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Green Burials

by Brad Lancaster, who is, incidentally, co-teaching the upcoming PDC in Palestine – a course many may wish to attend so as to support this valuable regenerative work!


A conventional cemetery

When I was little I was terrified of death. I often cried myself to sleep as I thought of the end of life. It seemed so bleak, pointless, and severe.

Mom tried to comfort me with the concept of going to heaven. This did not reassure me at all. “How do you know there is a heaven?” I’d ask. “Have you been there?”


Old clearcut site being regenerated with
new growth and green burials

Eventually, I just numbed myself to the fear by burying it in the recesses of my mind and body.

Years later the fear evaporated with an incredible discovery – composting. Yes! Here was tangible proof that there was life after death, that everything did not just end/stop/vanish with death. Instead, things transformed. In the compost pile I saw kitchen scraps, weeds, and a dead chicken decompose into beautiful, rich, fertile soil in which earthworms, mycelia, chiles, and all kinds of new life grew.

Death no longer scared me, now it excited me. My composting dead body could generate myriad life! Don’t get me wrong: I’m in no rush to experience this. But when it eventually does happen – no problem.


Day-old green burial

Maybe.

My dead body could generate life, or more death depending on how it is disposed of.

The conventional death industry embalms bodies with a toxic brew of formaldehyde, phenol, and menthol, which can contaminate groundwater and generate cancer and other disease in those doing the embalming.(1) According to the book Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, today the U.S. funeral industry buries over 3 pounds of the formaldehyde-based “formalin” with every embalmed body (totaling 800,000 gallons [3,028,000 liters] of formaldehyde a year)(2), while from the Civil War era to 1910, arsenic, zinc, and lead where the preferred toxic embalming compounds.(3)


Older, settled burial mound

Then there are the caskets, turning cemeteries into landfills. Grave Matters states, “Over time the typical ten-acre [4 ha] swath of cemetery ground contains enough coffin wood to construct more than forty houses, nine hundred-plus tons [816,000 kg] of casket steel, and another twenty thousand tons [18,143,000 kg] of vault concrete.”(4)

Cremation avoids embalming toxins, and the body can be burned in a shroud or cardboard container instead of a standard casket to consume less fuel and release fewer pollutants. But the fuel needed to incinerate the body is still substantial. Carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide are typical emissions along with toxic trace metals such as mercury – which comes from dental fillings (a good reason to ask for mercury-free fillings while alive).

All crematories in the U.S. may emit 5,000 pounds [2,267 kg] of mercury a year, while in the United Kingdom four times that amount is emitted due to a higher percent of the population choosing cremation.(5)

Depressing.

Deadening.


Death. Pesticide-ridden lawn above,
formaldehyde-pumped bodies below
within conventional cemetery.

Friend and mentor Tim Murphy gave me a different vision. He wants to be buried toxin-free and naked, ass up, in the fetal position, with an acorn up his butt. “Plant me, and plant a tree. Years later you and others can come sit under my shade, harvest some acorns, and celebrate what is possible.”

I sometimes think of Tim as a radical traditionalist, and a small, but growing segment of the death industry is enabling others to take a similar path that encourages the natural decomposition of the dead and regeneration of other life from the process rather than trying to halt or slow what will eventually happen anyway. The website www.GreenBurialCouncil.org is one conduit to this path. And the book Caring for the Dead: A Complete Guide for Those Making Funeral Arrangements with or without a Funeral Director by Lisa Carlson is another conduit if you want to reduce or eliminate your participation in a death industry.

A green burial does not allow toxic embalming, concrete vaults, or elaborate caskets, which can reduce the cost of a burial by $8,000 to $12,000, according to memorial ecologist Joe Whittaker. Young trees or an engraved fieldstone are recommended over tombstones.


Life. Green burial with mature forest
at Honey Creek Woodlands.

I experienced a new green or conservation burial ground for all faiths first hand at Honey Creek Woodlands just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. It is a beautiful place with very caring and dedicated staff, including Joe Whittaker. And it is erupting with new life.

It is located on and beside a section of once-grazed and clear-cut forest in the heart of the 2,100-acre [849-ha] grounds of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. The monastery grounds are bordered by and connected to a state park and the network of footpaths, creeks, and wildlife corridors of the park and encompassing 8,000-acre [2,327-ha] Arabia Mountain Heritage Area. This is a huge strength for a final resting place, since many people already feel connected to this land.

First and foremost, the burial grounds are a nature preserve, with the goal of enhancing a 50-year succession back to a mixed hardwood forest, through such practices as selective weeding of invasive exotics, seeding and planting native plant stock, and adding organic matter to the soil.

Bodies are planted just 3 to 3.5 feet [0.9 to 1.06 m] deep because microbial activity and soil life drops tremendously at depths greater than 4 feet [1.21 m]. Above the body the excavated soil is placed in a mound with the topsoil placed back on top for a total initial “depth” of about 5 feet [1.5 m]. This is then covered with a light pine needle mulch and native wildflower seed. The Georgia Native Plant Society ensures only natives are used. Flowers and butterflies soon cover the 2-foot [0.6-m] tall burial mound – over 64 species of butterflies were counted in one day in 2008. The mound settles completely after a few years.

The process is so visible! So beautiful! I visited a day-old burial; fresh flowers still atop the grave. 10 feet [3 m] away, dried and shriveled flowers rested atop a week-old burial. And as I looked about I saw I was surrounded by burials, all in various stages of settling and regeneration. The older they were, the greater the density of vegetation atop them, and the more level the soil.

I saw a family cremation plot circle of field stones surrounding a tree. All were again reunited and rooted around their family’s tree.

I felt revived just being in this regenerating forest. I felt… alive!

For more information about the legalities of green burials in your region, see the book Caring for the Dead: A Complete Guide for Those Making Funeral Arrangements with or without a Funeral Director by Lisa Carlson, mentioned above.

References:

  1. Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. Scribner, 2007. pp. 40, 41.
  2. ibid pp. 40, 56.
  3. ibid pp. 30, 39.
  4. ibid p. 38.
  5. ibid p. 61.

Brad Lancaster

Since 1993 I’ve run a successful permaculture consulting, design, and education business focused on integrated and sustainable approaches to landscape design, planning, and living. And as I live in a dryland environment, water harvesting has long been one of my specialties and a passion. I started writing the Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond series with the goal of empowering my clients and my community to make positive change in their own lives and yards, by harvesting and enhancing free on-site resources such as water, sun, wind, shade, and more. I wanted to provide accessible books that explain what water harvesting is, how to do it appropriately, and how to tailor water-harvesting strategies to the unique conditions of different sites and integrate it with the harvest of other resources. I believe we all can become beneficial stewards of the land, and partners in the ecosystem in which we live, and I believe that by harvesting water—and more—we can all begin to transform our households and neighborhoods from being consumers of resources to generators—and even regenerators—of resources. Drawing on my years of teaching, consulting, designing, on-the-ground implementation, and learning from others, I offer readers my clear and simple process to assess and design their own harvesting systems at home and throughout their community.

7 Comments

  1. This type of burial is similar to the Islamic burials, where they
    do not use coffins and wash and wrap body in a shroud.
    I could never see sense in all toxins used to embalm, and resources such as coffins just so they could be buried.

    Wouldn’t it be nicer to be buried, have a tree planted on top and live hundreds of years supporting many life forms via the tree.

  2. Great! I have already let my family know about this. Apparently you can use a basket and a cotton shroud and just go into the soil. I loath the idea of cremation–I have a feeling you can still feel it. We are made of mounds of cells. They are us. Burning hurts. Not into it.
    It is completely bizarre that we try to pickle ourselves in an effort to avoid death and thereby contribute to more lifelessness.
    I can’t wait till caskets and cremations are a thing of the past Thanks for this insightful post

  3. Brad,

    I have to echo Sue’s post. This type of burial is standard issue for Muslims – and I assume other non-Western faith traditions,as well.

    I’m really glad to hear you’re heading to Palestine to teach & do project work.

    Be safe…and Godspeed.

    Rhamis

  4. Thought provoking. I was talking about this very subject the other day. My uncle still has my grandmother sitting on the shelf. I think we should just biochar everyone and sequester all our personal carbon and spread onto our favorite habitat.

  5. Really happy to have read about your subject. I find it great and hope it’s possible in Switzerland also. I’m going to find out about it.

  6. My patch is too close to the river for burial, so I’ve opted to be burnt and have my ashes scattered in our forest garden.

    Be nice if I could be composted instead of burnt, and then scattered on the forest garden.

    I wonder if we’ll ever see “Body composting ‘R’ us” in the yellow pages :)

  7. A Great idea which acknowledges the cycle of life, and accepts it, and pays respect not only to the individual, but to our ecological and environmental origin.

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