Honoring Life in Death
The city of Carlisle, Great Britain, faced a challenge: to find and preserve green space within its borders. Creative thinking by the city council revealed some unexpected open land—its cemeteries. In 1993, Carlisle Cemetery opened a small section of property for “woodland burial,” with the goal of restoring forested area in the city. The section was designed to provide a natural memorial setting dominated by native plant species, while reducing the environmental impact of conventional interment and cemetery upkeep. Carlisle Cemetery’s Woodland Burial Ground became the modern world’s first eco-cemetery.
The green burial movement took shape through the efforts of its advocates, with slow, but steady growth worldwide. Naturalists saw green burial as a gift returned with gratitude to the Earth they loved. Environmentalists valued preventing the burial of toxins and non-degradable materials into an already endangered ecosystem. Stepping away from the conventions of the modern funeral industry gave many a freedom to honor the departed in unusual and personal ways. 1998 marked the inception of Ramsey Creek Preserve, in South Carolina, the first green cemetery in this country. Today, more than 200 sites in the United States are set aside as current or future natural burial grounds.
For green burial, the body of the deceased is prepared without chemical preservatives, and the remains are buried in a biodegradable coffin, shroud or other container. Graves are sometimes hand-dug, and almost always vault- or liner-free. Some graves are unmarked, while others may bear a simple native stone or indigenous plantings. Natural burial grounds use no irrigation, pesticides or herbicides for maintenance. The idea is for the grave and its occupant to be part of the natural cycle of life, death and regeneration of new life.
Resources for researching and planning a green burial abound. The Green Burial Council has established standards for sustainability and transparency in the death care industry; its website lists providers who adhere to them, sorted by service and location.
An individual can find anything he or she needs to arrange the natural funeral or memorial desired. Websites like GreenBurials.org and NaturalBurial.coop are full of general information and links to all aspects of death care. EarthUrn.com offers a variety of natural, biodegradable and organic containers for cremated remains, while NaturalBurialCompany.com helps consumers find a green coffin to suit them, made from materials like cardboard, sustainably harvested wood or woven plant fibers. EternalReefs.com adds cremated remains to cast concrete “reef balls,” used to rebuild dying ocean reefs.
Service providers like Memorial Ecosystems, owner of Ramsey Creek Preserve, and local funeral homes that have opened their doors and minds to include or specialize in natural burials, are prepared to answer the myriad questions that surface. “If you know how to use the Internet and you’re not afraid to make calls to people you don’t know, you can get answers to any question in the world,” notes Bob Butz, a naturalist and award-winning author.
Butz, 37, has recorded his odyssey through eco-friendly interment in Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Natural Burial, due out in May 2009. Although the book is complete, the author’s exploration of natural death care is not over. His blog on the topic can be accessed through the website of Spirituality and Health magazine.
to can vegetables, milk a cow, butcher a
pig and have a home birth… how to care
for an un-embalmed dead body at home
used to be pretty common knowledge.
Now, that knowledge is an art practiced
by a relative few.” — Author Bob Butz
Butz makes observations ranging from soulful to pragmatic or humorous, an approach which may seem irreverent in a culture that tiptoes so carefully around death. He hopes his blog will draw the interest of people who otherwise might avoid the discussion.
“We have no experience with death anymore, and the only way that is going to change is if we start talking about it and planning for it, as we are so eager to do with births, weddings and every other of life’s most important rituals,” the author contends. “People put more thought and planning to where they will spend their summer vacation than where their body will be laid for all eternity.”
In the course of his pre-need personal exploration, Butz shopped for an environmentally friendly coffin, hand-dug a grave and met with a death midwife, who will assist his family with the logistics of dying. “There’s a heck of a lot of paperwork,” he remarks, as well as details of transporting and caring for his body from death through the home funeral ritual he prefers.
As part of the journey, he also revisited the grave of his father, who died when Butz was a boy. “There my father was stuck, planted in some cramped piece of ground, surrounded by strangers. He never wore a suit, yet he was buried in one. He was a man of the outdoors, a man who liked simple things and who loved wilderness and wildlife, yet he was buried in a frilly oak casket on a piece of ground that he never plowed, never trod over or enjoyed in any capacity during his life.
“A funeral [or] burial has to honor the life of the deceased,” Butz reasons. “It should in some way have elements that symbolize who they were in life.”
For more information about Bob Butz and his works, visit. The link to his blog is Spirituality-Health.com/books/blog/2.
Green Burial Resources on the web include: The Green Burial Council at; ; The Centre for Natural Burial at NaturalBurial.coop/USA; and MemorialEcosystems.com, by the owner of Ramsey Creek Preserve and Honey Creek Woodlands.
Freelance writer Sandy Rogovin reports on natural and alternative wellness
and its pioneers. Contact her at .