(originally published in The Planet magazine)
When Cynthia Beal kicks the proverbial bucket, she doesn’t want to be memorialized with a slab of rock. She doesn’t care for embalming, rot-proof caskets or interment in a tidy cemetery lot, either. Beal wants to be a tree.
An Oregon cherry tree, to be exact, whose roots will frame her simple grave and draw nourishment from the body buried within. And at the ripe age of 80, her arboreal monument will be cut down, kiln-dried and crafted into salad bowls and musical instruments.
Beal owns the Natural Burial Company, a funeral-goods purveyor in Portland, Ore., that specializes in biodegradable caskets and urns. A former organic agriculturalist, Beal applied her interest in nutrient cycling to the ultimate composting endeavor: returning bodies—with their caches of organic compounds—to the biological web of decay, release and re-growth.
The Natural Burial Company is an unassuming hole-in-the-wall outside downtown Portland. Its narrow, softly lit parlor is lined with shelves holding urns and vases; a gallery of plywood, woven wicker and cardboard coffins lie propped against each wall. The Ecopod, a recycled-paper import from the United Kingdom, is their newest offering: an attractive, streamlined coffin made entirely by hand and customized to order.
Laid out in the store’s display window is a beige Ecopod, adorned with papier-mache vines twisting and curling across its lid. The arched design looks carefully wrought; only a few nibs of plastered paper jut out along its graceful curves. But this is no showroom demo.
“This is the coffin I’m going to be buried in,” Beal said. “I papered it myself.”
Beal and company aren’t alone in their vision. A natural take on death is gaining credence throughout the United States—and not just among environmentalists. Mortified by the pollution, dubious land use and fossil fuel consumption of the modern funeral, many Americans are seeking a greener way to go.
The premise is simple: return one’s remains to the earth as directly as possible and eschew the extravagance. No embalming, no concrete grave liners, no steel caskets. Bodies are buried in readily-biodegradable materials, eventually incorporated into the soil to foster life anew.
“We spend our entire lives eating and building our bodies,” Beal said. “It’s the ultimate insult to not give anything back.”
Natural burial encourages the decay of one’s body to fuel biological processes—an end the modern funeral industry strives to prevent at all costs, she said. Nearly every aspect of a modern funeral—from embalming and concrete grave liners to interment six feet below the surface—serves to delay or inhibit decomposition.
Most cemeteries use concrete liners to stabilize their plots, said Marcia Wazny, cemetery sextant for Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham. As a casket breaks down, the liner prevents earth from sinking further into the grave. Such collapses can mar the manicured landscape of a cemetery and pose safety risks to groundskeepers, she said.
“The only purpose of these liners is to make the lawn look nice,” said John Eric of the People’s Memorial Funeral Cooperative Association in Seattle. “They inhibit the natural decay of the body.”
The modern funeral industry spares no expense when interring the deceased. From mahogany coffins in airtight burial vaults to white dove send-offs, modern funerals have become elaborate affairs costly both for the family and the environment.
According to the Natural Burial Cooperative, the typical ten-acre lot of cemetery ground in the United States contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes. Buried with the wood are a thousand tons of casket steel and 20,000 tons of concrete, as well as enough embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool. Capping off the facade are untold gallons of Roundup and pesticide to keep the grounds preternaturally green.
“By 2038, I predict many of our private cemeteries will be Superfund sites,” Beal said.
Each year, North America puts enough metal into casket production to build the Golden Gate Bridge, according to the Natural Burial Cooperative, and enough concrete is poured into burial liners to pave a four-lane highway from Bellingham to Eugene, Ore.
The American way of death hasn’t always been fraught with excess, Beal said. Its roots began rather humbly, based upon the same ideals that define contemporary natural burial.
“Green burial is a return to our traditional funeral practices,” she said.
Burying loved ones simply and naturally isn’t a novel concept, said Paul Spinelli, funeral director at Moles Funeral Home in Bellingham. Cultures around the world have been naturally burying their dead since the beginning of civilization.
Prior to the advent of embalming fluid or refrigeration, bodies needed to be dealt with quickly, he said. After death, a body’s cells, proteins and tissues start breaking down almost immediately and pathogenic bacteria in the stomach and intestines run rampant. For this reason, a traditional burial in colonial America was kept simple: the body of the deceased was washed, dressed, and—following a brief ceremony by family and friends—laid to rest in an octagonal pine coffin.
By the mid-nineteenth century, however, American funerals had undergone marked changes from the rustic family burial, Spinelli said. Elaborate services with hardwood coffins and embalmed remains became standard funeral procedure after the Civil War: to avoid the indecency of a hasty, foreign burial, Union soldiers embalmed their fallen comrades and shipped them home on trains, he said.
Embalming is an age-old practice of preserving the dead. Long used by ancient Egyptians to mummify corpses, modern methods temporarily stall the unsightly effects of decomposition, Spinelli said. An embalmed corpse may hold for more than a week without visible change.
“The embalming fluid acts like a growth inhibitor,” he said. “The bacteria can’t find the enzymes to break down as food, so they can’t multiply.”
When embalming a body, the blood is drained out and replaced with formalin, a formaldehyde-based solution used to disinfect and preserve the tissue, Spinelli said. Formalin is a mixture of methanol, ethanol and about 40 percent formaldehyde, he said, and is used in funeral homes across the nation, including Moles.
As a casket deteriorates, this chemical cocktail can leach out of the body and into the soil. Even vaults touted as “impervious to the elements” are susceptible; eventually water and embalming fluid will eat away at the concrete, Spinelli said.
According to the Natural Burial Cooperative, formaldehyde is a human carcinogen with potentially toxic effects on the environment. Although the Environmental Protection Agency regulates formaldehyde as a hazardous waste, nearly three pounds of formalin is legally buried each time an embalmed body is interred.
As embalming became increasingly popular in post-Civil War America, the role of the undertaker rose to importance, Spinelli said. Families didn’t have the knowledge or equipment to embalm their loved ones, he said, so an undertaker was hired to arrange, or undertake, the services needed for a proper funeral.
Over time, the undertaker’s duties came to encompass nearly every aspect of the post-mortem process, Spinelli said, and the funeral “director” was born. Funeral parlors—later called homes—were built to accommodate the burgeoning business of death.
And what an enterprise it has become. Modern funeral homes make a financial killing, generating nearly $11 billion in revenue each year, according to the 2004 U.S. Census Bureau. The average funeral and burial can cost upwards of $8,000.
“We sell a service here,” he said. “I get paid whether somebody dies or not.”
Funeral homes have become the one-stop death shop. A typical home offers an array of services on-site, including embalming, casket and headstone options and interment in a nearby cemetery, Spinelli said. Some also contract with nearby crematories to arrange cremations and deliver the “cremains” to their clients.
Cremation is often considered the environmentally-friendly alternative to burial, Spinelli said. While incinerating a loved one’s remains does save graveyard space, this fiery farewell also burns prodigious amounts of fuel. According to the Natural Burial Cooperative, North American crematoria use enough fossil fuel each year to drive a car nearly 20 million miles—the distance of 84 road trips to the moon and back.
Reducing a corpse to charred bone fragments requires a cremator, or retort, to burn at 1600-1800 degrees for more than two hours, Spinelli said. As a body’s organs and tissues combust, pollutants such as carbon monoxide and mercury vapor—from scorched dental fillings—can escape out the smokestack into the atmosphere.
With nearly 70 percent of Washingtonians opting for cremation, the environmental costs are adding up.
“Cremation is the second-best option, after natural burial,” said Kimberly Campbell, vice president of Memorial Ecosystems in Westminster, S.C. “Ashes in an urn aren’t doing any harm, but they’re not doing any good either.”
In 1998 Campbell and her husband, Dr. Billy Campbell, built Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first memorial nature park in the United States. Devoid of embalming fluid and concrete liners, Ramsey Creek’s 33-acre woodland in rural South Carolina bears little resemblance to modern cemeteries. Graves are marked with locally-produced stone and caskets must be biodegradable and hardwood-free, she said.
The memorial parks serve a dual purpose: conserve ecologically valuable land and provide green-minded individuals a place to truly rest in peace.
“We’ve found a way to conserve land meaningfully,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is not to just create cemeteries, but to create ecological reserves.”
Ramsey Creek and other memorial parks are protected by cemetery deed contracts, she said. Once a parcel of land is deeded as a cemetery, state laws prevent further development—essentially allowing deed holders to create tracts of undisturbed wilderness.
“In a true green cemetery, buying a plot is buying an ecological easement,” Eric said. “It lasts into perpetuity.”
The only problem is cost. Plunking down $25,000 for a cemetery lot requires a bit of investing.
“Funeral co-ops do coalition-building with other conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy,” Eric said. “We pool our funds to purchase land.”
Non-profit organizations like the Green Burial Council aim to create nationwide standards for green cemeteries and educate consumers about natural burial practices.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 2.3 million Americans died in 2003. As members of the Baby Boom generation approach the brink, this figure is expected to double by 2040—fine time to rethink the American way of death.