What we call green burial -- that is, the burial of an unembalmed body that's placed in a basic, biodegradable casket which is then lowered into a vault-free grave, usually in a natural setting -- is seen in our CyberAge as a novel approach to handling the dead.
But, as several people I interview in Grave Matters point out, it's nothing new, bizarre or even remarkable. In the early years of this country, such natural return simply defined the standard American Way of Death. It was the norm, not the exception.
In more rural regions, the practice -- and the embrace of an organic philosophy of life that undergirds it -- endured well into the 20th century.
One of the more powerful, personal narratives about those earlier rural customs comes from the late Rufus Morgan, an Episcopal minister and renowned naturalist from the backwood mountains of North Carolina. In the early 1970s, when Rufus was in his 80s, he sat down with the student writers of the Foxfire books to tell them about the funerals and burials he witnessed as a young man. There's no indication of the exact years he refers to in this passage, though I'd imagine they extend into the 1930s or '40s:
"I really wish that the same burial customs prevailed now as then. . . . . [T]he neighbors would come in during a sickness, and then in death, and they would lay out the corpse and dress him – get him ready for burial. And a neighbor carpenter would make the coffin, and neighbors would dig the grave, and the coffin would be taken to the churchyard or cemetery in a farm wagon drawn by horses or mules. Then the remains would be buried by the minister; sort of a very simple -- and to my way of thinking, more reverent than the present -- practice."
"There wasn't any idea of a metal casket or a means of preserving the remains because, as the scripture says, 'Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.' And I'd much rather think of my body as just going back to the earth where it came from and fertilizing some tree or the grass or flowers, than just having a metal box with me inside preserved like a mummy."
As much as anything I’ve read or written myself, that last sentence of over thirty years ago could serve as a perfect manifesto for the green burial movement of today.
Rufus passed away in 1983, not quite reaching his 100th birthday. Thanks to the ongoing work of the Foxfire project, his views on old-time burials live on in Foxfire 2 (Anchor, 1973) .
As a kid, I was enthralled by the Foxfire project, an effort by a Georgia English teacher and his students to interview old-timers living in the nearby Appalachian Mountains and document their history and passing traditions. (Click here to learn more about its continuing work.)
In fact, I’d read this entry when the book first appeared in the early 1970s. I’d forgotten about it until Lisa Carlson, author of Caring for the Dead (Upper Access, 1997), mentioned it in a recent listserv posting. Thanks to her for the lead.