Ashes-only Cemetery Greens up German Funeral Practices
Axel Baudach consecrated the second of his ashes-only woodland cemeteries in North America two weeks ago (the subject of last week's post). But the genesis of his EcoEternity concept takes root some two decades earlier, when Axel attended the funeral of his grandfather at a small cemetery in Germany.
The funeral and burial were in keeping with Protestant tradition in the northern part of his home country, says Axel, a former financier with Deutsche Bank who was born and raised in Berlin. The director of the funeral home, which Axel describes as "sad and dark and old," delivered the unembalmed, wood-casketed body to the cemetery chapel. There, a Lutheran pastor from the area gave a somewhat generic, 10-minute eulogy, based on a brief conversation beforehand with Axel's family.
After a few hymns and prayers, pallbearers hired by the funeral director carried the casket out to the church graveyard, a landscape of headstones where, says Axel, "we were reminded of death and dying wherever we went.” The coffined remains of Axel's grandfather were then lowered into the vaultless grave, a handful of sand tossed into the hole.
For a grieving Axel, the whole affair was impersonal, sterile and not at all celebratory of the man he knew in life. When it was over, he had one thought: "When I die, I don’t want this to happen to me."
Axel found a picture of a better way to go when, trolling the Internet shortly after the funeral, he stumbled upon a company in Switzerland that opened forestland in the Alpine country to the burial of ashes. Axel visited the founder, Ueli Sauter, and, soon afterward, transplanted the concept onto German soil. The first EcoEternity Forest – FriedWald, in German -- opened in November of 2001.
Axel sites his green cemeteries on parcels owned by federal, state and municipal governments in Germany. From them, he leases acreage that's both popular with German hikers and best suited for a cemetery ground (i.e., offering prime vistas and easy accessibility). A naturalist inventories and then marks with colored bands trees that families may select for grave sites. No plastic flowers or headstones are allowed. Trees may be tagged with small markers.
Keeping in mind his grandfather's mortician-directed funeral, Axel encourages families coming to his forests to take control of the funeral service themselves. And they have. Funerals in the German FriedWalds typically feature families reading, playing music, and carrying the urn into the woods themselves. "Very often families will open a bottle of wine or champagne and toast the deceased at their tree," he says. "The sound of glasses clinking in the forest is so moving. It's very emotional."
Axel's green, personal approach to burial has caught on in a big way with his fellow Germans. Today, EcoEternity manages some 30 memorial forests all over the country; another 150 similar projects, not overseen by Axel, are in operation as well. A recent newspaper poll found that a third of all Germans are considering the EcoEternity option for their final return. "That survey shows that funeral traditions in Germany are changing,” says Axel. "There's a need for our forest concept."
Axel is hoping for a similar welcome in the U.S. He opened the first EcoEternity Forest last fall in Loudon Country, Virginia. The Pocono Plateau, which opened two weeks ago, is the first of three planned for eastern Pennsylvania by the end of the year. Also in the works are projects in the Virginia tidewater region and in North Carolina.
Note: The photos above were taken in the German Friedwalds.
Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)