In Winnipeg in a January blizzard, there are few places as toasty and sheltered as a crematorium. I know this because I worked in one. When the cremation chamber, or retort, is firing at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (900 Celsius), the work space is balmy, like a ski lodge. The noise of the powerful gas jets is buffered by the stone and steel of the machinery. When the gear is running, all you hear is a low, soothing rumble. It’s peaceful. I used to read Eudora Welty short stories while the body burned, stopping regularly to monitor temperatures and stoke the remains with an iron hook passed through a small, eye-level porthole in the oven door. The process is conducive to reflection.
Cremation seems clinical: fire, ashes. But in fact there is enormous spiritual heft behind it. We talk about the cleansing power of fire. As a funeral rite it goes back to the Bronze Age at least. “Fire,” writes the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “magnifies human destiny, it links the small to the great, the hearth to the volcano.” Man “hears the call of the funeral pyre” not as destruction but as a road to renewal. This is overstating the case, as French philosophers do, but it still scans. Now try saying the same about a chemical process.
Last week, I read a story about a new process called alkaline hydrolysis. In a nutshell, it’s like cremation without the fire: The body is immersed in chemicals in a cylindrical device that looks (judging from the photo, as I’ve never seen one up close) like a large telescope with an Instant Pot lid. The chemicals break down the soft tissue, which is flushed away, leaving behind bones and any non-organic residue such as tooth fillings or artificial hips. The device is called a Resomator, a Doctor-Whovian commercial euphemism for what is basically a body-dissolving machine.
Industry licensing bodies such as the Bereavement Authority of Ontario are not sure what to make of alkaline hydrolysis. Is it safe to just flush the liquefied organic material into the city sewage system? Are there health risks? Is it dangerous or just very, very creepy? Is it any creepier than cremation – or burial for that matter? For now, though, its main selling point is that alkaline hydrolysis is considered greener, or less carbon-intensive, than other methods.
According to the Ecology Action Centre, the average cemetery buries 4,500 litres of formaldehyde, 97 tonnes of steel and 56,000 board feet of hardwood per acre. A single cremation, which intuitively (and emotionally) seems so clean and efficient, uses as much fossil-fuel energy as an 800-kilometre car trip. Sulphur dioxide and mercury are released into the atmosphere, up the flue. That warm feeling on a January day in Winnipeg comes at an ecological cost.
Meanwhile, hydrolysis uses one-eighth the energy spent in cremation. There is no embalming, no casket or container. Even with cremation, there is always a container of some kind, including, in my experience, very expensive hardwood caskets with brass trimmings. So alkaline hydrolysis is marketing itself thusly: your green alternative.
When you’re dead, there are few options for what happens next. I don’t mean spiritually – that’s between you and your God or His/Her metaphysical substitute. I mean with the body. We all leave a remainder. Some more than others. You can bury it, sink it in the sea, leave it in the trees or on hilltops to be devoured by carrion birds – known technically as excarnation, a natural process of removing the flesh before earth burial (in Tibetan and Comanche cultures, known as sky burial) – or most commonly you can burn it. In Canada, the cremation rate varies by region, but in 2018 more than 61 per cent of the dead in Ontario and Manitoba and more than 71 per cent in Quebec were cremated. The national cremation rate is expected to rise to 76.9 per cent by 2023, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
For the funeral industry, cremation has always been a shoe that pinches. It’s an industry based on the pricing of intangibles: the meaning of life and death, ritual, the concept of “closure.” It has been able to translate the emotional turbulence of death into product (caskets, vaults, embalming) and real estate (cemeteries), but over the past 50 years has watched as a cultural revolution changed everything. Religion loosened its hold, and fewer people felt bound by tradition. Cremation was cheaper. People moved around – for work, for relationships – and the idea of a permanent resting place lost its appeal. Postmodernism struck the funeral industry: Meaning and ritual came down to personal taste.
So the industry reinvented itself. Funerals became “celebrations of life,” and funeral directors became event planners like those who booked weddings (and the cost of weddings, they noticed, was skyrocketing). If cremation was on the rise, it could surely be monetized: urns shaped like golf bags, garden watering cans or basketballs, depending on the hobbies of the dead in question. Cemeteries focused on marketing columbaria, the small, above-ground vaults for urns.
I once met a cemetery salesman who assured me that scattering human remains was illegal (not true) and that he himself once stepped on a human bone on a beach in British Columbia (unlikely, as most crematoria process the remains to a fine, biologically inert powder). His sales pitch was simple: Only the industry knows how to handle what we all leave behind – the rest of us are not equipped. It’s a powerful message. As Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, found out, people will pay to avoid dealing with death and will subcontract what is basically an existential puzzle (what’s to become of me?) to a professional.
But it’s possible to be too clinical. We like at least a little meaning with our rituals, especially the death rituals. “Belief in a future state,” writes Bertram S. Puckle in Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development, a 1926 text, “presupposed a material existence after death, with corresponding material necessities. Food must be provided, weapons and clothing, and a supply of charms with which to ward off evil influences.” And so even today people are buried with iPhones or cremated with a blanket from home. This is not superstition. It is about doing the right thing, even if the thing is a complete mystery. Alkaline hydrolysis is maybe too much like a chemistry experiment to bear much meaning.
And the industry continues to adapt and innovate. An Italian company used to market the Capsula Mundi, a starch-based, acorn-like pod that calls for no headstone as it, with the body, dissolves in time as compost and produces a tree. Demand, it turns out, was slim. Now the company offers an egg-like urn for cremated remains that does the same job for US$457 – tree not included. (But again, there’s the carbon footprint of the cremation itself.)
Straight-up green burial – in a shroud, with no embalming, in a legally designated forest (the law frowns on “freelance” burial) – is sparsely available. The industry has never embraced it.
Maybe it expects greater things from alkaline hydrolysis. After all, if meaning is and always will be knit deeply into our death rituals, it ticks the right boxes: In life, we rejected plastic straws and used twirly light bulbs. In death, we were thus safely melted. Carve it into your tombstone.
In a gorgeous plot of land that was once the site of the Battle of Arnhem in World War II, the Trappistine Sisters of the Abbey of Koningsoord in the Netherlands have opened a new cemetery where they will be providing natural burials.
“Natural burial” is a term that describes the burial practices of humankind for the majority of history. The process avoids embalming chemicals, as well as steel or cement vaults that are placed underground to protect the coffin from the natural course of decomposition.
These natural burials are becoming more popular today, as they are substantially more eco-friendly than the modern burial. According to Order of the Good Death, a website that supports the return to natural burial, modern burial practices can take a hefty toll on the environment, and squander valuable non-renewable and non-biodegradable resources. They write:
“American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood … 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”
At the Trappistines’ new cemetery, known as Koningsakker — King’s Field — the nuns are trying to remedy these ecosystem compromising factors by returning to the old methods of burial. Hettie van der Ven of Crux news reports that bodies there are not encased within a casket, but rather wrapped in a burial shroud made from linen, jute, hemp and wool that will biodegrade much faster. This avoids wasting natural resources and burying forever materials that would have impeded the decomposition process.
The sisters told Katholiek Nieuwsblad Foundation, a Dutch Catholic news organization, that they were inspired to open the cemetery by their American sister-house, The Trappistine Sisters of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Cross, in Virginia, who opened their own natural burial cemetery several years ago. The cemetery will provide the sisters with funds to sustain them, along with a book bindery and a restoration workshop.
While originally intended to serve as a Catholic cemetery, Koningsakker is now a public cemetery and the nuns welcome people of all faiths and walks of life, even those who come from foreign lands. The nuns feel that this was the right way to go, as it gives their graveyard an opportunity to impact a much wider range of the community. Riny Bergervoet, the cemetery’s location manager, said:
“Natural burials are a perfect fit for this day and age. At the end of their lives, people are looking for connection with the ground they came from and on which they are living … Choosing this as a resting place is a testimony to one’s identity. People know that we are praying for them on a daily basis, which they find very uplifting.”
CruxNews reports that Koningsakker currently only has four people buried on their property, but dozens have already reserved a plot. It’s only a matter of time before this “natural cemetery” will be full of people visiting their beloved lost.
This small book, The Green Burial Guidebook by Elizabeth Fournier, is packed with helpful information and resources for anyone interested in learning more about “green burials”, and what that really means. The author speaks from experience, and lays out the information in an easy to understand and well organized way. For a subject that can seem overwhelming, this book does an excellent job of simplifying the subject.
For those ready to fully commit to this end of life scenario, there is practical advice on what to do, where to go for help as well as providing historical context and tips on the subject throughout the book. For those who are just curious, may have reservations, or have not yet thought about what their end of life may “look like”, there are explanations and options presented.
Fournier mentions “….the cultural alienation….from dying….” and all things associated with that stage of life. Western society, by in large, has turned over the handling of death to others rather than embracing it. The author invites the reader to take ownership of the choices and the outcome in advance. We could look to the practices of some other cultures to remind ourselves how to cope with this inevitable life event in a thoughtful, considerate, and personal manner.
What the author does in this book more than anything is to prompt us to think about our death and how we want it handled. To make choices, and plans ahead of time so that not only are our wishes honored, but also so that family and friends are not left with hard decisions at a time when they may be least prepared for it. Green burials provide an alternative that can be comforting and healing for friends and family, and also provide a much less invasive choice for the environment and the earth itself.
A great read for those wishing to become more informed on the subject at whatever level.
* Special correspondent, Jean Campbell has no qualifications to justify or explain why she should be reviewing books other than we all have opinions, and this is hers.
Initially, the cemetery in Rhinebeck, New York, appears conventional: businesslike granite squares placed in rows, flags and silk flowers sticking up here and there, grass mowed tight all around.
In one corner, however, a walking path roped off from vehicles invites visitors to stroll into the woods. The area looks wild, but it turns out to be part of the cemetery. A hardwood sign marks it the “Natural Burial Ground.” Cherry, beech, and locust trees stretch tall. Ferns cover the ground. The sweetness of phlox, a purple wildflower, wafts in the air. The lawn portion suddenly looks as contrived as a golf course.
“It’s stark, isn’t it?” Suzanne Kelly, the cemetery’s administrator, says of the contrast. On a spring day, she’s taking us on a tour of the natural section she helped establish in 2014. We step in and she starts describing the deer, wild turkeys, and songbirds that pass through (and also warns us about a poison ivy patch). About 100 yards in, we start to see mounds and a few small fieldstones, some engraved with simple words like “Dear Nature, Thank You, Evelyn.” These 10 acres have been permanently set aside for bodies to be buried without the chemical embalming, nonbiodegradable caskets, or concrete vaults that often accompany the modern American way of death.
Kelly is a thoughtful Gen X academic-turned-garlic-farmer-turned-green-burial-activist-and-expert. She remembers first feeling disconnected from standard funerals when her father died in 2000. She stared at the vinyl carpet covering his deep concrete vault and wondered what all the trappings of her dad’s Catholic service were for.
“The idea of ‘dust to dust’ seemed to be missing,” Kelly remembers. “Even though we were standing at the grave saying those words, we were not living those words.”
After moving back to the Hudson Valley in 2002, Kelly joined Rhinebeck’s cemetery advisory committee. She hoped to create options for people who wanted highly personal burials that connected to the earth. Since then, Kelly has positioned the Rhinebeck natural burial ground at the forefront of a growing international movement to reclaim death by bringing back burial traditions that are more environmentally friendly, more personalized, and more connected to place.
In 2015, Kelly wrote Greening Death, the definitive book on the grassroots efforts behind the movement. “The impetus has been to make death more environmentally minded, less resource-intensive, and less polluting,” she says. “And to tie us back to the land.”
While Stiles Najac buried her partner in March, she found that the Rhinebeck ground gave her an unexpected peace. Najac was nine months pregnant with their son when her partner, Souleymane Ouattara, died by suicide last fall. Six months of bureaucratic complications followed before Najac could lay him to rest. (A medical examiner stored Ouattara’s body in a cooler, a common preservation method before natural burials.) Ouattara was an Ivory Coast native, and his Muslim family wanted Islamic “dust to dust” burial traditions, which typically eschew vaults.
So on a crisp day, Ouattara’s friends and family traversed the burial ground’s muddy lane to a chosen spot in the sun. They lowered his body into the ground using straps.
“It added another level of connection,” Najac says. “People actually returned him to the earth.”
As sunlight flickered through the branches, each mourner had a chance to speak. Ouattara’s uncle had plainly felt the stigma of a family suicide. As the service went on, Najac watched his demeanor change. His nephew was still beloved.
Afterward, though lunch was waiting, everybody lingered. “We were nestled in the trees, which create warmth on even the coldest day,” Najac remembers. “I had that feeling of comfort and acceptance. This was nature’s home.” She plans to bring their exuberant baby son, Zana, to picnic in the woods with friends in the warmer months near his dad.
Since the Civil War, American death rituals have become increasingly elaborate, complete with artificial embalming, concrete vaults, and satin-lined metal caskets. But in 1963, writer Jessica Mitford’s witty exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, sold every copy the day it was published. (Spoiler: Plenty of material is wasted along the way, but lavishly buried bodies still decay, perhaps even more spectacularly than their pine-boxed counterparts.) The book changed the way Americans thought about funerals and contributed to the growth of cremation rates, from 2% then to more than 50% today.
Still, cremation has limitations in both cost and impact. In 2017, the median cost of an American funeral with viewing and vault was $8,755, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The median cost of a comparable cremation wasn’t dramatically less, at $6,260.
In the age of climate change, environmental concerns have also prompted more people to cremate. For example, a conventional burial contributes to the production of about 230 pounds of CO2 equivalent, according to Sam Bar, quality assurance and manufacturing engineer at Green Burial Council, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for “environmentally sustainable, natural death care.” But burning isn’t as eco-friendly as many assume. Cremation relies on fossil fuels, produces about 150 pounds of CO2 per body, and releases mercury and other byproducts into the air. Burning one body is equivalent to driving 600 miles. And scattering “cremains” isn’t good for soil.
Then a couple decades ago, activists on both sides of the Atlantic came up with similar alternatives to the $20 billion funeral industry: What if we returned to burial practices that allowed bodies to decompose naturally? And what if lands could be preserved in the process? The author and social innovator Nicholas Albery helped establish “woodland burials” in the United Kingdom in 1994. The first similar but independently generated concept in the United States was Ramsey Creek Preserve, established in South Carolina in 1998. Billy and Kimberley Campbell are proud that it is now a dedicated Conservation Burial Ground, with a permanent land trust agreement. “Instead of wasting land, you’re actually protecting ecologically important land,” Billy says.
Whether next to a regular cemetery or on conserved land, there are now around 218 natural burial grounds in the U.S. , up from around 100 just five years ago. The Green Burial Council certifies about one-third of them. (New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy keeps a longer list that includes grounds not certified by the Green Burial Council, while other burial sites remain unreported.)
The Green Burial Council holds dual nonprofit status: a 501(c)(6) that certifies grounds and a 501(c)(3) that conducts education and outreach. The organization formed in response to the growing green burial movement and has since become the standard bearer of, and leading authority in, the U.S. movement. That’s no mean feat, given the divisions of purpose that have fragmented the nascent industry in the past. Lee Webster, director of the Green Burial Council’s education and outreach arm, says parts of the early movement were “very elitist,” and there is still a lot of confusion around terminology and standards.
The Green Burial Council currently has three certification standards for green-burial grounds. Certified “hybrid cemeteries” are modern cemeteries that reserve space for burials without embalming or concrete vaults (each year, burials in the U.S. use more than 827,000 gallons of dangerous chemicals and 1.6 million tons of concrete, materials that can be toxic to produce and damaging to the environment). Certified “natural cemeteries” prohibit the use of vaults and toxic chemical embalming. And certified “conservation burial grounds” meet the other requirements of hybrid and natural cemeteries plus establish a land trust that holds a conservation easement, deed restriction, or other legally binding preservation of the land.
Webster spent three years on the Green Burial Council board through 2017 and returned earlier this year to help steer education and outreach. “Because of the myth people have been sold about vaults and caskets, we have to reeducate people on the safety of bodies being buried in the ground without all the furniture,” she says.
The Council updated its standards this spring to better align them with land trust and land management conservation practices. Establishing a land trust for a burial ground lends legitimacy to what’s still a niche movement, in addition to preserving the land and creating a potential revenue stream—crucial at a time when cemetery funding is short (in large part because increasing U.S. cremation rates have cut burial-plot revenues).
As private and municipal-run burial grounds fill up, they can’t keep adding bodies, which means they have to dip into endowments to fund operations, Webster says. It’s not uncommon for a private cemetery to be abandoned when it runs out of money, at which point a nearby municipality often takes over, stretching funds even thinner.
To advocates like Webster, land conversation is the future of green burial. “The way it’s been approached has been to see it from a cemeterian’s point of view rather than a conservation point of view,” she says. “We’re going back now to encourage more land trusts to participate in this and understand how burial can be a conservation strategy.”
Others are going even further. In May, Washington became the first state to legalize body composting as an alternative to cremation or casket burial, a process pioneered by the Seattle-based company Recompose. Other companies offer still more unusual methods of handling human remains: You can have your body mummified, dissolved in water and lye, buried in a pod and planted with a tree, “promessed” (frozen, vibrated into dust, dehydrated, and reintegrated into soil), or put into the ground with a burial suit embroidered with mushroom-spore thread.
Webster believes that body composting and other methods of reintegrating human remains into the environment are “the answer” for urban settings, where burial space is increasingly scarce. So why keep advocating for natural burial grounds like the one in Rhinebeck? It’s the potential they hold for land conservation that’s exciting, she says, and remembrance ceremonies can become new ways to engage with the land.
On the day we visited the Rhinebeck natural burial ground, two people bicycled on the pathway through the woods. Although they’d heard the site was a cemetery, they were using it as they’d use any public park.
“Conservation is about people needing and caring for land,” Webster says. “They’re going to conduct life-affirming activities: Getting married there, baptisms, confirmations, bird-watching, hiking, family picnics—all kinds of things are happening in these spaces because they’re conservation spaces first. That’s the value of it.
“It’s not just that we’re going to put people in the ground without concrete. It’s about the big picture and how it affects people, the way we relate to death but also the way we relate to each other in life.”
There is disagreement within the movement on how best to grow. The values driving green burial suggest there should be more conservation cemeteries, but to meet that standard usually requires starting a new cemetery rather than converting or hybridizing an existing one. That costs a lot of money and requires securing new land and going through a complicated zoning process. To date, the Green Burial Council has certified only six conservation cemeteries in the U.S., compared to 35 hybrid cemeteries.
Cynthia Beal, of the Natural Burial Company in Eugene, Oregon, is a vocal proponent for converting existing cemeteries to natural burial spaces. That averts the zoning issue and provides an educational opportunity for the community.
“If you’re coming into a situation where the cemetery has been abandoned or poorly cared for and you make natural burial its new focus, you’re likely to have neighbors as advocates, happy to see the grounds renewed and the place cared for again,” Beal says. “Every cemetery is unique, telling its own stories of a community’s establishment and growth, and that history is also worthy of stewardship.”
Webster, for her part, is pragmatic about the challenge: While it would be great for more conservation cemeteries to come online, practices at local cemeteries should be improved in the meantime. That would also increase education and access.
“A sense of place is critically important to this,” she says. “I’m not going to [be driven] 300 miles to be buried in a green cemetery. My family is going to associate me with here, where we lived.”
Even in places like Rhinebeck that build at least partly on existing cemetery infrastructure, establishing green-burial sites takes time. Ramsey Creek Preserve was easier, Kimberley Campbell says, because South Carolina didn’t bother regulating. “I called down to the funeral board and got a delightful secretary,” Kimberly remembers. “She said, ‘The cemetery board has shut down. … I think what you are doing sounds marvelous, and there is absolutely nothing to stop you.’”
For Rhinebeck administrator Kelly, using municipal land didn’t require raising the $50,000 in trust for upkeep that is standard in many places. Still, it had to be planned, bid, surveyed, plotted, and certified, which took around five years.
The payoff of a natural burial ground can be big for a community. Gina Walker Fox, a Rhinebeck real estate agent, says she feels more comfortable with death for having bought a plot. (At 61, she recently asked a local quilter to sew her a raw-linen shroud, which she plans to embroider with a symbolic river.) Fox’s plot is near a blackcap raspberry bush she knows her adult children will want to visit.
“That old way—where people pick berries, sit, visit, picnic—that speaks to me,” she says.
Kelly laughs when we ask where she’ll be buried. She hasn’t picked or purchased a spot yet. Even a green-burial activist can feel like she has plenty of time to live.
“Once in a while,” she says, “I come by here and think I should probably get around to getting a plot.”
If you’re planning a traditional Western funeral for a loved one, burial according to industry standards will cost you — in more ways than one. The materials typically used in the process, from embalming chemicals to casket varnishes and sealants, can seep into ground, polluting the water that you use every day.
In addition, U.S. cemeteries contain an estimated 15 tons of casket steel, enough to build almost all of the skyscrapers in Tokyo, according to TalkDeath, an online community dedicated to encouraging positive conversations around death and dying. Even cremation — often considered one of the most environmentally friendly options — spews fossil fuels into the atmosphere.
So what’s an eco-conscious funeral planner to do? A green burial uses biodegradable materials for caskets and shuns the use of chemicals to preserve bodies. That means adopters can help save the planet while saving themselves (or their families) money in the process.
To learn more about green burials, watch the video above.