Forever green: Cemeteries make more room for natural burials

2017-06-20 12:15
Suzanne Kelly points out a burial mound in the Rhinebeck cemetery's natural burial ground. (Michael Hill, AP)

Suzanne Kelly points out a burial mound in the Rhinebeck cemetery's natural burial ground. (Michael Hill, AP)

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Rhinebeck - Last goodbyes are said in these woods with wildflowers placed on a shrouded body, or with the beloved wrapped in a favourite childhood blanket. Dirt shovelled back into the graves leaves behind slowly sinking mounds of earth on the forest floor, marked with stones.

"Green burials" like these at Rhinebeck Cemetery in New York's Hudson Valley shun coffins, embalming fluid and concrete "vaults" so everything in the ground decomposes. It's a movement that goes back more than a decade, but advocates say public attention has increased in recent years, with more cemeteries tweaking practices to accommodate people who want to tread lightly, even in death.

"I love the thing about just being wrapped up and going back to the ground," said 59-year-old Gina Walker Fox, who purchased a plot right by a tulip tree and wild berries she imagines her children picking on graveside visits. "And that seems to be a very easy way on the environment, and an easy way on the human body."

Green burials turn back the clock to the days before the Civil War, when embalming caught on as a way to preserve soldiers who died far from home. Burial vaults, which keep graves from collapsing and lawns level for mowing, became more widespread after World War II.

Fossil fuels 

Advocates argue it's best to avoid introducing concrete vaults and potentially toxic embalming fluids into the ground. And unlike cremation, no fossil fuels are required to break down the body.

Of the thousands of cemeteries nationwide, there are maybe around 125 that now offer options for green burial, said Suzanne Kelly, Rhinebeck Cemetery committee chair and author of Greening Death. Many, like Rhinebeck 120kim north of New York City, create natural burial grounds near the neatly ordered markers of their traditional plots.

In Vermont, a new law taking effect July 1 changes the minimum depth for burying bodies from 1.5m to 1m - a depth advocates say is conducive to decomposition and safe from animals. Figuring out the best way to prepare shallower graves is just one question cemetery operators have as they seek to accommodate green burials.

"If they're in a shroud, are people going to understand that, first of all, that body could have an odour to it? There could be body fluid stains on the shroud. I don't know," said Patrick Healy, president of the Vermont Cemetery Association. "Right now, we're protected from that situation because they're always in a casket."

Alabama last year changed a law that restricted casket sales to licensed funeral directors after a lawsuit from a woman who wanted to sell biodegradable caskets for her eco-friendly burial ground.

Saving on costs 

Green burials can save people thousands of dollars in costs for a vault, a plush casket and a granite marker. But they also have nurtured a market for ecologically friendly products such as biodegradable cornstarch urns and wicker caskets.

Mary Lauren Fraser weaves her $200 urns and $2 800 caskets in her apartment in western Massachusetts. Costs for the handmade products are in line with what consumers could pay for traditional urns and caskets, though they draw interesting looks when she puts them on display at local farmers' markets.

"I get all kinds of reactions," she said. "Way more people coming in and saying, 'Is that a coffin? Did you make that? Is green burial legal?'"

While state laws vary on the treatment of bodies, green burial practices are legal across the nation, said Kate Kalanick of the Ojai, California-based Green Burial Council. The council, which certifies green practitioners, says unembalmed bodies are safe for a viewing before burial and do not pollute the soil.

What feels right

For some customers, it's not about cost or the environment. It's about what feels right during a difficult time.

After losing a stillborn daughter this year, Becky and Chris Mancuso looked to Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, where five generations of her family are buried.

Chris Mancuso couldn't imagine chemically embalming his daughter, and the cemetery's new natural burial section fit in with his Christian faith that "unto dust shalt thou return".

He built a wooden burial box for Anna himself. Their 6-year-old daughter picked wood that was golden, like heaven.

"The main motivation was just trying to connect with my dead daughter, and in any way that I could do something for her, which my wife and I, neither of us had a chance to do that," Mancuso said. "That was very hard for us."

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