I live in a lovely, rural county in Oregon where we are allowed to bury our loved ones in our own backyards. Yes, I said backyards. And as the undertaker overseeing five small towns, I have personally buried people in their own backyards.
I am known as The Green Reaper, a name I have affectionately been given as the green burial funeral director, educator and advocate who is always ready to lend a hand, or a shovel. My funeral parlour is in a town named Boring and is anything but. My mortuary is a remodeled goat barn that sits on 30 acres of country land, filled with old farming equipment and horses. I live on the land with my husband and baby, and have only a general store/gas station as a neighbor. And the scenic Clackamas River.
Here at Cornerstone Funeral Services, I have had the pleasure of assisting people with sustainable burial options. I love helping in this aspect of death. It truly makes people’s eyes sparkle to feel as though their last act on earth contributes to a positive purpose. Those who have laid loved ones to rest in this setting have found comfort in knowing the body will return to the earth as the circle of life continues.
So what is a “green burial”? It is primarily defined by doing less of what is involved in a typical burial. Traditional burials involve loading the body with embalming fluids, placing it in a casket, and interring the body and casket in the ground in a concrete burial vault. An eco-friendly burial can mean skipping the use of embalming fluids and burying the body in a biodegradable shroud or a simple wood coffin that will biodegrade over time.
With a green burial, also known as a “natural burial,” no preservatives or other chemicals are used to embalm the body. The coffins are made from recycled paper products, cardboard, or even wicker, and they use no chemical glues or other toxic components. If you choose cremation, you can even get urns that are sustainably produced with recycled materials.
What we now think of as traditional burial didn’t become the tradition until the Civil War when bodies were embalmed for preservation while transported home. Before the Civil War, burial often took place in simple graves in tall grasses. That simplicity is beginning to make a comeback.
According to the statistics from Wikipedia, each year in America the following otherwise useful items (or in the case of embalming fluid, environmental predator) get sent below ground with our dearly departed:
- 30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets);
- 90,272 tons of steel (caskets);
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets);
- 14,000 tons of steel (vaults);
- 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults);
- 827,060 US gallons of embalming fluid, which most commonly includes formaldehyde
What makes a “green cemetery” green? In a burial at a green cemetery, the goal is usually to encourage the body to break down naturally and quickly. Many green cemeteries ban embalmed bodies, due to concerns about the toxicity of the chemicals used in embalming. People may be buried in plain wooden, peat, wicker, or cardboard coffins, designed to break down quickly, or in shrouds made from natural materials. If dressed, the dead are also usually dressed in natural fibers that will break down along with the body.
The offerings at a green cemetery vary, depending on how the cemetery is organized. For example, some green cemeteries offer relatively conventional burial in plots with ordinary headstones, while others promote natural burial in areas that are left unlandscaped, with the use of trees, rocks, and other natural artifacts as markers. Many encourage family involvement in the planning of the funeral, although they may have a funeral director on hand to assist with arrangements.
Green cemeteries in your area can be found by searching for “green cemetery” and your region. In addition to being ecologically friendly, you may also find that natural burial is economically friendly, as green cemeteries typically keep their prices low and discourage costly practices like the use of fancy coffins and burial vaults.
Death is big business. A conventional funeral—including the embalming and a metal casket—can cost $5,000- 7,000 and up, plus another $2,000 for cemetery charges. A burial at a green cemetery can save you several thousand dollars over a traditional burial, and a simple back-yard burial can cost less than $1000.
And my own backyard? In the state of Oregon, backyard burial is an affair left up to each county. Most other states have little to say about home burial and a few explicitly permit family cemetery plots. Regulation, if any, is generally left to local officials. Please double check the law before you try this at home.
If you are digging a grave yourself, you need to be careful and have help. If you are fit and enthusiastic, it should take about three hours work to dig a four foot deep grave. Try and shore up the first two feet of the grave so that it is supported when the mourners stand around it, and work steadily so that you don’t strain yourself. You might want to take a crate to stand on or a small ladder so that you can get out of the grave at the end of a tiring day!
Another practical matter to consider is how deep the body should be buried. At a mere 18 inches underground, the legal limit, a body wrapped in a sheet is at risk of being dug up by bears, wolves, and dogs. If the mammals don’t consume the body, insects will. I don’t mind insects, but I’ve seen what dogs do to bones.
You need to be practical when deciding where you want your grave. Sandy soils are dangerous to dig in to any depth, and rock will obviously limit how far down you can dig.
You will also need to make careful measurements of the body and any receptacle it will be in. To be absolutely certain that these measurements are correct, it’s sensible to measure the height and width of the body with a dowling rod, cutting the rod to the right size and dangling these rods on string right down into the grave. The last thing you want is a grave that is too short or narrow.
Dead bodies will not cause problems once they are buried since the earth acts as a deodorizer and cleaning agent. Infectious disease shouldn’t cause you a problem either, unless you die of anthrax, hemoragic fever, cholera, plague (which one is not made clear), relapsing fever, smallpox or typhus. Even if you were to die of one of these bizarre illnesses, your family could take you home from hospital as long as they intend to bury or cremate you immediately. Please note that AIDS is not a notifiable disease and creates no problem in burial.
Whether or not you go for an all-out green burial, I think the basic idea behind this is in fact quite important. The very fact that we have to try to have a natural/green burial, that we have to make very specific and meticulous efforts to break conventions in order to be kinder to the Earth, is rather troubling. It reflects quite clearly just how unsustainable modern life has become. And I would like to give back to the Earth by “fertilizing” it in my own way, with my very own flesh, and so become part of nature once again in every single bodily part and particle.
Elizabeth Fournier is affectionately known as The Green Reaper in her tiny community of Boring, Oregon. She is the owner and operator of Cornerstone Funeral Services and works as a green mortician, educator and advocate who is always ready to lend a hand, or a shovel. She is the voice of the autopsy exhibit in the forensic wing at the United States National Museum of Medicine, and recently published her memoir, All Men Are Cremated Equal: My 77 Blind Dates. She writes a monthly column for The Black Lamb, and her freelance work has been seen in American Funeral Director, Community Seeds, and the Green Living Journal.