There are many people who want something similar; they call it “green burial.” One of the biggest reasons green burial is becoming more popular is that conventional burial practices aren’t very environmentally friendly. The idea of filling the earth with cement or putting toxic chemicals in the body for preservation isn’t very attractive to a lot of people. Neither of these practices is required for health or sanitation reasons. They’ve just become the norm and most people now think they are necessary. Embalming fluid is actually quite harmful to funeral workers and cement is toxic to produce.
I used to think that it would be simpler and more natural to be cremated until I learned that cremation uses a large amount of fuel and may emit toxins into the air. After some research, I now think that the nicest, most environmentally friendly option would be to establish cemeteries that provide a park-like setting where one can enjoy the outdoors. My ideal cemetery would help restore the land by planting wild or native plants. It would not be fertilized or mown. There would be no requirement of cement grave liners and it would preserve green space.
I don’t think I’m alone in my wish. As I travel around giving presentations about green burial, most everyone I talk with thinks this is a good idea and what they want for themselves. The problem is, we just don’t have any places like my ideal in Michigan. In fact, there are only a few in the country! Why is that? I believe it’s because it takes a very long time for change to happen in the funeral industry, and we are still at the beginning of the trend toward natural burial.
I began my research into “green” or “natural” burial about five years ago. The things that appealed to me were:
1. No embalming. I always found it disconcerting to see an embalmed body. It looks very strange to me, and the idea of being preserved for a long time is creepy.
2. Being composted. The chance that I could nourish the earth as my last physical act is comforting and in line with my lifestyle choices.
3. It’s ancient. People have been put in the ground to decompose for millennia. There has to be some wisdom in this.
4. Contributing to green spaces and land restoration. I learned that cemeteries could actually be parks, picnic areas, nature trails, etc. Once a cemetery, always a cemetery. No housing developments or parking lots will live there.
In the summer of 2009 I had my first conversation with Joe Sehee, founder and then executive director of the Green Burial Council. He was very informative and thorough in answering all my questions. Green burial made sense to me and seemed like it should be so easy to do, but Joe was very cautionary. Joe told me about a group in Oxford, MI that was seriously working on establishing a green cemetery. In fact, he was in town visiting them at the time of our conversation.
So I went to Oxford for a visit. I walked the grounds where a “conservation green cemetery” (according to the standards of the Green Burial Council) was soon to be. It was beautiful. There was a dedicated team of people working on getting land and permits and making a business plan for how it would be run.
The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn! I soon attended a one-day green burial conference at the Foxfield Preserve in Wilmot, OH. Together with about a dozen others I learned the inner workings of the nature preserve cemetery there. In the first year of operation, they had sold 48 plots and buried nine people. We walked the land that was once mono-cropped farmland that was now being restored to native prairie. Forty acres (the state minimum) was set aside and 2 acres were plotted for graves with GPS markers. We learned about state and federal laws, site and soil surveys, grave depth and size and burial techniques. Seeing the actual cemetery where burials had taken place really helped me get a mental picture of the possibilities. It didn’t look anything like a cemetery! No wrought iron fences, headstones, smooth, green lawns that belied the use of chemicals and frequent mowing. It was a prairie and it was beautiful to me. I was comforted to know that here bodies could be buried out in the field somewhere and not disturb the natural cycle.
But I also began to get an idea of the magnitude of work it would require to establish a natural cemetery, one that challenged every notion of what a cemetery is in the conventional sense. It would not be an easy process! There are a lot of deeply engrained ideas we have about how to bury our dead. And we live in a society that doesn’t even want to talk about death most of the time!
Another step in my educational journey was to learn about “family cemeteries.” I spoke with the State of Michigan Cemetery Commissioner’s assistant. She helped me to understand the process for burying someone on your own land. Basically, if you live outside the city or village limits you can deed up to one acre (or as small as one plot) to be a family cemetery. This entails platting it out, doing a water percolation test and consulting with a lawyer. It must have road access and not be too close to a water source or building. Only family (by blood, marriage or adoption) can be buried there. It will remain a cemetery in perpetuity (and be tax-exempt).
It’s good to know that this can still be done. However, one concern is that having a cemetery on your property will affect the resale value of the rest of your property. I know of two families in Manchester who have done this, and another that has been trying for two years but has run into differences of opinion among family members about location.
I was developing a solid knowledge base. It still seemed like green burial should be easy, but I was becoming more realistic. I began to explore the option of creating “green burial” sections in existing “conventional” cemeteries. This would be a more economically viable, immediate option that would accomplish the primary goal of allowing the body of the deceased to be able to “go back to the earth” while not filling up the earth with cement. And it would help spread the word about green burial. While not accomplishing all my goals for land conservation and restoration, it would be a start. And the more options we have for natural burial, the more people will choose it and the more popular it will become.
At this point I started using the term “natural burial” instead of “green burial.” Natural burial has a broader definition. It encompasses the concept of “going back to the earth” without being so prescriptive about how the cemetery should look and be maintained. Some conventional cemeteries, when considering “green burial,” decide that they can’t offer this option because they think it means they will have to change all their practices, and that is unattainable. This point was driven home to me when a friend called on my assistance in her quest to set up a “green burial” for herself. Her goal was to be buried in the very old city cemetery down the street from her house. She had found a spot where she wanted to be buried and asked the city if she could just be put in the ground with no cement vault. She asked for a “green burial.”
She was denied her request. This cemetery could not do “green burials.” Someone at the city offices had researched green burial on the Internet and read a definition that said the grounds should be planted with native plants and should not be mowed or fertilized. All she wanted was to eliminate the cement vault, not to have them change all their maintenance for the entire cemetery! We went and met with the city authorities and tried to clear up the misunderstanding but we got nowhere.
The single biggest issue that is important to most people who want a natural burial is the issue of the cement grave liner, or vault. Cement is toxic to make. and according to Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters (2007), there is at least 20,000 tons of vault concrete buried in US cemeteries. Cement vaults are not required by state law, but very few cemeteries are willing to forego their use. The cement helps hold up the ground and make it even, which is easier for mowing and grave digging equipment and safer for walking. It also makes it unlikely that one will accidentally dig into another grave when preparing for a burial. When a cement vault (“grave liner”) is not used, as the casket disintegrates the ground caves in and requires filling in.
It’s encouraging to me to know that there are several places in Michigan where a cement vault is not required. These are all “hybrid” cemeteries – existing conventional cemeteries that opened up a section for natural burial. To varying degrees they have changed some maintenance practices to include such things as the use of native plants and the elimination of fertilizing and mowing.
The Preserve at All Saints Cemetery in Waterford has a large conventional section in front and a beautiful, planned natural section in back. The two are separated by a row of arborvitae. The natural burial section contains walking paths with graves along the edges that can be visited and marked with an engraved fieldstone that the cemetery provides. Graves that are in the interior cannot be visited (otherwise you might step on the native plants and harm them). There are also benches and trees and a beautiful “cenotaph,” a constructed stone wall, where the deceased’s name can be engraved. As of this writing, they have sold 85 plots and have had 22 natural burials since 2010.
Marble Park Cemetery in Milan also has a green burial section in the back, near the trees on one side and a farmer’s fields on the other. Since 2012 they have had six. They also allow vault-less burials in the conventional section. I’ve been to a shroud burial there and it was the nicest burial I have ever seen. What struck me was that you could see the hole in the ground. In conventional burials the dirt and hole are somewhat hidden by AstroTurf and equipment. Somehow, this was comforting to me, like, “Hey, let’s be honest; this woman is being buried.” Her shrouded body was on a board and was carried by six people holding straps, three on each side. They lowered her body hand-over-hand very smoothly to the bottom of the grave. After a moment of silence, her 18-year-old son began shoveling dirt in from the pile that rested on plywood nearby. Everyone who wanted to helped until it was all done and the ground was smooth. It was simple, beautiful and just like she had wanted it, and I felt privileged to witness it.
I’m still doing research on green burial. I frequently talk to cemetery owners and members of cemetery boards of directors, individuals and families, funeral directors, members of clubs and congregations and environmentalists. Most young people I talk to get it right away. They say, “Right on; I just want to be composted.” I hope that within my lifetime there are more options available to us all. I think we have some work to do. Saying, “Just bury me and plant a tree” is not enough.
Mark Your Calendars:
Merilynne Rush and Diana Cramer are hosting the Michigan premiere of the first full-length film about green burial, A Will for the Woods at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on Sunday, June 1, 1-3 pm. Q & A with local and international experts on natural burial, including Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council, will follow the film. This powerful award-wining documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in alternatives to conventional, commercial funerals. The film focuses on psychiatrist Clark Wang, originally from Ann Arbor, who has lymphoma and is driven by a passion to return to “traditional and natural ways of handling our dead." For more information, contact Merilynne at email@example.com, 734-395-9660. Tickets available at www.michtheater.org.
Merilynne Rush, landscape architect Jack Goodnoe, radio and TV producer Barbara Lucas and funeral director Mike Mitchell are hosting a “green burial” conference called “Exploring Issues and Options” on October 11, 2014 at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor. The conference provides the opportunity for cemetery workers, funeral directors, landscapers, environmentalists and all those who want to learn more about natural burial to discuss how to create more options for natural burial in Michigan and elsewhere. For more information, contact Merilynne (see above) or visit http://www.greenburialannarbor.eventbrite.com.