Enduring Grave Markers and Natural Cemeteries, Continued
Returning to the debate about biodegradable grave markers sparked by Thomas Friese.
Thomas, in this reply to an earlier Grave Matters post, had argued that marking graves with such non-permanent memorials like trees, as some natural cemeteries have done, risked de-emphasizing the individuality, the importance of the deceased. A more enduring marker would, Thomas asserted, ensure that some memory of the dead would live on and that green burial wouldn't devolve into some kind of efficient, utilitarian means of body disposal.
Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
P.S. The photos of the markers here were taken during my visit to Ramsey Creek last fall.
From Billy Campbell:
Concerning the issues of conservation burial, memorials and memory.
I would like to reassure Thomas Friese that he is on the same page with many of us working on restoration ecology/natural burial. In 1996, when getting ready to launch Memorial Ecosystems, we hired a marketing company to do focus groups; these seemed to show that we would lose a significant number of our potential clients if we did not allow permanent markers. I thought that if we lost 20-40% of our potential clients, we were sacrificing a significant market share for aesthetic purity, and that allowing markers would not actually affect the ecological functionality of the projects. At the same time, I had found evidence that (at least in the Southern Appalachians and a number of other ecosystems) that forest/grassland floor stones might play important ecological roles and that human collection of these stones for building materials had actually degraded habitats for animals (including ants, which are keystone species in the southern Appalachians). Nicholas Albery of the UK's Natural Death Centre and I had an exchange about the idea-he stuck with the position that stones were bad, period.
We allow stones, but they must be in keeping with the geological context of the site, and we take great pains to ensure that the stones are "ecologically functional".
We were also looking at the idea of having what I called "life history archives" available on an information appliance that visitors could walk around with. I saw a story in the Wall Street Journal about an outfit in California (Hollywood Forever) that was already doing innovative work with what they called "Life Stories". A year or two later, I received a call from Joe Sehee (founder and director of the Green Burial Council), who was working with Tyler Cassity and Forever Enterprises at the time. It seemed like a natural-uniting Forever's technological expertise for life stories with our expertise with restoration, land selection, etc…..Unfortunately, things did not work out, to say the least. Still, Thomas is on the right track with his comments about integrating restoration with creative ways to remember.
Beyond the basic business objectives of not losing market share and basic ecological objectives of saving more land, it turns out that the relationship between effective restoration and memorialization might be deeper and more fundamental than generally recognized.
The quick version:
Bill Jordan, one of the founding fathers of modern restoration ecology, once said that land is not truly restored until we restore the ghosts. Not only the missing non-human ghosts (wolves, nearly extinct plants, etc.), but the ghosts of those humans that helped create or maintain many ecological niches, including areas like open prairie/meadows in the eastern US. Restoration ecology is "re-storying" the land as much as a technical pursuit. Without active human engagement over timescales that are several orders of magnitude beyond modern faddish attention spans, restoration attempts will fail. Restoration ecology is ultimately about people actively engaged with the landscape. The inspiration for our approach to conservation burial is the belief that one of the most powerful long-term tools for land conservation will be human ritual, and the assurance of the long term memory of people and their interaction with that landscape. This will require significant endowments, and the reliable, long-term archiving of biographical and ecological information much more detailed than that achievable with relatively anonymous, detached names and dates engraved in granite or bronze.
The longer version:
Restoration ecology has been criticized by both righteous environmentalists and "command and control" landscape architects as "mere gardening" or a dangerous distraction from real wildland preservation. Peter Del Tredici, writing in the Harvard Design Magazine (Spring/Summer 2004, "Neocreationism and the Illusion of Ecological Restoration") said: "Implicit in the proposals that call for the control and/or eradication of invasive species is the assumption that the native vegetation will return to dominance once the invasive is removed, thereby restoring the 'balance of nature.'" That's the theory. The reality is something else. Land managers and others who have to deal with the invasive problem on a daily basis know that often as not the old invasive comes back following eradication (reproducing from root sprouts or seeds), or else a new invader moves in to replace the old one. The only thing that seems to turn this dynamic around is cutting down the invasives, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species in the gaps where the invasives once were. After this, the sites require weeding of invasives for an indefinite number of years, at least until the natives are big enough to hold their ground without human assistance.
What's striking about this so-called restoration process is that it looks an awful lot like gardening, with its ongoing need for planting and weeding. Call it what you will, but anyone who has ever worked in the garden knows that planting and weeding are endless. So the question becomes: Is "landscape restoration" really just gardening dressed up with jargon to simulate ecology, or is it based on scientific theories with testable hypotheses? To put it another way: Can we put the invasive species genie back in the bottle, or are we looking at a future in which nature itself becomes a "cultivated entity?"
Tredici is wrong in stating that practitioners of restoration ecology believe that we are "restoring the balance of nature" -- defined as nature without humans, as he is wrong if he thinks he has discovered an embarrassing contradiction involving ecological restoration resembling gardening. A year before Tredici's essay in HDM, Bill Jordan, who coined the term "ecological restoration", and started the first scientific journal devoted to the subject, published a landmark book, The Sunflower Forest. Many of the ideas in the book had already been canvassed in Restoration and Management Notes (Later renamed Restoration Ecology). In it Jordan states: "Traditional forms of gardening, for example, are valuable in part because they provide a context for a creative engagement with the landscape at the level of the ecological community.
Ecological restoration, in contrast is valuable as a special form of gardening that is-or at least aims to be-explicitly noncreative with respect to objectives, neither improving on nature nor improvising on it but attempting, blankly, to copy it…..the value of the deliberately noncreative act as a stilling of the will, an expression of obedience and humility and the entrainment of consciousness to the gesture and movement of the other-an important element in religious practice-becomes clear. But this value is compromised or missed entirely so long as we insist only on the creative aspects of restoration and deny the commitment to noncreativity at its core."
Tredici cannot be blamed for hesitating to embrace a science that seems to put brilliant creatives like himself (a plant/horticultural/design specialist) in a role more akin to Irish monks copying ancient Greek texts than the Greeks that actually wrote them (although I strongly support including LSAs in large scale projects to help design the human stuff, including entrances, visitor centers, etc., to make it more interesting-this is worthy of another discussion). Others think that by working on restoration, we weaken the will to protect the last real wild areas ("we can always make more wetlands" as abused by the Bush administration).
The goal of restoration is not to develop a static, prettified simulacra or simulation of nature, but to (re)create a real, dynamic landscape that changes with time. At Fernwood Forever, the project in Marin, Tyler and company were selling "tree-spots", with the implication that the tree would be replaced with another tree if it died. The result will be more arboretum than nature preserve. Not that arboretums are bad, they just do not pass the muster as ecological restoration.
The point here is that successful restoration ecology will require the long term (many hundreds of years) involvement of human communities, something almost everyone agrees with. Jordan and others point out that North American landscapes have been affected by people for many millennia, and that human activities such as burning and clearing helped maintain niches just as beavers do, and the now extinct mega-fauna did. Yes, it is an awful lot like gardening…but more in the sense of ancient meadowlands in the UK, where the orchids and other relatively rare plants (and dependent invertebrates) depend on regular human mowing and hay-making.
The question is how do we establish durable, trans-generational links between human communities and "restoration landscapes"? It is true that we can never truly restore pre-Columbian ecological communities: many of the elements are gone, or are impractical to re-introduce except very locally (passenger pigeons, eastern wood buffalo, etc.). But restoring an "old growth" hardwood forest will by definition take a couple of hundred years; probably much longer in some situations.
A major challenge for restoration ecologists is the need to create endowments for properties scattered on a continental scale, while ensuring the long term political/community support for these projects.
In The Sunflower Forest, Jordan makes the case that human rituals and customs that link human and natural communities are essential for success. That is the case we are making, and it is very dependent on preserving memory. It is not about burying people anonymously without ritual or some tangible and accessible link to the physical memory of that person.
Intellectual foundations aside, the issue of what is an appropriate permanent marker is one that needs further discussion. For example, some cultures such as some Hispanic groups have traditionally decorated the graves with photos and other mementos. These decorations, while not in keeping with a wild aesthetic, probably do little to harm the local ecological community-while increasing the client-pool and cultural diversity of the project. Long term (over 100 years), it is unlikely that families will continue to keep us such displays. Might it be desirable in some situations to have a section of a conservation burial ground that allows more exuberant decoration-within limits?
BTW, the sweeping off of the rock on TV was a "set up" shot of a cremation scattering space-they put leaves on it for me to sweep off [From Mark: this is in response to a comment by Pete McQuillin about Billy sweeping off a grave stone at Ramsey Creek so the name could be read, in a Weather Channel segment on the Preserve]. Most of our markers are well above the surface to allow for critters under the rock. We also have a back up system with fixed reference markers entered into a GIS model and in a spread-sheet, with co-ordinates that enable us to quickly find even unmarked graves (some people do not want stones) with nothing more than a tape measure and compass. This requires far fewer markers, which can also be benches, the back corner of the chapel, etc.