Toward an Eco-Friendly Death

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |

While embalming focuses on giving the body an unnaturally “natural” appearance, green cemeteries emphasize maintaining the landscape’s natural character. Most don’t even allow the use of headstones because of their artificial appearance — and because marble headstones don’t biodegrade. Natural markers, like landmarks or indigenous rocks, can be used to find the graves, but Ramsey Creek also keeps the graves’ GPS coordinates on file. Ramsey Creek looks like a nature-preserve; you wouldn’t know, from the face of it, that people are buried there, Harris said. In contrast, the contemporary cemetery boasts a re-jiggered, manufactured landscape. “The sterility of the place—it just reminds you of death,” Campbell said.

Since the 20th century, cemeteries have also offered an opportunity to flaunt one’s status symbols in death through post-war excess. “Gradually, almost imperceptibly,” Jessica Mitford wrote in her seminal 1963 work, The American Way of Death, “the funeral men have constructed their own grotesque cloud-cuckooland where the trappings of Gracious Living are transformed… into the trappings of Gracious Dying.” Everyone could be a pharaoh if their families paid for an extravagant funeral service, a designer coffin and an opulent headstone.

The ‘American Cemetery’ is a Modern Innovation

The contemporary American cemetery, inspired by the European cemetery, is a fairly modern concept. Up until the 19th century, Europeans typically buried the dead in graveyards connected to a church, whether individually or en masse, or stored skeletal remains in catacombs and ossuaries. The earliest European settlers in America, like those in Jamestown, buried their dead within the walls of their forts — and quietly, at night, so the Native Americans wouldn’t know how many men they had lost. Later, many Americans were buried at their church, either under the floors or outdoors, in contiguous graveyards. Others were buried on their own farms. “America has a long and noble tradition of burying their own dead on their own land,” especially in rural America, Campbell said. That tradition continued in some areas well into the modern age.

But elsewhere, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries, as available land became sparser due to development and public health concerns mounted, urban planners suggested moving the dead to rural areas, away from city centers. Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, opened in 1838, is one of these “rural cemeteries,” though after 170 years of development it occupies the heart of an urban center as bustling as parts of Manhattan. Many of these rural cemeteries doubled as recreational spots. City dwellers might spend a Sunday afternoon strolling the manicured landscapes of Green-Wood as they would Prospect Park. (There’s a private cemetery in Prospect Park that predates the park’s construction; also a “rural cemetery,” it originally stood on the border of the City of Brooklyn and the Town of Flatbush.)

Europeans moved their graveyards away from city centers, as well — though not always to cemeteries. In Paris, for example, officials exhumed bodies from graveyards across the city and relocated the bones to the subterranean Catacombs of Paris, beginning in the 1780s.

Many modern American cemeteries are examples of the “lawn cemetery” model, as well. Rural cemeteries have upright, sometimes ornate, headstones, but their lawn counterparts use simple stones level with the ground. Many cemeteries combine the two models.

And now, some cemeteries have begun to incorporate a natural burial component, as well. Campbell called them “hybrid cemeteries”: places where cemetery operators have committed a few hitherto unused acres — land “without inventory,” in the industry’s lingo — for use as natural burial sites. About 20 cemeteries have done this so far, according to the Green Burial Council, and more are sure to follow. These hybrid cemeteries don’t inclue the preservation component so important to the Campbells. But they’re helping to make green cemeteries an increasingly popular burial option, one that advocates hope will become the norm.

“It’s an important wave that’s going to change American funeral practices,” Harris said. “I do think it’s a game-changer.”

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