Au naturel

The Rising popularity of natural burial options

Photo: The memorial wall for Calvary Cemetery’s natural burial area

By Tim Walker

As human beings, there are a handful of fundamental needs which we all have in common: food, shelter, water, and clean air to breathe. We are all born and without a doubt, as much as most of us would like to avoid it, someday we will all face the inevitable—our own death.

“Death comes to us all; we can only choose how to face it when it comes,” wrote fantasy novelist, Robert Jordan. How we face death, our own and that of our loved ones, in large part, defines us and helps to put the period at the end of the long sentence of our lives. Recently, in the Miami Valley and in the nation as a whole, a trend toward “natural burials”burials in which only biodegradable materials are used, to facilitate a lower environmental impact and allow the remains to be reclaimed by the earth in a more natural wayhas become a popular option for many individuals and families.

On natural burials

“We opened a natural burial site about three years ago,” says Judy Tazy, sales manager at Calvary Cemetery in Kettering, Ohio. “It’s called the St. Kateri Nature Preserve. So we have dedicated about five acres to this beautiful nature preserve. It has a lake, a walking path, and there are three areas where we’re currently doing burials right now along that pathway. So we have two different types of areas thereyou can either be in the middle of a section, or along the pathway.”

St. Kateri Nature Preserve at Calvary Cemetery is only one of a number of cemeteries offering natural burial options in the Dayton area. It is named after Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Catholic Saint and patron saint of the environment. Born in 1656 of an Algonquin Christian mother and a Mohawk Chief, she lived in the Mohawk tribe in what is now upstate New York, and she has since become a symbol of purity in nature.

The idea of being buried in a more natural and environmentally friendly manner is becoming an attractive option to many for a number of reasons: the sense of peace in the nature preserve, the idea of being laid to rest in a green setting with trees, ponds, and wildlife nearby, holds a great appeal to a growing percentage of the population. Also, with global warming and protecting our fragile environment a growing concern to many citizens, minimizing the impact our livesand deathswill have on our planet has become a preoccupation.

“Calvary Cemetery has 200 acres total,” Tazy continues. “And we are only using right now about 120 acres or so, so we have another 80 acres available for future development. We have quite a few natural burials, and I do show that option to a surprising number of people. So it’s there, and it was there even before we started doing it. And now people are saying ‘Oh, this is what I want to do.’ The urn or the casket has to be biodegradable, so everything goes back to the earth. We will even bury in a shroud.”

Burial and embalming in the United States

For over a century, the majority of Americans have followed a certain routine when it comes to caring for their recently deceased loved ones. We commit the remains of our family members to the skills of local morticians and funeral directors, who either cremate the remains or fill the body with a toxic mix of formaldehyde, phenol, methanol, and glycerin. The dead are then groomed and put on display if possible, and friends and loved ones gather to view the deceased and the casket, both of which are subsequently buried. Cremated remains, or cremains, may be subsequently scattered or interred as well.

That standard way of thinking comes with a high price, however. It is estimated that over 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde, a potential carcinogen, are placed in the ground each year due to burials. Phenol, which is also used in embalming, can irritate or burn the flesh of the living, and is toxic if ingested. The environmental cost of traditional burials extends beyond toxic chemicals, as well. According to the “Berkeley Planning Journal”, conventional burials in the US every year utilize 30 million feet of hardwood, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and over 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete.

“Embalming was the lifeblood of the American funeral industry from the beginning of the 20th century,” says Gary Laderman, author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and Funeral home in twentieth-century America”. “Without this procedure, funeral directors would have had a difficult time claiming that they were part of a professional guild, and therefore justified as the primary mediators between the living and the dead from the moment of death to the final disposition.”

Prior to the Civil War, the average American tended to care for the newly dead in their own home. The deceased was bathed, dressed, and placed in the coldest room of the house, usually the parlor, and relatives and friends would stop and pay their respects prior to the burial. The Civil War, however, changed much of that that. When the dead often were not able to make it home, burial customs were forced to be altered. “After the funeral journey of Abraham Lincoln’s embalmed body from Washington DC to Springfield, embalming slowly gained legitimacy,” Laderman continues. “Lincoln’s body served as son to those who lost children,” many of those to anonymous graves on legendary battlefields such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, embalming was looked at with revulsion by the public in general. Embalming had most often been employed in medical schools, generally in secret, to preserve cadavers for the instruction of medical students.

In 1963, when the public’s attitude toward burial had largely changed and embalming methods, funeral home viewings, and burials were accepted as the norm, writer and muckraker Jessica Mitford published “The American Way of Death” an exposé of abuses in the US funeral home industry. The book proved wildly popular, with Mitford harshly criticizing the industry for utilizing unscrupulous business practices to take advantage of grieving families for financial gain. A revised and updated edition of the book was published in 1998, while Mitford herself passed away in 1996 at the age of 78in keeping with her wishes, Mitford’s own cremation and burial expenses totaled $533.31.

Natural options

Now, in what we like to think of as more enlightened times, families of the deceased find themselves with a variety of options when it comes to disposition of their loved ones at the end of life. While the cost effectiveness of cremation makes it more and more often a popular choice for families when a loved one dies and funds run short, natural burialsalthough approximately the same cost as more traditional burialsare also emerging as a popular option in a growing number of locations.

“We are a very unique approach to burial,” says Sara Brink, manager of the Foxfield Preserve in Wilmot, Ohio (near Canton). Foxfield Preserve is a nonprofit cemetery operated by The Wilderness Center, a nonprofit nature center and land conservancy. Foxfield is the first nature preserve cemetery in Ohio, and the first in the nation operated by a conservation organization. “We are bringing an alternative to the community, and one that is a little more environmentally minded.”

“The Foxfield Preserve is operated by The Wilderness Center, which is a nonprofit nature conservation and educational organization that was founded in 1964,” continues Brink. “Foxfield Preserve is a subsidiary of the Wilderness Center, and all of the proceeds of purchase at our facility actually go back to fund our conservation work and our nature education services, that we provide freeor at low costto our community. So actually, when you’re making arrangements at Foxfield, you’re doing so much more than just purchasing a service. You’re actually supporting your community.”

Green Burial Council

In 2005 in California, Juliette and Joe Sehee founded the Green Burial Council (GBC), a nationwide organization that promotes the idea of natural burials. With input from an organizing board comprised of leading experts from the fields of sustainable landscape design, restoration ecology, conservation management, consumer affairs, and law, the GBC established the first set of standards for eco-friendly burial grounds. The Council also established standards for funeral homes willing to offer eco-friendly deathcare, as well as for manufacturers of green burial products and supplies. The GBC then launched an extensive outreach campaign to create awareness and demand for deathcare that better serves people and the planet.

“There is an organization called the Green Burial Council,” continues Sara Brink, “And it is active nationally, certifying cemeteries, and funeral homes, and manufacturers. We are at the highest level of certification that the Green Burial Council offers, it’s what’s called conservation burial. And so we do offer natural burial, which means no embalming, biodegradable containers are used, no vaults are used, we ask that the body be dressed in natural fibers, everything as simple and biodegradable as possible. But we do actually go even further beyond that. Burial in our cemetery is even unique amongst natural burial grounds, because we are actively reforesting our cemetery. So we’re working to establish a native tall grass prairie, with wildflowers. So you can be buried among the grass and wildflowers, or you can be buried in the forest, under the shade of an oak tree that your body will nourish. And that tree will flourish for 200-300 years.”

When asked if a natural burial at Foxfield would preclude markers for the deceased, she answers “Yes, we do allow markers, but we have restrictions on how they can look and their size. We want them to be natural, unpolished and rough-hewn.”

In addition to St. Kateri Nature Preserve at Calvary Cemetery in Kettering, and the slightly-further-away Foxfield Preserve near Canton, since 2015 the Glen Forest Cemetery in Yellow Springs has also offered an area dedicated exclusively to natural burials.

While losing a loved one is never easy or pleasant, the ability to honor the wishes of an environmentally conscious spouse or family member may help to ease the burden of loss to those who remain. Keeping in mind that we allembalmed or notwill eventually return to the earth, the desire to explore burial options which are more environmentally sound might not seem like such a strange one.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, it is often said at funerals. This phrase, which comes from the Church of England’s “Book of Common Prayer”, published in 1549not from the Bible, as is commonly believedstrikes to the very heart of some peoples’ desire to give themselves back to the earth, and to remain within the circle of life, even after their death.

For more information on natural burials and St. Kateri Preserve, contact Judy Tazy and Calvary Cemetery at 937.293.1221, or visit www.CalvaryCemeteryDayton.org.

 

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Tim Walker
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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