Toward an Eco-Friendly Death

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |

For Dust Thou Art, and Unto Dust Shalt Thou Return

Cemeteries pollute and consume resources profligately. Three-quarters of all caskets sold in the U.S. are made of metal, said Mark Harris, the author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. Some are coated with chemicals, such as polyurethane. Beneath an average 10-acre cemetery, there’s enough coffin-wood to build 40 homes, along with enough formalin, a toxic chemical used in embalming, to fill one such house’s backyard swimming pool. Every year, cemeteries use enough cement to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit, and enough metal to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, Harris said.

But things are different at Ramsey Creek. There, the bodies are not embalmed; plus, they are buried in biodegradable materials — either an unadorned wood box or a simple shroud — and concrete and steel are not used, as they are in most traditional cemeteries, to build “burial vaults,” which reinforce the graves. The guiding philosophy is more elemental: ashes to ashes.

Ramsey Creek was the first cemetery of its kind in the country; today, nearly a dozen exist, from upstate New York to upstate Oregon, according to the Green Burial Council, which certifies burial grounds as “green.” (The Campbells had a hand in many of them, whether as consultants or as members on the board of directors.) Some call them “natural cemeteries,” while others call them “green cemeteries.” But Kimberley Campbell prefers “conservation cemetery.” (“‘Green cemetery’ sort of sounds like something you’d find in the back of my fridge,” she said.) Each conservation cemetery emphasizes a simpler, more natural way of death. “In some way, we’ve been doing natural burials for thousands of years,” Harris said. “It’s a return to a familiar, simple, basic kind of burial we used to do in this country.”

Ramsey Creek operates under environmentalist and conservationist philosophies, but the cemetery has a wider, and more mainstream, appeal. Located in upstate South Carolina, a rural area, many of its neighbors are Christian conservatives or Confederate sympathizers — neither of whom one might immediately associate with environmental movements. But Ramsey Creek attracts a cross-section of the community, across socioeconomic levels, from young married couples to baby boomers, from rich to poor, from well educated to not, Kimberley Campbell said.

Some are inspired by Genesis 3:19 — “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Others are attracted to the preserve’s aesthetic appeal, the spiritual component of becoming a part of nature, and the environmental legacy — contributing to land conservation even in death.

Conservation cemeteries attract others because they allow friends and family members to be involved in the handling of their loved ones’ deaths. Traditionally, families undertook all aspects of funeral preparation. But during the 20th century, Americans moved away from home funerals toward funeral homes as the modern funeral industry rebranded itself. Americans began to believe that paid professionals — such as embalmers—should tend to the dead.

Natural cemetery advocates, and others, argue that surrendering the duty of dressing the dead, and hosting a simple home funeral, has troublingly distanced us from death. “We used to take care of our own dead,” Campbell said, but now, “the funeral homes whisk it” — the body — “away and do their magic with it.”

“The whole process to get there is kind of macabre,” she added. “For a lot of people, it’s an alienating, very negative experience.”

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