeteries, but considered mandatory by U.S. cemetery managers for lawn maintenance), and is usually buried on government-regulated grounds on high-priced real estate that easily commands upwards of one million dollars or more an acre for its owners.
1,000-2,000 bodies per acre at a minimum of $1,000 each for the plot has been standard, sometimes stacked two or more high. For lots of people who are currently unserved by the existing funeral service industry, that double-box process looks a lot like litter, and upon closer examination it's not the dignified and simple close to a grateful life that most of us wish to have.
Minimize Impacts, Plan, and Respect
A popular outdoor ethics campaign, the Leave No Trace program, took back-country garbage to heart in the 1970s and ‘80s, thoughtfully outlining objectives for individual "waste management" and behavior when visiting natural and wilderness areas: plan ahead, dispose of waste properly, minimize impact, respect wildlife. Many folks think we're "just visiting" here on Earth, and when it's your time to go, "Leave No Trace" doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
Today, people are beginning to question the wisdom of leaving toxic chemicals and synthetic substances in the ground and atmosphere for future generations to clean up. If pressed, many of these same folks would prefer their bodies to "Leave No Trace," as well.
Should We be Burying this Stuff?
My colleagues and I think it’s appropriate to ask these questions about toxic burial chemicals and promote alternatives simultaneously. Under most state and federal regulations, any business would be hard-pressed to get permits to bury (conservatively) 1.5 million gallons of embalming fluid in the soil annually, and yet that’s exactly what happens with most of the 1.5 million bodies that are embalmed and buried in U.S. cemeteries every year. The European Union has banned embalming fluid containing formaldehyde.
The residual contamination is a hotly debated point - whether or not the chemicals in conventional fluid persist to the point of doing damage depends primarily on one's definition of "damage." If "damage" means the chemical must persist in its potentially carcinogenic form all the way from the body to your drinking glass, then that measure is meaningless because that's not how it works with formaldehyde.
But if one's definition of damage is the destruction of the bacteria and microbes that actually aid the decomposition so that a body can break down naturally, or if the definition includes mortuary worker health and safety, the damage looks far different, indeed.
Conventional embalming fluid contains a number of chemicals, including methanol, ethanol, and formaldehyde, the latter a suspected carcinogen linked to nasal and lung cancer in mortuary workers and other occupational groups. Used by a large number of funeral homes to slow the body's decomposition, formaldehyde arrests natural breakdown processes by "fixing" cellular proteins. It stiffens the body's tissues and, with the help of added colorants, is used to make a corpse more "attractive."
It's an aesthetic that is appreciated by some, but not all - and it's this group of 'neglected' clients that are now raising the call for a change.
And that's not all...
Guess what else is buried along with these embalmed bodies every year? More than 100 thousand tons of steel, 10 tons of copper and brass, 30 million board feet of hardwood timber, uncounted tons of plastic, vinyl, and fiberglass, and 1.5 million tons of reinforced concrete accompany Americans to the afterlife —along with the medical waste that may have been with the person at the time of death - an unattainable disposal permit indeed, unless you're burying caskets, one at a time!
The chemical-intensive double-box casket-and-liner system used in this unnatural burial is an industrial solution to the uncomfortable and very human experience that usually accompanies our Big End. In an often compassionate but increasingly commercial and profitable effort to ease our emotional pain, offending sights and smells are whisked away, and the vacuum is filled with services that temporarily mask the reality of death.
The box is pretty, the lawns are neat, and nature can't get a word in edgewise.
Natural Burial: The Traditional Alternative
Until recently, the environmentalist's response to this product-intensive and cumbersome process has been to opt for cremation. However, as baby boomers age and the actual experience of managing our deaths (and those of our parents and friends) comes upon us, cremation—now complicated by legitimate questions around energy use, mercury and carbon emissions, the lack of meaningful and enforceable environmental standards, and aging industrial crematoria—is not always the modern funeral panacea most wish it to be.
The urgent creativity of the 21st century is rising to these challenges, and other solutions for our bodies’ final end that support the values of greenspace preservation, carbon sequestration, habitat creation, nutrient cycling, and brownfields reclamation are becoming apparent. Our understanding of the importance of forests and the usefulness of trees and the necessity of habitat, along with the power of the soil to transform natural elements and return them to utility for the web of life itself, grows every year. The demand to "Leave No Trace" is increasing.
On the heels of these developments, and the emergence of a consumer who is looking for a "clean," death to accompany a conscious, low-environmental-impact life, natural burial is an exciting solution, with win/win scenarios for individuals, communities, historic cemeteries, and our wildlife friends at every turn.
Preserve, Disappear, or Reintegrate
Once you’re done with your body, only one thing happens to it next: It goes away. Well, it never "goes away"; in the words of anthropologist and garbage guru William Rathje, "there is no away." So you do go somewhere. Fortunately, where and how you go is still up to you, and if you want to take control of the situation you’ll need to decide to manage your physical remains for preservation, disappearance, or return—in other words, reintegration into the interdependent biological organism that cycles elements on planet Earth.
According to modern biologists, living systems depend upon a complex network that coordinates independent cells so that they function together as skin, organs, blood, and nerves working as a team—i.e., You—to repel the invasion of external bacteria and fungi that would otherwise colonize and consume the weaker individuals. “Life” is a constant struggle to resist turning into something else’s dinner, and as long as you’re around, your side is winning.
As soon as you check out, that system collapses and your cells, no longer your very clever and fun-loving collective that is turning sunlight into ATP (biochemical energy) and ATP into gardens, solar arrays, and microbrew-festivals, bid each other a fond farewell and take their turn as food. In the natural world, a whole host of creatures—animals, insects, fungi and microbes—then get their spot in the sun, so to speak, and take on the very necessary work of breaking you down into smaller component parts, putting you back into the system that you built yourself from in the first place. It’s an amazing cycle—or it can be, if we’d just leave it alone.
But no, WE have IDEAS.
Preservation: It’s Not All it’s Cracked Up to Be
The ancient Egyptians were masters of the Slow, learning to pickle and preserve human remains for reasons that are still somewhat obscure today. Modern embalming came into fashion in the mid-1800s, spurred by the sale of early forms of embalming fluid through the emerging military supply industry to Union and Confederate armies, preserving the bodies of dead soldiers for positive identification and burial during and after the Civil War.
"EMBALM, v.t, To cheat vegetation by locking up the gases upon which it feeds. By embalming their dead and thereby deroanging the natural balance between animal and vegetable life, the Egyptians made their once fertile and populous country barren and incapable of supporting more than a meagre crew. The modern, metallic burial casket is a step in the same direction, and many a dead man who ought now to be ornamenting his neighbor’s lawn as a tree or enriching his table as a bunch of radishes, is doomed to a long inutility. We shall get him after awhile, if we are spared, but in the meantime the violet and rose are languishing for a nibble at his gluteous maximus.
-- Ambrose Bierce The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911"
Today embalming is a common practice in the U.S., generally required at the larger funeral home chains, while independent funeral directors often have more discretion. Contrary to industry opinion, embalming is not necessary to prevent decomposition in the first few days after death; refrigeration does the job efficiently. Embalming does not prevent the spread of disease. Its use as a sanitizer is overrated and, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, embalming serves little appreciable sanitizing or public health purpose that couldn’t be handled with more natural techniques.i
Embalming fluid is a formaldehyde-based chemical that slows decomposition by killing some of the microbes that begin the first stages of body breakdown, resulting in the hardening of tissues. It’s not even that effective at killing the more virulent human pathogens, and one of its biggest “dangers,” outside of the toxicity of its primary ingredients, is the myth that it is It is rarely required by law or regulation—no state in the U.S. requires embalming in normal circumstances, although surveys conducted by the Funeral Consumers’ Alliance and others show that a number of funeral tradespeople regularly imply to their customers (and to legislators) that it’s “necessary” for public health and safety.ii
Exposure to formaldehyde may pose significant health risks to people who work in the funeral industry. Nasal and lung cancers have been indicated in scientific studies, though some industrial research disputes these claims. (For the CDC evidence of carcinogenicity in formaldehyde see: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/81-111/.)
A related issue is that because embalming fluid is used to replace blood in the body, that blood has to go somewhere. You guessed it. According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than 2 million embalming procedures are performed in the U.S. each year, producing two and a half to three gallons of blood and excess embalming fluid per body. That fluid, along with the organs and internal parts suctioned out of the corpse during the process, goes down the drain and into the water supply. Not a pretty picture.
In the cause of preservation, embalming fluid, with preservative effects that begin to fade in a matter of days (although still leaving the natural decomposition process compromised because the life cycles of the decomposers have been destabilized), takes a back seat to the double-box casket system in common practice in the U.S. since the last half of the twentieth century.
Steel, fiberglass, and chipboard-with-veneer caskets are designed to resist decomposition, and that resistance is a selling point, with the more durable boxes bringing in the highest prices. Caskets touted for their resistance to degradation are often fitted with an optional rubber or plastic seal installed between the bottom and the lid, designed to prevent mold and rot (our friendly decomposing fungi and bacteria at work). In reality, this seal fosters an anaerobic environment and causes the body to putrefy rather than break down. This practice has even led to exploding crypts in cemeteries that inter bodies above ground—embarrassing for the gasket manufacturers, and messy for the groundskeepers.
After the packaging is complete, the casket isn't lowered directly into the ground but is instead placed inside a concrete, steel, or fiberglass liner. This keeps the casket itself from deteriorating, forestalling what’s known in cemetery landscape-maintenance parlance as “subsidence,” a slight sinking of the casket that creates bumpy ground that’s inconvenient for heavy tractor lawn-mowing and causes headstones to topple. In addition, the caskets and headstones are often placed in cemeteries or churchyards “in perpetuity” and require ongoing maintenance, sometimes 'forever'. By contrast, in a natural burial ground, meadow grass is not mowed and the headstone is a tree—a lazy landscaper’s dream if there ever was one.
Modern body preservation is expensive, environmentally destructive, and perhaps more important, begs the real question: What, or whom, are you being preserved for?
Disappear: To Burn or Not to Burn
It’s not certain which tradition is older, burning or burial. Evidence exists for both scenarios, and each has a longer history than preservation. The oldest arts we know of are the burial arts, and the practice of cremation is thousands of years old. In times of disease and mass death, cremation has often been the method of choice, especially in landscapes where the soil was not suitable for rapid breakdown. But cremation takes fuel—wood, gas, or electricity today—and fuel is often scarce in times of disaster or, as in our time, an unwise choice given the devastating effects of global climate change.
Some religions teach about the impermanence of life and back that up with a ritualized display of public burning, proving to the community that the person cannot come back—once they're burned to ash, they're truly “gone." Other groups consider burning the harshest of punishments, depriving the soul of a body to either return to or use in an afterlife. In either case, the goal of cremation is to disappear, and for those who desire to unburden the world, this may seem the logical choice. The appeal of “disappearance” has led many people who are disenchanted with modern industrial burial to opt for cremation.
Cremation, however, has its own array of problems. Chief among them are the energy used for complete combustion; the emissions that result from burning synthetic materials and body implants, and mercury fillings (vaporized dental amalgam accounts for 16% of the air-borne mercury pollution in the U.K.) iii; the lack of crematoria standards worldwide (since air travels and we have a shared atmosphere); and the carbon footprint that cremation entails.
Crematorium makers are quick to tout their progress. And while its true that increasingly efficient filtration systems capture more emissions than they once did,, the filters are very expensive and the trapped pollutants must still be disposed of. When the filters come out, everything that they've trapped must still be stored until disposal methods for the contaminants have been found. National agreements on emissions standards are difficult to achieve, especially given that over 80% of operating crematoria in the U.S. are the older, polluting models. Cremation is a viable alternative. If you want it to be clean, however, you should shop around.
When an emissions-conscious crematorium with an energy-efficient cremator can be located and cremation is still your method of choice, creative use of the cremated remains offers a number of ways that friends and family can honor a loved one after they’re gone. With the rise in cremation rates, scattering ashes has become popular; (so popular in some national parks, for example, that visitors have to be reminded not to spread the alkaline ash because it interferes with plant growth in high concentrations!)
Many people are surprised at the amount of ash, and even bone, that remains after a cremation, and scattering it around can feel awkward. Creative ways of memorialization—like casting a pinch of ash in blown glass, compressing it into an artificial diamond, or placing the ashes in a beautiful handmade urn or jar—allow one to continue to express and maintain a meaningful connection. However, some estimates suggest that perhaps as much as a quarter of all cremated ashes are still “on the shelf” somewhere, perhaps even in the original crematorium box or bag. Biodegradable burial urns like the ARKA Acorn Urn make personalized forest burials of the bulky ash—especially in a conservation forest setting—a thoughtful option, and many people are enjoying the water-placement of remains in specially designed containers like the "Journey" designed to float "just long enough" and then sink for release.
But the least talked about, and perhaps most compelling argument against cremation (or disappearance at all, for that matter) even if the energy use was negligible and harmful emissions nonexistent—may be that, in disappearing, we actually lose our chance to continue to participate in planetary life in a personally meaningful way.
As ash, we can be scattered to the winds or on the waters, or remain cherished and elemental, a comforting presence in our descendants' lives. But planted in a rural cemetery's forested edge or a sustainably managed city cemetery and becoming food for the regenerative Earth system, we can still do one last thing with our bodies that may be much more significant than a disappearing act: We can remain fully present, albeit transformed, nourish the soil, and rekindle life as a forest or a tree
Reintegration: Making the Case for a Biological Return
The trend worldwide is toward cremation and there is little ground for argument if inputs and emissions are managed properly and the only other available method is the resource-intensive conventional industrial model. For many people—especially those whose deaths involve complex organ donation, serious infectious disease, limited funds that preclude supporting a forestland, or dying far away from your chosen place of burial—cremation is the best option. Clean cremation "wins" over an embalmed body and nondegradable casket system any day.
On the continuum of processes, a natural burial that makes one's body available as a full-spectrum nutrient source for the soil web does more for the planet's biological system than cremation. According to Dorian Sagan, author of Into the Cool and student/teacher of the thermodynamics of living systems, the longer that our biological web can keep life forms "in play," transferring energy from one creature to another in the great chain of being, the more resilient our planetary system can remain.
The complex and self-organizing, self-regulating biological and geophysical systems that help to balance temperature, moisture, and atmospheric gases and support life as we know it on Earth are created and maintained by the continuous recycling of the organic and inorganic matter that are the elemental building blocks of all animate beings. Sterilization (from the formaldehyde) and the combustion of cremation destroys the integrity of fundamental molecules, enzymes, and microbes present in your body and the soil it's buried in. In contrast to the chemical-intensive practice of preservation or the energy-intensive process of combustion, returning to the earth's natural system arguably makes the best use of our parts—us—for the greatest number of beings, over the longest period of time.
With the human contributions to climate change looming large on the horizon, our continually increasing understanding of the science of Gaia may generate additional compelling reasons why we might want to return to the web in a literal, as well as a figurative sense. Becoming a tree, if for no other reason than to offset our own personal C02 emissions during our lifetime, might be just the ticket we need.
All We Leave is Energy
A number of methods are being proposed for final disposition that reintegrate our bodies with the Earth's biological systems in natural ways. Some of them, such as the ancient excarnation practice of the Tibetans called “Sky Burial,” or the often-requested “burial at sea” (as long as the body is in a weighted shroud and/or a degradable casket!), are older than our recorded histories.
One of the newer methods proposed is called "Promession", developed by the Swedish soil scientist (and former organic gardener) Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak. This method hypothesizes using a cryogenic technique to freeze-dry the body immediately after death. Frozen solid, it's proposed that the body would then vibrated by sound at an amplitude that reduces it to powder. The moisture—70% of a body’s mass—is to be evaporated off with the various metals and nondegradables sifted out (and this would be very helpful in situations where there are numerous implants that can’t be removed prior to burial). What remains afterwards is a dry, silt-like and nutrient-dense substance highly suitable for burial and fertilization.
Another interpretation of Promession is a process called "Cryomation." Its techniques vary slightly but the effects appear to be the same, and new data is appearing all the time. "Resomation" - alkaline hydrolysis - is another body-reduction technique that uses water, heat and lye to remove flesh from bone and create a 'biological' residue.
The freeze-dry technique has more than a few disadvantages when compared to a natural burial that ticks all the eco-boxes. The process uses liquid nitrogen, which is expensive to purchase and store, and costly in energy to produce since it’s generated with electricity. Liquid nitrogen can’t be handled without the use of specialized equipment and a knowledge of the potential hazards, and the large quantities needed pose risk to its handlers.
Resomation has a similar technology-intensive pedigree, and the effluent processing impact, energy, and fresh-water use seem quite high. At this time, it’s hard to say where these processes stacks up with respect to conventional cremation in “sustainability” terms, especially if a full-cost embodied-energy accounting is done (and if solar crematorium efforts like those now underway in India bear fruit).
However, given the fact that a “freeze-dried” or "lye-reduced" body remains in a complex bio-available form that can still nourish the land, it's superior to bone-ash remains as a fertilizing nutrient, and - as far as the final form goes - may take second place only to natural decomposition.
Once such facilities are built, and provided the technical challenges can be overcome, freeze-drying and sifting may end up being the preferred solution for that small percentage of deaths that require a more energy-intensive disposition. When using energy intensive products, it's always appropriate to ask if the method is necessary, or if there are alternatives that can achieve the desired end with less energy/environmental cost. And there are certain circumstances—medically-complicated deaths, body-disfigurement through accident or extreme autopsy, implants, some diseases—that make natural burial less than ideal. In these situations, freeze-drying may be the sensible choice—and you still remain useful as something else’s dinner!
Ideally, natural death and burial should support and sustain the cycle of life, not compromise it. Modern biology is only now beginning to deeply connect with other scientific disciplines—geology, climatology, physiology, and thermodynamics—to quantify the energy transfer that interdependent living systems generate and manage in the complex soup of life. Is it really such a big leap to imagine that your own death can be a doorway back into that natural and elemental world? For those of us who’ve been frustrated by the difficulty of living an integral life in this forest of synthetic industrial marvels, a natural death may be the easiest lifestyle choice we’ll ever make.
In the final accounting, all we leave is energy. One goal of natural burial is to make it good, useful energy still available in the form of complex molecules—fat, bone, and blood—there to be wrestled apart and turned into worms, and beetles and other first-stage decomposers (who eventually also take their turn in feeding the small), ensuring, ass one organic gardener insisted he wanted on his headstone— one fine "WORM PARTY!"
What You Need for a Natural Burial
Because natural burial is innovative and as yet unfamiliar in our society, it is advisable to make advance arrangements to ensure that your end is a more natural one.
The key elements of a natural burial are:
* A clean and natural body-management process
* A fully biodegradable container
* A place to go—air, water, or sky,
* People to put you there in the manner you determine
* Laws to support your right to be there
*A community to help you stay there
Whether you’re buried in a container or wrapped in a fiber shroud, the first thing to insist on is the use of biodegradable materials in everything that accompanies you “out the door” or into the earth, no matter where you end up. Just by using a natural container you’ll minimize your impact on the environment because of all the conventional casket materials you won’t be buying or burying, along with any polluting or energy-inefficient processes used to make them. Your box or "vessel" is a great place to start. Even if you (or your parents) are buried in a conventional cemetery, you'll lessen the ecological footprint of burial boxes just by choosing the natural ones, and it only gets better from there.
What’s Buried Along with our Loved Ones in U.S. Cemeteries Every Year
- 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid
- 90,272 tons of steel (caskets)
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
- 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
- 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
- 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods (much tropical; caskets)
Source: Mary Woodsen, Greensprings Natural Cemetery FAQ, March, 2007;
What's in the Box (Besides You)
While the debate evolves as to what will and won’t biodegrade in the presence of healthy soil microbes and hungry trees, a few guidelines readily appeal to our common sense. The list below is progressive. We suggest you start with synthetic-free items and, as new products come into being, go “up the ladder,” choosing enhanced biodegradability, recycled and non-virgin materials, and sustainable production characterized by renewables, local handcrafting, family businesses, fair trade, and other economic justice considerations.
The prioritization of those values should remain up to you. While some certification programs may suggest there's only one way to "go", everyone's experience and circumstances are unique, so it's best to keep the rules at a minimum while the movement emerges and look for what YOU want for YOU. With respect to products, consider these possibilities:
- Fill out a Natural Funeral Planning Worksheet
- Avoid synthetic and non-natural materials in your container and clothing
- Insist that no medical waste be buried with your body
- Choose products designed to enhance breakdown in the soil web
- Favor items from recycled and waste material instead of virgin resources
- Support sustainably produced burial goods with organic, fair trade, and eco-certifications as they begin to appear in the marketplace if you're not making your own.
Any additional requirements can be spelled out in your final instructions and should include asking the family to leave your favorite gadget at home (or better, give it away!) and not burying you in synthetic clothing.iv
Modern bodies tend to go out with more than they came in with. Teeth are often filled with mercury amalgam—stable when cool and in the ground, but still buried none-the-less. Silicone and artificial joint implants are increasingly common, and bodies may have pacemakers (they explode in crematoriums, and silicone pools in the kiln). Unless you leave instructions, it's unlikely that these items will be removed prior to your death and dealing with them just afterwards might be a bit awkward. This is generally one of the least pleasant tasks left to be managed and should, if at all possible, be arranged for completely in advance, by you.
Obviously, packaging matters. Up til the emergence of the Internet as a source for consumers to find the sorts of goods they're looking for without the shopkeeper limiting their choice, people relied primarily on the undertaker (the person who "undertook" the tasks of a funeral) to supply the coffin or casket.
The path of DIY coffin purchasing in the US was pre-paved with the establishment of the Funeral Rule by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission: (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0300-ftc-funeral-rule). Among other benefits, this law - passed when funeral homes objected to the direct sales of coffins to consumers by non-funeral home sellers - gives a US consumer the right to acquire caskets and coffins from any independent source and use them without extra charge in the funeral home or cemetery of their choice. The tussel continues today, with the Trappist Monks in Louisiana fighting for (and so far winning) the right to sell direct to the public, and purchase of coffins outside the route of the funeral home is expected to increase if funeral homes continue to delay in stocking and promoting the option.
Luckily for us, a number of natural coffin producers now offer their woven biodegradable coffins in the US. The Natural Burial Company (the company I founded in 2004 that uses the majority of its proceeds to fund education and promotion for this transition) has a wide variety of fiber-based coffins to meet a range of tastes and needs, from kits, to shrouds and boards, and woven pet coffins, too, direct to the public, as well as wholesale to funeral homes and other businesses. Other online makers and sellers are springing up around the country, and the creativity is fun to see.
The Funeral Rule, coupled with internet searching and instant safe purchasing, has made it possible for the natural products marketplace to become a ready source of biodegradable caskets, as it's more likely to be responsive to requirements for environmental rites. Don't be surprised if your local natural foods co-op or garden center or favorite online eco-retailer begins to offer a selection of “final furnishings” in your own not-too-distant future!
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS PART OF THE TREND: An article I wrote for American Cemetery Magazine describes the industry's shift to sustainability in greater detail, along with the work I'm currently engaged in, and your support is welcomed!
The Healer's Maxim: "First, Do No Harm"
You don’t have to be buried in a dedicated burial ground to make your last moments environmentally friendly ones. Just by planning ahead (so others don't have to guess or make the tough decisions for you), by choosing your process and your container in advance, and by making it clear you want no synthetic materials on your last ride, you'll go a long way toward improving what might otherwise be quite the opposite of what you'd wish, if someone could ask you after the fact.
Not all of us will have the luxury of being conveniently located near our ideal forest sanctuary. Natural burial grounds are just now forming, and some of us may go down before then. But you do have the option to seek out a conventional cemetery that has sustainable landscape management practices, as well as one that allows liner-free burials, a practice that is usually up to the cemetery’s discretion.
Whether you’re required by law to be buried in a container at all varies from state to state in the U.S., although generally this decision is left up to the cemetery. Because sustainable landscape management has yet to catch on, most cemeteries have long-standing rules favoring the double-box casket-and-liner package. If in doubt, consult the Funeral Consumers’ Alliance website, https://www.funerals.org/; they have chapters in every state and can point you to sources of local information. Legislatures are constantly updating the regulations, however, so your best bet may be to find a natural burial ground or cemetery that will do what you want, make advance arrangements by reserving the plot, stipulate a biodegradable casket, put your final affairs in order, and get on with your life.
Shroud burial, where the body is wrapped in fabric of some kind, is a perfectly acceptable form of natural burial that is still common in much of the world. But there are practical considerations, especially when it comes to handling and moving a body, so plan ahead. Rigor mortis fades after 24 hours, the body softens again, and lowering a shrouded person gracefully into even a shallow grave takes some skill and forethought. Just be aware that you'll have some awkward logistics to manage that can be done respectfully if you think it through in advance.
Although embalming is rarely the law, refrigeration is almost universally required within 24 hours of death. Strategically packing a body with dry ice serves this cooling function but that, too, can be difficult with only a shroud unless you've made other arrangements. Consequently, many people find a solid container with a sturdy bottom easier to manage, and the majority of natural caskets now available adequately convey the body with dignity, respecting the Earth at the same time.
A Place to Go
Once you’ve decided upon your vessel of choice, finding the right place to plant you is next on the list. The number of burial grounds that operate naturally is likely to increase yearly, but it may take awhile for one to convert or open up in your area unless you help to start it.
Seeking out or working to create a local vault-free cemetery option may make more sense, however, especially if you live far away from an existing natural burial ground. Regulations currently require the embalming of bodies when crossing some state, and common carriers like airlines will not currently transport an unembalmed body. These rules will hopefully change over time as more people wake up to different options and the mythologies about embalming and public safety are dispelled.
Nonexistent less than 15 years ago, the number of natural burial sites in the U.K. has risen to more than 250 in 2007, and over half of the woodland burial grounds are owned and run by city councils with public funds. The first modern woodland burial site was established by the city of Carlisle in 1993 at the urging of then- cemetery manager Ken West as an environmentally sound alternative to conventional burial that was less expensive to maintain and sustainable.
The original Carlisle scheme planted an oak whip on each grave, with the aim of creating a biodiverse oak forest on the site. Graves are deliberately not marked with an inscribed memorial. Embalming is discouraged, but non-biodegradable containers are allowed. Anonymity is seen as a benefit and there are no paths to graves, deterring people from visiting specific gravesites and damaging the ground flora.
Established in 2001, Memorial Woodlands in Bristol is a popular site with a comprehensive set of offerings that include Community plots (for consecration and religious burial), Generational plots, individual and shared plots, and ashes burial. The site offers either "leasehold" (you lease the land) or "freehold" (you own the land) options. The land is held in perpetuity and will be placed under the care of a charitable trust when full. A unique feature of Memorial Woodland's arrangement is that they hold title to the first three feet of soil and all that grows on top of it. This allows the management to tend the landscape in a natural and uniform manner while allowing plot users the security of ownership if desired. They advocate choice and have no restrictions regarding embalming or biodegradable caskets.
Memorial Woodlands encourages families to be actively involved in the organization of the funeral. They permit only one funeral per day on the grounds to make sure the family gets ample time, space, and privacy for the closure and celebration they need. Nineteenth-century buildings on the site have been converted into reception rooms, and a private chapel, not consecrated to any particular faith, can be used for services of any sort. Other woodland burial grounds like Tarn Moor, Mayfield's Remembrance Park, and the City of Brighton's Woodvale vary widely in their structures, some with detailed conditions of use and allowed materials, and others accommodating family desires without restriction.
Natural Burial Grounds Come in All Shapes and Sizes
As of 2007, less than a dozen dedicated natural burial grounds have been created in North America, but a number are in the planning stages. The Natural Burial Company maintains a link to online directories of cemeteries, including UK woodland burial grounds, that state they accept biodegradable caskets without liners.
We can learn a lot from the U.K. pioneers. To get an idea of what you should negotiate for and expect when choosing your site, consulting the websites and terms of various U.K. burial grounds can provide you with a good overview of what’s already been successfully done. Your desires should be spelled out in writing with the people you pay to manage your interment for the long haul. The U.S. trend is toward greater environmental protection than the U.K., however, so don’t hesitate to look for and insist upon that.
What happens to you and your tree, if you choose to plant one, should be governed by a contract signed between you and the burial ground proprietors when you purchase your plot—meaning that you need to think this one through. For example, many, but not all contracts allow for a tree to be planted at the grave to serve as a marker. In smaller grounds with tighter budgets this isn’t always practical, but any diverse woodland consists of shrubs and meadow areas as well as trees, and some people really would enjoy just pushing up daisies!
Because everyone is fairly new at natural burial in the U.S., the details of these eco-cemetery contracts will probably vary widely and many questions will arise. Some contract terms will be governed by federal, state, and local regulations. In certain cases, though— if the burial grounds are run by a recognized religious organization—the grounds may be exempt from such rules. Jewish and Muslim burial customs are “green” by tradition, and cemeteries that serve these populations will be familiar with natural burial concepts.
In addition, historic pioneer cemeteries often have more lenient regulations than conventional ones. Many of these older cemeteries are managed by fraternal orders like the Oddfellows or small local boards of directors. However, while these may provide hopeful opportunities, most cemetery officials of any stripe are probably not familiar with the natural burial option. Visiting them with a copy of this article might be just the impetus they need to consider a change.
Some burial grounds may have provisions for cutting the timber after a certain number of years, harvesting any produce, or rotating the plots as a means of paying for the land and services and maintaining the site. Others put the land into permanent trust and let your tree or sod grow undisturbed, in perpetuity. Small sites with no room for expansion and conventional cemeteries with high-density plot schemes find it problematic to plant a tree for each individual; larger conservation grounds with the goals of reforestation and habitat creation are happy with a low-density plan and are more likely to support plans to be a tree.
For some, being part of an orchard or a garden and turning into dinner makes perfect sense. For others, the thought of being harvested is an abomination. Only you can know what will work for you and your friends and relations, and it should all be spelled out in the contract when you purchase your plot. Alternatively, you can let those terms remain vague and be released to the needs of future generations.
The Ultimate Back-to-the-Land Movement
Probably the most compelling model for greenspace advocates is the “conservation cemetery,” a piece of land dedicated to natural burial and protected by a land trust (see Trust for Natural Legacies: www.naturallegacies.org) with conservation easements. Favored by the mission-oriented ideals of staunch natural burial advocates like Memorial Ecosystems' founder Dr. Billy Campbell and Greensprings Natural Cemetery trustee Mary Woodsen, this new kind of “conservation cemetery” may reasonably include the partnership of a private (or public) landowner who holds title and puts the land into trust, perhaps even contracting with a conservation group for the ecological oversight. Such a trust would be run by a board of directors with a land management plan that includes written guidelines about what can be buried, when, where, and how.
Additionally, the funeral operations concession could be managed by an experienced, local funeral-services provider known to the community who supports the environmental mission. Such a collaboration could enable a conservation cemetery to form quickly, with the expertise and knowledge necessary to create a functional burial ground with a minimum of delay and complication. Within this type of structure, larger opportunities for research, soil and carbon banking, greenspace preservation, multiple land use, habitat creation, and the storage of public asset dollars in arable soils rather than in buildings with capital maintenance costs can exist and even flourish.
Soil: The Living Web
Burial in a biodegradable container presumes and encourages decomposition. Decomposition requires a living Earth and, according to soil scientists, the same conditions that are necessary for proper decomposition—nutrients cycling at the right rates for complete breakdown to occur—are required for healthy plant systems, too. Organic carbon is the key to these processes, as it is constantly recycled from organism to organism, including trees and other plants that absorb it out of the air. But it's not enough to just plant the tree. The soil web has to be healthy enough to grow the tree well.
The "ideal" natural burial site of the future will probably have a healthy mix of treed areas, hedges, and open grasslands. Perhaps we'll see the return of "family plots" after all, with parcels of land dedicated to a family's or group's use but at a fraction of the expense in a conventional cemetery. Maybe you'll elect to go into a vineyard or an orchard, contributing to the terroir of a truly individual jam or wine. Wherever you do choose to settle, one thing is relatively certain: As long as the rain falls, the sun shines, and the worms go in and out, and as long as the rules of the conservation trust you've employed to manage your site remain unbroken, you'll continue to play a role in the web of life that you've chosen.
The Home Funeral Movement: Genesis of Natural Burial
For those who really want to do it yourself, a home funeral may be the ideal “way to go.” Until recently, most funeral directors were reluctant to let the family get involved. However, as alternative funeral service providers, ritualists, and celebrants have begun to make themselves available to serve deeply personal and nontraditional needs, the "dismal trade" is beginning to get on board.
In the early 1990s more than 90% of people in the U.K. died in a hospital as opposed to the home, providing some of the original impetus behind the founding of the Natural Death Centre in London. It began as the project of three psychotherapists, spearheaded by Nicholas Albery, the Centre’s founder, with the mission of enabling a person to die a more natural death in personal surroundings, tended by loved ones, receiving treatments that they—not the hospital system—desired.
The Natural Death Centre quickly became a main source of inspiration and information for self-reliance in death, primarily through its guide, the Natural Death Handbook. The Internet has helped spread the Centre’s work around the world, picked up and expanded over the last decade by home funeral advocates such as Jerri Lyons who began the Natural Death Care Project (https://www.finalpassages.org) and now trains home funeral guides in the U.S.
This home funeral renaissance, with its desire to return the funeral back to the purview of the family and reinstate affordable simplicity, has led to public calls for natural burial: no embalming, the "plain pine box," the shroud, memorialization with a tree, or even anonymity. That call, in turn, has engendered the modern natural burial movement.
Crafting the Fond Farewell
When a loved one dies, a couple of key arenas need to be managed properly, and the services of an experienced helper are useful. In fact, the emerging profession that sits at this cusp between hospice and gardening is increasingly becoming known as "death midwifery," for the required emotional and physical management skills are similar to those needed at the beginning of life, and having the assistance of a competent person—a home funeral guide—can ease the passage for all concerned.
Yes, More Paperwork!
Death has paperwork. There's no getting around it. But since other people have to do it, make it easy on them. While the specifics may vary slightly from state to state (and some states still have onerous laws prohibiting personal involvement with a loved one’s body, so check this out with your state first), some general principles apply.vii
First, the doctor or physician certifies the cause of death and signs a death certificate. Funeral directors often have blank copies, as do county registrars. Obtaining a blank one shortly before it’s needed is not a bad idea. Only in suspicious circumstances is legal supervision required; otherwise, if the death was natural and expected, the management of the body is generally up to you—or rather, it's up to the person you've designated as your "Personal Funeral Director," the "person in charge of interment," who manages the “disposition of the body,” officially, in advance, on a notarized piece of paper. Really.
If you haven't named a personal funeral director, still allowed in most states (and this is different from the executor of your will or the person with a general power of attorney), the task falls to your “official next of kin.” Absent the next of kin, the only others who are legally able to transport your body around are certified licensed professionals. Anyone else caught dead with you—sorry, you dead with them—could have a problem.
This person handles the multiple copies of your death certificate, one of which acts as the permit to transport you in your not-living state, one of which is left with the cemetery or crematorium handling your body, and one of which is filed with the registrar when the process is completed. Knowing what has happened to your body, and why, is a matter of public record, and should be. Ensuring you’ve not met with foul play is high on their list, but once that’s ascertained the professionals don’t really need you anymore, and they should let you go home without too much fuss.
Finally, don't forget the other aspects of bureaucratic closure: a living will, a personal will, and an advance directive, at minimum, along with a comprehensive listing of all the bits someone needs to know if they're going to have to dig through your files and piece together what you were supposed to be paying for next week but couldn't. Yes, it's a big job, but someone's gotta do it, and it ought to be you.
Create and Work with Your Personal Group
Aside from the paperwork, the most demanding part of your death (provided you've arranged for everything else in advance) is the actual handling of your body, since you're no longer very good at it.
If you can, put together a group of committed friends and loved ones who are willing to handle you properly when the time comes and support your wishes, and make this known to your main family.
This is where the help of an experienced consultant can come in—someone trained as a home-funeral guide, or a sympathetic funeral director if you need more extensive service—since your personal group will need to understand how to bathe and dress you, how to carry you and when to move you, where and how to place you and, in general, to be there to help others feel ok about being there with you when the time comes. It's not rocket science, but it helps to have the guidance of those who've been through it before.
Neutral groups like Hospice can be helpful, but they tend to shy away from advocacy for specific needs like those of natural burial, especially when those needs deviate from traditional death-management practices and utilize alternative service providers like celebrants and home-funeral guides. Generally, the hospice role is to assist until just before you die, and then turn the final step over to professionals who complete the work in the conventional manner. Funeral homes traditionally manage this part of the work for a range of fees, but as alternatives emerge, a new range of end-of-life consultants is filling the gap.
And, like a growing number of people today, if you're facing a terminal illness and are choosing to be cognizant of (or even determining the time of) your end, discussing this process openly with your group will be a relief for all concerned, especially those who may not be able to cope easily with your passing.
Your wishes will be known, your group will become as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, and in the process they will become guides for the rest of your friends and family, turning a typically disengaged experience into a fully empowered one. Here’s one revealing testimonial:
"I know the discussions of funerals may sound a bit morbid to many out there. However, you cannot believe the change in my father's attitude once my mom, dad, and I sat down and discussed some of this stuff. Suddenly, he was able to discuss everything regarding his cancer more easily, which eventually led him to realizing that his chances for survival are very good." CatieJayBee, 2002, Online Organic Gardening Forum viii
In 1959, according to Time magazine (1960 issue), $1.5 billion was spent on burial annually, at an average of about $900 per death. As of 2006, the average funeral with burial in America is running between $5,500 and $6,500, funeral and cremation cost around $3,500. Additional costs include opening and closing the grave, placing the liner and lowering the casket, and a host of other service options.
Natural caskets tend to cost less than the conventional ones, primarily because a lot of effort goes into making sure that the conventional ones never degrade, and non-degradable materials are expensive. Making them shiny, dent and blemish free, and available in a variety of designer finishes with curly handles and sateen lining also comes at a price.
Physical imperfections in a material are the hallmark of natural products, especially when they have handmade components. The most expensive biodegradable casket offered by The Natural Burial Company, still well below the average retail price of a conventional casket, is the recycled-paper Ecopod, beautifully colored in hand-papered mulberry bark and silk fiber.
Shrouds are very affordable. The Jewish community traditionally buries their dead ritually wrapped in an unfinished (unhemmed) shroud, in the classic "plain pine box" that is, per orthodox rule, "unadorned." Hemmed shrouds in creative designs, made of organic hemp, cotton, and other natural fibers are also becoming available.
Home funerals can be very inexpensive, especially when negotiated in advance. Burial in a cemetery involves basic fees, but maintenance of a natural burial site is much less intensive than a conventional plot, so expect direct costs to be lower. Some cemeteries (and even some states) require the graveside presence of a certified professional during burial, but if the requirement is a law, expect it to be challenged in the future by the growing funeral consumer movement as an unjustifiable cost, and if the requirement is a business practice, expect the free market and competition to change it.
Funerals don't have to be expensive, but they don't have to be cheap, either. They should, however, be as affordable as possible, with services or products only required in ways that preserve public health, safety, and the environment. With freedom to choose, you can put your money where your values are and, with the money you save, someone might be able to throw a darned good party in your honor!
Last Acts that Make a Difference: How Your Support of Environmentally Friendly Products Can Turn an(other) Industry Around
Typically, about two million people die annually in the U.S. The post-World War Two Baby Boom generation turned 60 in 2006, creating a bulge in the upcoming death demographic that will put over 20% of Americans over age 65 by 2030. That means that more of us will be hitting the end of the line for the next 20-30 years, which will cause our society to focus more intently on how we die, and what we do as we do it, than ever before.
Over $20 billion dollars a year is spent on death-management in the U.S., much of it for industrial burial packaging products (caskets and liners), cemetery land purchase, and maintenance.ix Industry estimates place funeral sales at $11 billion annually, but this does not include cemetery fees and burial plot sales. The true environmental costs of aging cemeteries have not yet been factored into many equations, and city planners, corporate cemetery stockholders and their insurers are only now beginning to appreciate the expense accruing as they run out of space and are faced with tighter regulatory controls on the burial and discharge of pollutants and nondegradables into the environment.
When we change our purchasing behavior, we send a signal to the industries we want to change. Requesting that our caskets be free of toxins and pollutants, that our cemeteries get creative and end the use of liners and nonsustainable land management practices, or that our communities follow the lead of the U.K. and provide low-cost burial options as the public utility that the service rightfully could be, are not unreasonable requests.
Taking the Natural Step
Natural burial grounds are possible today. Organic agriculturalists have provided the rationale and technology for chemical-free landscape management. Conservation groups can provide long-term land planning, oversight, and land-trust mechanisms. Cities and counties can buy land and hold it for future generations, creating greenspace and habitat (and soil-bank insurance) close to the urban core. Brownfields and industrial sites can be reclaimed, and valuable class I and II soils can be preserved from unnecessary development.
When public demand makes itself known, alternative-minded funeral directors around the world, already chafing at the corporate bridle that has forced so many of them into a business nothing like what they once knew, will respond. Just like farmers did for organics, and machinists did for renewable technology, there is a sector of funeral service professionals who are ready to serve the environmental interest. Most conventional casket manufacturers are out of touch with what their customers really want, and attentive funeral businesses know this.
With urgent calls to reduce our carbon footprint and end polluting activities that put (and store) toxins in the earth and atmosphere, a new breed of eco-aware consumers are changing behaviors on every front, including their last. Rather than be artificially preserved or disappear, folks choosing to reintegrate into a forest, bind some carbon, and kick some oxygen back into the system can take steps to do so well in advance.
The community of people who look ahead is increasingly putting its money where its mouth is, and now we’re putting our bodies there, too. It’s hard to do the daily things right, every day, all the time. No one can. But dying is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and each of us can take the time to plan it out and do it right. The tasks are fairly straightforward:
- 1) "Go natural" with your body - minimize preservatives!;
- 2) Use a clean container;
- 3) Face the music and call your own tune;
- 4) Get your family and friends on board;
- 5) Pick your plot and tend to its well-being and future until you get there; and
- 6) Don’t leave a mess.
Planting forests is a lot of work, and every community needs a natural burial sanctuary, in our opinion. Check out your local arboretum; are they strapped for cash? Does your city have an urban growth boundary or brownfield areas that could use some healthy greenspace? Is there a pioneer cemetery nearby with room for a Bioneer or two? Consider adopting Arbor Day as one of your “memorial holidays” and join the Go Zero campaign, gifting trees in honor of your friends and loved ones whenever you can afford to.
Our wiser folk talk about the need for a shift in consciousness that brings us all into greater awareness about the material consequences that loom for future beings in our too-often thoughtless wakes. Is it possible that taking responsibility for our own deaths may make us more aware of the unintended deaths we bring to others throughout the webs of life? And could we, in managing our own ends properly and in advance, plan an exit that reduces, or even reverses, the toll our lives have taken on natural resource systems up to this point?
It’s an exciting thought. The emerging natural burial movement offers unexpected and overlooked opportunities to make choices that just might nudge our culture in another direction, if we make the time to do what no one else can do for us—plan ahead to exit stage left, and do it right.
All that’s left to make the leap is you.