Looking for a greener kind of death

As Americans get savvier about environmental consequences, why aren't they embracing natural burial?


Rachel Dickinson
August 20, 2010 3:01PM (UTC)
This article has been corrected since it was first published.

There was a body wrapped in yards and yards of unbleached muslin perched over an open grave, and Mary Woodsen was headed toward it. An early spring snowfall had dumped 2 feet of wet snow on Irish Hill making the drive tough, but as a founder of the cemetery Mary had taken this road many times before.

Tiffani Jones (name changed) was being buried today. A 43-year-old woman with brain, kidney, liver and spinal cancer. Her body finally gave out, and her mother wanted her buried up on the hill. Mary was glad Tiffani was local -- from the village nearby -- because after five years, she was a little tired of Greensprings being seen as a groovy, hippie alternative to traditional burial. From all accounts Tiffani was a hard-drinking, hard-partying woman and many of her mourners were cut from that same cloth. They stood shivering in thin leather jackets pulled tight around their bodies while the wind blew, making it seem colder than 28 degrees.

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Everyone stood and stared at Tiffani’s body above the open grave. Mary stood back. Planting bodies in the ground made sense to Mary. She thought about how the body breaks down and feeds nutrients into the soil, and as she stood there, she could imagine Tiffani’s body one day feeding all of the meadow grasses that lay under the snow. This is death broken down to molecules; to carbon and nitrogen and calcium. Tiffani will feed the meadow.

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Three kinds of people go for natural burial, says Mary Woodsen. Tree huggers, people who want to save money, and the "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" crowd.

Greensprings, 16 miles south of Ithaca on an abandoned hilltop farm, is the first natural burial ground in New York state and one of the first in the country. Currently, green burial lies at the edge of the environmental or conservation movement and people like Mary are working hard to nudge it more toward the center. This is arguably the ultimate endgame in the green movement, but getting acceptance has been hard. Environmentally, green burial makes a lot of sense because at its core is the idea that you don't put things into the ground that shouldn't be there -- no chemicals, no steel, no concrete. And scientifically it makes sense. Buried bodies will eventually turn into elements that will nurture the soil and whatever grows above it. Economically, green burial is cheaper than a traditional burial. So the sticking point might be cultural. Although they're curious about it, Americans don't seem quite ready to accept this practice. Green burial is still seen as a novelty (with a little bit of an ick factor thrown in) in many people's minds.

Google brings up over 1 million hits in a search for "green burial movement." Yet there are only about 20 green or natural burial cemeteries certified in the United States today. When Billy Campbell started Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina in 1998, the first natural burial ground in the country, it garnered a lot of media attention. Then when HBO ran the series "Six Feet Under" and Nate, one of the characters, had a natural burial, people in the green burial movement thought, This is it, we're on the map. But it just hasn't happened. Why can't green burial advocates make people understand and care?

People who live in New York City might begin to care given the news that the city is running out of cemetery space. In a recent piece in the Real Estate section of the New York Times, cemetery directors talked about trying to get creative with space like piling coffins nine deep and maybe allowing people to disinter Mom and Pop in an effort to free up some space for some of the 60,000 who die in New York each year (not to mention that someone would make a killing on the plot resale).

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Joe Sehee of the nonprofit Green Burial Council, which serves as a clearinghouse for everything pertaining to green burial, says people don't consider green burial because the multibillion-dollar funeral industry is so powerfully entrenched in our society. Before starting the Green Burial Council, Joe worked as a community organizer for decades, and he says this is the toughest industry he's ever had to work with. They don't want to change. The funeral industry is in the business of selling an American way of death, which includes embalming and fancy caskets. Green burial threatens everything they've been selling to the American public for the past 150 years.

When Tiffani was put into the ground she was not embalmed. She had not had her blood drained from her body and replaced with a chemical mixture of formaldehyde, methanol and ethanol to plump out her body and give her a rosy glow. An embalmed body laid out in a beautiful casket with a satin lining in a funeral parlor is what we expect to see today. It's what we think of as a traditional way of handling bodies. But this wasn't always so. In fact, this way of dealing with bodies arose in the second half of the 19th century. Embalming became widespread after the Civil War where it was used as a way to get soldiers' bodies home without having them deteriorate during the journey. Thousands viewed Abraham Lincoln's embalmed body as it traveled halfway across the country by train, and people marveled at how good he looked.

By the late 19th century home funerals were becoming a thing of the past. It used to be that the body was washed and dressed by the family, placed in a coffin built by the local carpenter or cabinetmaker, laid out for viewing in the parlor, then taken to and buried in a local churchyard or family burial plot. Families eventually stopped touching the body. When someone died, the funeral director collected the body and took control over every aspect of the burial.

Bodies were embalmed to plump them up and give them a lifelike appearance in death. They were put into caskets -- once a word used only for the box that held jewelry -- instead of coffins. The viewing took place in the funeral parlor, a room decorated to look like it could be in a family's home.

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The funeral industry ramped up and figured out how to sell services that no one knew they wanted or needed. Chemical companies that made embalming fluid started mortuary schools to train and give certificates to morticians, legitimizing and professionalizing those dealing with the dead. Insurance companies got into the death game by selling policies. Funeral homes made it a practice to bundle services, to sell you packages, which helped drive the price up. This was big business and they effectively shaped how Americans came to view death. Jessica Mitford busted open some of these notions about death in her 1963 bestseller "The American Way of Death," which led to some government oversight of the funeral industry. But in many ways, the industry behaved like the big American car manufacturers: In the face of evidence to the contrary they were determined to keep producing the product they knew how to sell. They had a lock on this, and they knew it. But then along came the crematories. Traditional funeral homes wouldn't deal with them. They tried to persuade their customers to steer clear of them (you don't want your loved one to be incinerated, do you?).

But by the turn of the 21st century, cremation (at around a thousand dollars) was the low-cost alternative to a funeral, which averaged $7,000 if you included the casket, burial costs, flowers and embalming.

Mary Woodsen is in her early 60s with long black hair shot through with gray. She's a bone-thin woman with pale, almost translucent skin and dark circles under her deep-set brown eyes. A science writer at Cornell University, she writes website copy and annual reports about integrated pest management, which promotes least-toxic pest control. She is fascinated by biological processes and when she talks about how the body breaks down when buried in the earth her speech gets a little quicker and her long, thin fingers move through the air painting an invisible picture of molecules entering the food chain.

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From an early age, Mary was terrified of death. By her late 40s, this childhood fear had morphed into an investigation of what really happens to the body in death. How long does it take a body to decompose? What are the various stages of decomposition? What effect do temperature and soil conditions have on the rate of decomposition?

About 20 years ago Mary joined a local land trust and soon she and several like-minded members started the Commemorative Nature Preserves, a memorial society asking people to donate money toward land conservation in someone's name. She thought this was a nice way to promote land conservation. But she felt like it wasn't enough. Then Mary heard about Billy Campbell -- and soon enough, she was in South Carolina.

Billy Campbell, a small town doctor, had the idea of starting a natural cemetery about 15 years ago so he turned no further than the beautiful area behind his house and thought, I'll do it right there. The Ramsey Creek Natural Preserve is just that, and the bodies buried there nurture the plants above. It's a place of solace for the families of the dead and for those just looking for someplace filled with native plants and trees. Mary loved what she saw and embraced the concept wholeheartedly.

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After visiting Billy Campbell, Mary decided to start a natural cemetery with four others. She became an expert on all the terrible things the funeral industry puts into the ground every year: 827,060 gallons of formaldehyde; 90,272 tons of steel in caskets; 2,700 tons of copper and bronze in caskets; 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete in vaults; 14,000 tons of steel in vaults; 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods, much of it tropical, in caskets. She studied New York state legal requirements for burial grounds. Everything she did, she did with a reformer's zeal. She found a local welder who would build her a "pallbearer's friend" -- a metal frame on wheels -- to help get bodies down to grave sites.

Although she prides herself on her pragmatism and taking a dispassionate view of almost everything, Mary says that she's been oddly affected by the burials she's witnessed at Greensprings. Not so much by the ones that have lots of mourners – the burials of the people who are well-loved and well-known – but by the other burials. The quieter ones. The burial of the man from Texas whose partner wanted him buried at Greensprings. Four people were at that funeral. The burial of the man where no one showed up.

Greensprings has buried almost 60 people in the five years it's been operating, but Mary is surprised that more natural burial grounds haven't materialized around the country. There's been a significant uptick in the number of cremations performed in the United States in the past decade and it's possible that this is cutting into potential green burial numbers. The latest statistics show that 28 percent of Americans were cremated last year and the Cremation Association of North America projects that number may be close to 43 percent by 2025. There is still nothing cheaper than cremation, which, in a weak economic climate, may be driving some of the increase. It costs $750 for a plot at Greensprings and another $600 to open and close a grave.

But hardcore green burial devotees like Mary are not particularly fond of cremation because of the energy costs involved in incinerating the bodies and the pollution it creates. You could drive across the country and halfway back on the energy used to cremate someone. And mercury from dental fillings released into the air with incineration adds up to somewhere between 1,000 and 7,800 pounds of mercury, a quarter of it floating back to earth. Greensprings would rather have your body -- your whole body -- going back into the earth.

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Tiffani's teenage daughter threw herself down to the snow at the head of the grave and wailed as Tiffani was lowered into it. Tiffani's friends and family dropped green boughs cut from a Norway spruce onto the body.

The backhoe pulled dirt down onto the body of Tiffani wrapped in a shroud while trucks and cars spun out of the snowy field and headed to the Eagle's Lodge to drink and tell Tiffani stories.

On her way back down the hill after Tiffani's funeral, Mary thinks about her plans for Greensprings. They've laid out separate Jewish burial grounds in addition to the plots in the main meadow. Driving slowly past the ramshackle farmhouses and barns that are in a perpetual state of collapse, Mary sees a familiar landscape; it looks much like where she grew up in the western part of the state. These are her people. And she knows that death is the great equalizer. She also knows that if you're planted in the ground it doesn't matter who you are, you will still nurture the soil above you.

Rachel Dickinson is the author of "Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds, and the Changing Landscape of the American West," published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in May 2009.

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Rachel Dickinson

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