It’s as old as the hills, and as contemporary as a hybrid car. “Green” burials were once the only way to go. Thousands of years ago, your body may have been left in a cave or dropped in a bog or burned by the river. Maybe your body was placed on an elevated pallet: food for the sun and carrion birds. Pioneers headed west may have dug a hole in the ground and dropped your body down. Maybe they offered a prayer, tossed a flower, planted a wooden cross over your body.
As recently as 150 years ago, people placed their loved ones in the front parlor in which they’d grown up: a practice that gave birth to the term “funeral parlor” and to an industry that’s as inescapable for the living as death itself. It almost goes without saying that the way people treat their dead says a lot about the culture from which they hail – which brings us back from the hills and into the hybrid car, so to speak.
Like everything else in American culture, the American way of death is changing. People, places and things are going green. And, just as it’s true in the larger culture that there are degrees of difference between, say, the “greenness” of what an organic farmer does and what a businesswoman who drives a Prius does, a “green” or “natural” burial comes in a variety of modes.
“I’d say between 10 and 15 percent of inquiries I get are for green burials,” said Tim Copeland, owner of Copeland Funeral Home in New Paltz. The reasons are numerous: the wish for simplicity, for nourishing the natural world, for preserving that landscape, for escaping the traditional.
Copeland, like other funeral home directors in the region, says that he’s ready to meet those requests. He gestures toward a white woven wicker casket that stands in stark contrast to the gleaming wood-and-metal caskets on display nearby.
But, Copeland said, there’s more to a green funeral service than meets the eye. There’s a lot that’s misunderstood. A green burial isn’t even all that unusual, he said. Orthodox Jewish burial practices, in which a body is not embalmed and must be buried within 24 hours of death, are anything but new. For everybody else, “It’s really a matter of degree – not whether you want a green funeral, but how green do you want it to be?”
A green burial usually excludes embalming, so questions of timeliness arise. If a viewing is desired, for example, the body needs to be placed on dry ice and visiting hours need to be limited, he said. “The nature of the death is important. A typical hospital death is one thing, but an unattended death, or death in a serious accident, present other problems.”
Then there’s the question of where the body will be buried. Cemeteries in the region will accept green burials, but only a few will, or even can, make special subsequent provision for them.
In the mid-Hudson Valley, the Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery is the only municipal cemetery to have set aside several acres for what are called “natural” burials. Suzanne Kelly was instrumental in helping establish the cemetery’s natural burial ground, which is one of only two municipal natural burial grounds in the state. (The Rosendale Cemetery Association, which is not a municipal cemetery, also offers green burial services.) Kelly’s the chairwoman of the Town Board’s Cemetery Committee, and while she emphasizes that the effort was a collaborative one, it’s difficult to imagine a more informed source on the subject. She has literally written the book on the subject: Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices & Restoring Our Tie to the Earth will be published in September.
Green burials are more than a market trend for the funeral industry, she said. The desire and even the need for a simpler, more conscientious burial is at the root of what she calls the Green Burial Movement. In many ways, that movement is viewed by its adherents as an antidote to the funeral industry’s lock on burials of all types. It’s a movement that draws on the desires, needs and practices of other, better-known movements within the culture, including most especially the environmental movement. “At its most basic level, it answers a need for people who don’t wish to embalmed or buried in metal caskets in concrete vaults,” she said.
This wish hearkens back to a time when people disposed of their dead in Earth-friendly ways. Embalming was unheard of. Caskets – when there were any – were made of wood. Sometimes a simple cotton shroud was all that was used. “But over the past 150 years, death care has become a toxic, polluting and alienating industry in the United States,” Kelly writes on her book’s website (https://www.suzannemkelly.com).
Models of green burials vary, as might be expected of a nascent movement. But already the movement has a Green Burial Council that has established three levels of green burials, ranging from “basic” grounds that are part of existing cemeteries to grounds such as Rhinebeck’s in which more effort is made to preserve the landscape and provide guarantees that the land will remain undeveloped and wild. A third, far more stringent category includes cemeteries that are not connected to existing cemeteries and are devoted to land preservation through legal strictures such as conservation easements that provide continual monitoring, Kelly said.
One such cemetery is located in Willamette, Ohio, Kelly said, and is located at the site of an abandoned farm that had fallen into disuse. The burial ground has effectively rescued the land while providing a pristine place for green burials.
For her, Kelly said, the Green Burial Movement isn’t just about the end that awaits us all, but about carrying on the search for meaning in life that leads to that culmination.