By Timothy Beatley
Burying a dead body generally involves pumping it with embalming fluids (something that came out of the Civil War, I've learned) and placing it into an elaborate casket made of metal and wood, built to be sturdier than most of our homes. In most cemeteries, once a grave is dug, a precast cement vault is installed. That's where the casket actually sits, to prevent settling.
It's not a very pretty picture, which is probably why we avoid thinking much about it. We, of course, prefer to think that we are going to live forever.
But as the oldest of the baby boomers begin to die and world population projections skyrocket, we are facing an increased need for land to bury those that want it. And in addition to space limitations, substantial environmental implications are associated with conventional methods of burial, which are significantly resource intensive. Consider the wood and metal of a casket, or the energy needed and the hundreds of pounds of carbon dioxide emitted during cremation.
In recent years, we've started to see an emergence of interest in greener options for end of life. Natural burial is a logical extension of the trends in the industry and society as a whole. When funeral director Kenneth Kyger started his career in the 1970s, cremation accounted for only about one percent of the market; today, it's at 50 percent. As more families scatter and the desire for conventional tombstones and graveside visitations diminish — and environmental values rise in importance — the natural burial market will only grow.
I saw an example of this firsthand during a recent visit to Duck Run Natural Cemetery, just outside Harrisonburg, Virginia. It is the state's only cemetery certified by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that encourages environmentally sustainable death care and the use of burial as a means of protecting natural areas.
A natural approach
The setting of Duck Run Cemetery is quite natural — indeed, spectacular. Standing in the center of a covered stone and wood structure used for family ceremonies, one can look in every direction and see mountains and farm fields, including the area's tallest peak, Massanutten Mountain.
What makes Duck Run a "natural" cemetery? First, the operation is 100 percent organic, according to my tour guide Kyger, who owns the cemetery. No pesticides are used in management of the landscape, and only native grasses and plants are used. The place has the feel of a park, with a large pond and walking trails — on the day I visited, there was a family fishing on the edge of the pond (with a young kid excited to show us what he had caught). It did not feel like a cemetery.
But the key aspect of "natural" is the way the burials work. The essential idea is that the body is allowed to biodegrade, decompose, and disappear back into the earth from whence it ultimately came — something Kyger told me happens remarkably fast. Caskets, if they are desired, must be biodegradable, and so must any embalming fluid, if used (yes, there are two companies that now make this). Graves are dug to about four feet, a kind of sweet spot: close enough to the surface to promote decomposition but sufficiently deep to protect the body from any digging animal. There can still be a graveside ceremony, and a specially carved, flat rock sits inconspicuously atop the grave.
To start the natural cemetery, Kyger only needed to apply for a special use permit. It wasn't too hard to make the case for this option, he said, though he did hear some complaining from a local farmer groused that it was now harder to get permission to bury a farm animal.
The natural burial option can serve as an important land and biodiversity conservation tool. Cemetery land must be preserved through a conservation easement or similar mechanism, a requirement for Green Burial Council certification. The land stays undeveloped in perpetuity, and as restoration work advances, these lands become more bird and wildlife friendly. Already at Duck Run, there are elevated bird boxes that help delineate plot lines. And the renewable burial plot idea is a potential land saver for cities and urban areas where new or expanding cemeteries may be difficult.
For the last stop of the day, Kyger took me back to the funeral home showroom to look at biodegradable caskets. They were beautiful. Several on display were made from wicker, bamboo, even seagrass. I was most drawn, however, to the option of a biodegradable shroud. It had the best price tag of everything there: a little over $500. That is one of the additional benefits of a natural burial — it is significantly less expensive than a conventional casket funeral.
Dust in the wind
There are other sustainable options at death, of course, including biocremation and alkaline hydrolysis, a dissolution process that is an alternative to burning. And there are so-called conservation cemeteries that take the ideas of Duck Run even further by emphasizing the protection of the larger landscape, often by partnering with a local land trust.
Likely soon, another option will be human composting, essentially combining the body with organic material in a structure that accelerates decomposition, resulting at the end in usable compost. Washington state-based designer Katrina Spade calls this process Recomposition. This option has the advantage of conserving space — a facility might eventually be established in a recycled big box or multistory urban structure.
Lee Webster of the Green Burial Council tells me that interest in these ideas is growing fast. There are already some 220 green cemeteries in the U.S. alone.
A tagline used in Kyger's brochure is "Honoring Life's Natural Cycles." That is something we tend to forget, as we more often than not see ourselves immune from or outside of the cycles of the natural world. Death is a rude awakening when it comes — something to be denied as long as possible. A return of our bodies to the earth is an explicit counterpoint to our sense of separateness and invincibility — and, as Kyger notes, not that new an idea: "It's actually the way we have been doing it for the last 100,000 years."
"All we are is dust in the wind," the 1970s band Kansas famously sang. Returning to the earth and replenishing the soil are fitting goals for human lives lived with too much hubris and often too little concern for the condition of the world.
Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Biophilic Cities Project.
PAS Report: Planning for the Deceased explores how communities are addressing 21st-century burial challenges.