Hardly a day passes without a story on green burial making headlines. Yesterday, CNN aired a segment; Monday, a lengthy article with photographs from a recent natural burial at Ramsey Creek ran in the newspaper that serves Pueblo, Colorado.
Growing coverage of the natural burial movement suggests what I've found in my own research and travels: that green burial has mainstream appeal and will, I believe, change funeral practices in our time. In part that's because natural burial isn't just about the environment, but, as I've argued in this blog and in the book, speaks to long-held American values -- of thrift, simplicity, a respect for tradition -- that continue to have widespread currency.
That has been my gut sense from the beginning. Now, a new AARP survey gives it some validity.
Conducted last May and published in November, AARP's "Funeral and Burial Planners Survey," found that nearly a quarter of all respondents said they were "interested" or "very interested" in an eco-friendly alternative to the standard, funeral home sendoff.
The percentage is remarkable given the movement's short, ten-year history in this country and the fact that it represents the most significant change to U.S. burial practices since the Civil War.
The vast majority -- 86% -- of the AARP respondents said they'd never heard of green burial. So, most who noted that the idea intrigued them had to rely on the definition their questioners offered: "green burial tries to leave the burial site as natural as possible -- such as using a biodegradable coffin or blanket. No embalming fluids or concrete vaults are used."
The definition is accurate as far as it goes, but it hardly does justice to natural return. There's no mention of the natural state of the burial ground itself (i.e., that it typically takes root in a woodland, meadow or nature preserve). The uninformed respondent probably doesn't see the hand-painted, personalized cardboard coffin or handsome pine casket in the survey's bland mention of the green burial's "biodegradable coffin." Some of them, perhaps many, probably don't believe that it's legal -- or even preferable -- to present a body for viewing without embalming it first.
A more encompassing definition of green burial would, I believe, have produced a much higher percentage of respondents in favor of natural burial. In fact, I'm sure that would happen now if AARP were to conduct that very same survey today, which would take in all the media stories on green burial – in USA Today, Chicago Tribune, CNN – that have appeared since AARP dialed out last May.
Note on the photo above. This was taken at Glendale Nature Preserve, a natural cemetery that sits on a 70-acre expanse of creeks, ponds and woods on the Florida Panhandle.
Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)