We’ve been burying people all wrong

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Could eco-friendly funerals save the planet?

By Mary Pilon

About 15 years ago, Cynthia Beal, a 30-year veteran of the natural-food movement and then-owner of the Red Barn Natural Grocery in Eugene, Oregon, sat down to work on a science fiction novel.

As she wrote, she began to contemplate life — and death — in the 2040s, a date that still felt far off in some Terminator time, but she worried was sneaking up on her and her fellow citizens.

“I was trying to solve the problem of what would happen to people’s bodies,” Beal, 60, told me recently, looking over the grounds of Oak Hill Cemetery in Eugene. “As I started to look to the future, I saw there was an issue that need to be addressed. And I thought, ‘My god, this is really interesting.’”

Today, Beal is among those on a crusade to shift the way we die toward a process that could curb global warming. She’s become fixated on the the patterns of a funeral industry that she believes are devastating for the planet. In 2003, Beal sold her grocery store to her brother, and a year later she founded the Natural Burial Company.

“I’ve always been a bit of a crusader in my own small way, trying to help things improve wherever I am,” Beal said, adding that the natural burial market had “all the hallmarks of action that appeal” to her. No one could tell her how to do it or how to make products, because it wasn’t really being done yet. In her first couple of years in the funeral business, Beal canvassed the globe trying to find manufacturers of eco-friendly pods — a kind of sarcophagus made out of recycled paper products — and caskets, while studying the way we die. That curiosity led her to the United Kingdom in 2007, which is something of a haven for natural burials. The nation has a damp and chilly climate that’s similar to Oregon’s, but a much larger population. She studied the U.K.’s burial laws and practices, and after conferring with British casket and ecopod makers, she brought the first commercial biodegradable coffins to Oregon, where she displayed them in a downtown Portland gallery open to the public in an attempt to de-creepify the casket selection process.

Later, with the help of Dr. Jay Noller, head of Oregon State University’s Crop and Soil Science Department, she co-founded Oregon State University’s Sustainable Cemetery Studies Lab (and created the aptly-titled curriculum, Digging Deeper). In 2014, she purchased two cemeteries in town, including Oak Hill’s 11 tree-lined acres which contain almost 2,000 bodies dating back to the 1850s. One quilt of tombs rests under a canopy of oak trees, while newer burial plots make their way down the hill and offer a panorama of mountains, trees, and Fern Ridge Lake. Her goal was to make Oak Hill accessible to students studying the environmental implications of funeral practices of yore, and create a space for buried bodies to decompose, or recycle, naturally.

Forensic camp attendees examine samples at Oak Hill Cemetery.

With her long raven hair pulled back into a ponytail and in black jeans and tank top, Beal looked the part of hip undertaker as she strolled around the cemetery with a middle-aged couple. “Have you considered a wicker casket?” she asked. They shook their heads and said they hadn’t realized it was even an option.

It’s more difficult than one might think to get people to consider their burials the same way they think about purchasing other goods and services that “give back,” as they do when buying organic Newman’s Own Popcorn, even though funeral arrangements are a consumer choice that may continue to help the planet long after the buyer is gone. But Beal’s efforts on what may be the ultimate “back-to-land” movement aren’t isolated, and scientists at Oregon State are also pushing conversations about how post-mortem bodies affect the earth.

“This is a blind spot,” said Dr. Noller, who added that when it comes to even basic research, scientists studying dirt are behind their colleagues who study the more poetic aspects of environment, like the sky and water. “People see air pollution,” he said. “But soil, even though it’s obviously important, it can be difficult for our species to recognize that. People really think, ‘It’s dirt to me.’”

Until a few decades ago, the U.S. funeral industry favored large metal or wooden carriers for bodies, even though they don’t break down into the earth over time. (Critics also argue that those products are costly to consumers and put profits ahead of grieving and logic.) But when these industrial caskets became popular, the concern was less with practicality or environmental externalities and more with status. It wasn’t until the 1960s that many of those practices were scrutinized, notably in Jessica Mitford’s expose, “The American Way of Death,” which led to increased regulation of the funeral industry.

Beyond burial containers, the millions of Americans who die in hospitals with not-necessarily-earth-friendly chemicals in their bodies are also a concern (not to mention the chemicals that bodies are embalmed with). And burying bodies six feet underground may not be the best choice for topsoil either; Beal and others place caskets more in the 30-inch-below range. “We have these boxes of toxic waste that have been buried underground for years,” Beal said. “It’s more complicated than people think and we’re just starting to do the research.” By using Oak Hill and expanding science, Beal and Dr. Noller are hoping for more information about how those chemicals are impacting tree root systems, topsoil, vapor, circulation, and how alternatives like natural burial could help. That, in turn, could carry implications for urban planners, insurers, and communities, particularly as cemeteries that were once rural inch closer to developments and water sources. “It might be one of the reasons we’re seeing rivers with arsenic in them,” he said.

Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Oregon accepts natural burials anywhere on its grounds, keeping in tradition with the pioneers who were buried there more than a century ago.

Clients who make that connection are generally the first to come to natural burial. “At some point, people realize they’re not going to live forever,” said David Noble, Beal’s mentor and Executive Director of the non-profit River View Cemetery in Portland. “Maybe they were environmentally friendly as a liver and realize that when they’re going to die, being soaked with embalming fluid and thrown into a concrete vault in a metal casket isn’t coinciding with their life.”

When Noble started out in the cemetery industry in the late 1970s, he said River View did about 500 casket burials a year. Today, it does only 140 burials, 40 of which are natural, as tastes have shifted more toward cremation.

“It’s a different world today,” Noble said, “But we’re still very much a death-denying society.”

At Oak Hill, Beal’s middle-aged client couple politely nodded as she explained wills, ecopods, and the options to have wildflowers or oak trees planted alongside their remains. She joked with them about how her business plan uses “the homeowner association model” — she does regular grounds maintenance to make people sure that when they buy a spot, it will stay consistently tranquil. “But the homeowners are, well, dead.”

After her potential clients went on their way, Beal led me into a nearby showroom where she told me that she avoids being a pushy salesperson, particularly considering the taboos and emotions around death. The earliest adopters are not those closest to death, she said. “I get a lot of questions from the people who haven’t even thought [much] about it yet.”

This section of Oak Hill Cemetery is used exclusively for natural burials. The grass is mowed just twice a year in order to maintain the hill’s pastoral quality.

To her left, a large willow-woven casket rested in a corner and an array of acorn-shaped fiber urns were perched on a shelf. She adjusted some palm-sized clay jars, intended to hold a small handful of ashes. Her customers have spanned all walks of life, Beal told me. “Many of my natural-material coffins have been sold into the Midwest and Southern Bible Belt states. A number of her customers grew up in Europe, “where woven coffins were common.” She still displays at trade shows and plans to open a pop-up gallery in Eugene to display her own designs at some point in the near future. “It changes when people feel like they’re buying a work of art, or supporting an artist,” she said.

For Gary LeClair and his wife Janice Friend, a longtime interest in natural burials turned to action while doing routine estate planning. LeClair, 72, a retired physician in Springfield, Oregon, said he had some heart problems that got him thinking about how best to leave the couple’s affairs in order for their three children. Throughout his life and career, he said he championed right to die legislation and environmental causes, and as the pair began to look at cemeteries and funeral homes, he was disappointed by the options. Neither he nor his wife want to be cremated, concurrent with her Jewish faith, but the idea of a durable, stainless steel, waterproof coffin for $15,000, he said, “seemed obscene to me, a total denial of the fact you’re going to be dead.”

LeClair said that he has “been interested in ashes to ashes, dust to dust for years,” and in addition to purchasing two plots at Oak Hill, LeClair and his wife purchased two biodegradable coffins made from African wood. “They’re out in my shop now,” he said. “I’m sure people think that’s a little weird.” They also wanted a site where loved ones could visit, so the couple ordered a bench with a customized engraving. To avoid embalming, he hopes to have a service at home and be transported immediately to Oak Hill.

“The simplicity of natural burial appeals to me,” LeClair said. “I want to let the others focus on their grief without having to be distracted by, ‘Oh, Dad would have wanted the purple-lined casket or the plain wood box.’ It’s stupid. When you’re dead, you’re dead. Focus on the people who are left. My wife and I are emotional people, but we’re logical. We plan to be the same way in death as we were in life.”

Even with people like LeClair and Friend planning for natural burials, Beal has found the funeral business is slow to shift, in part because people make end of life decisions in advance. “How is an industry going to change its infrastructure when you have decades of pre-ordered cars?” she mused. “You have to fill the orders for the 1987 model now. It would be like all of us driving Pintos today.” Things are moving more slowly than she’d anticipated, but they are still moving.

In the next year, Beal wants to expand her offerings to allow friends and families to do services at home, like the one LeClair wants. She’s trying to get more cemeteries educated on natural burials, and expand her casket and urn offerings with U.S.-based artists. “I’m in this for the long haul,” she said. “I imagine in another ten years this movement will step into its own. Several years ago, the Baby Boomer generation hit sixty. We may be living longer, but we’re still going to stop living eventually. And there will be a lot more of us doing that than there ever has been. We will not see a return to full body burials using metal caskets in concrete vaults in the U.S.; I believe those days are over. My market is coming. It’s as inevitable as death and taxes.”

And the science fiction novel, she said, “is still a work in progress.”

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