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Friday, August 08, 2008

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.

A number of people checked in to comment on Thomas' post. One of the most thoughtful comes from Billy Campbell, founder of the Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first natural cemetery in the United States. I'm reposting his comments below.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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.


admin said...

During my tour of natural burial grounds in the UK I was struck by the wide variety of memorialization options present in the different woodland cemeteries there. I spoke with a number of people, and read the thoughts of a great many more. Many had strong opinions about what should and shouldn't -- or would and wouldn't -- be "allowed" to be placed on the graves. But what I came away with was a strong sense that there was no single "right" way to provide the memorial -- instead, there are a variety of philosophies and desires, and the task seems to be to match ourselves up with the land-management styles that resonate with who we are and what we want our final acts to "say."

Some people tell me "I want to disappear completely" - they should pick a spot where they're permitted (by the contracts they sign) to be anonymous and melt away unseen, if that's their choice. Others say they want their great, great grandchildren to come and "visit them," and they should pick a spot where the form of memorial they choose is going to endure. What I'd be sad to see would be the dominance of the one who enforces the anonymity, or the other who prohibits it, to the exclusion of others' desires or needs.

We've spent too long a time in the conventional funeral model as it is, where all we've been allowed is the narrow range of expression provided by an industry too reminiscent of the automobile production assembly line, complete with its stamped steel boxes and cemetery parking lots, that still makes the assumption that its double-box system with its permanent lawn and obligatory granite tombstone are all that anyone "should" ever want or need.

And so whether it be as a restoration project, arboretum, orchard, cornfield, forest, prairie, park, conservation preserve, sculpture garden, wildlife habitat, brownfields reclamation, art walk, urban growth boundary holder, or some other "Maker of Place" --- each of these landscape forms explicates a particular function, and it seems to be the purpose of that function that attracts the imagination of the person who wants to invest in supporting it, and -- to me -- it makes the intent of the person who chooses to be there the most important element in the process. Choice may take awhile for us to get used to, but I bet we can handle it.

Thomas' concern about utilitarian disposal is someone else's joy at returning unmarked into the stuff from whence they came. Billy's concern about replicating useful ecological function is someone else's loss of a sculptural placement opportunity, a statement about the value of the non-essential (whimsy, for example) or reverence for the act of the impassioned human hand.

Who's to say one trumps the other?

It's my hope that land managers will conceive of and develop the types of projects they want to nurture over time, and that people will pick the places and land-management styles that speak to them. In the long run, no matter what form the biological or anthropogenic "decor" takes, the fact remains -- if the body returns fully to the soil and feeds the elemental bed it sprang from in the first place, the primary act has been accomplished: the "stuff" has been put back, and some other part of nature can pick it up and take its turn.

admin said...

sorry - I forgot to sign my comment above --

Cynthia Beal

Billy C said...

Cynthia Beal’s response raises interesting questions about personal choice and aesthetics vs community and ecological values.

Beal is correct in saying that the decision to return the body to the ground without embalming is critical for greening up funerals and burials. However, her statement here seems to go further and makes the leap that other than simple natural burial, all else is little more than personal choice: the values of the (biodegradable) burial vessel, of what type of setting to be buried in, the type of marker etc., are relative to the person making the decision, and have no significant intrinsic value that would allow a judgment of “good, better, best”. Choices should not be judged better or worse (in terms of being “green”), only different.

To make judgments otherwise-that certain choices are better ecologically and deserving of special status-would be elitist (a description we have already heard in reference to Memorial Ecosystems and the Green Burial Council).

We stand by the idea that in ecological terms, simple natural burial is much better than contemporary burial; natural burial that protects native vegetation is even better, and that conservation burial-burial that saves and restores significant habitat-is the best option for those who want a green burial option.

The real danger here is that if “natural burial” is whatever anyone personally thinks it is, then the term has no real meaning. This is not unlike the early “organic” food movement before standards were in place.

Who is to say that ecologically functional markers “trump” those that are not? Well, if the idea of natural burial is to be as environmentally/ecologically friendly as practicable, then ecologically functional markers are by definition “better”. Ecological functionality does not mean that memorials cannot be artful, anymore than the sonnet’s structure and rules made Shakespeare less artful, or that Basho was disabled by the haiku structure. I find Beal’s argument to the contrary a real head-scratcher. It would be like saying that organic farms that protect wildlife and soils are no better (in ecological terms) than those that do not….

Perhaps we need to define our terms here. Community values in the general sense are not innately scientific- something we derive from objective study-but cultural, involving complex histories and a multitude of factors. For example, care for future generations beyond our own is a general cultural value, even if for many, the value means immediate family only, or on a national level is translated into acquiring a massive military including a nuclear arsenal.

Scientific study-involving measurable outcomes- can help inform and even transform what the community specifically values. The science of ecology, including the recent offsprings conservation biology and restoration ecology, give us hard data to measure the effects we are having on the natural environment, as well as options for reducing or reversing some of the damage.

It is interesting that Gallup polls show that most Americans are far more worried about toxics and pollution than they are about endangered species and habitat protection (12th on a list of 13 items). Ms. Beal’s focus on toxics and apparent devaluing of cemetery-as- habitat puts her squarely in the mainstream of public opinion.

Obviously, this is not an either-or situation, but most of those in ecological sciences reverse the priority list, and see habitat protection (including protection against toxics) as the most important environmental issue.

We all make decisions based on a number of factors and values-not just environmental and ecological concerns. I live in rural SC, and do a lot more driving than necessary in a place like Beale’s Portland Oregon, with its great public transportation system. However, individual aesthetics and culture do count, and to this extent I could not agree with Ms. Beal more.

We think it would be a mistake to “guilt” people into accepting natural burials, or to suggest that how they buried their momma was “wrong”. My own father is buried in a small Methodist cemetery in a pea-gravel-covered lot, and my beloved aunt recently led the effort to erect a chain-link fence around the historic graveyard.

It is also true that “cheap” and “green” are not the same thing. It is not our business to chide people about spending too much money on things like caskets. That, I presume, is the job of the FCA (apologies to Josh).

But if we are talking about which options are the “greenest”, we can measure outcomes in terms of dollars spent and environmental work accomplished. I’m sorry, Cynthia, but creating an orchard is not as ecologically valuable as re-creating a prairie or forest. I know: my family runs a 17 acre apple orchard. Why not a green-burial golf course, or green-burial mall parking-lot tree-island?

These are choices we can accommodate just as we accommodate conventional burial, but to say it is all the same, that conservation burial is just another individual choice among equals belittles the hard work and financial investment that it takes to do conservation burial. More importantly, it clouds the water for the public, and creates unfair competition against those of us trying to do something more ecologically significant. If it is all basically the same after we make the decision to not use embalming fluid and metal caskets, why pay more for conservation burial plots?

For example, consider a funeral chain that destroys an existing natural landscape, creates a project with 5 times the density of a conservation burial ground, with a minimalist “arboretum” including non-native and even invasive species. The net effect on the existing environment is negative-even when considering the avoided toxics (that could also have been avoided at a competing conservation burial ground). The corporation can sell the plots at the same or lower prices, will have a lower threshold for profitability and a much higher long term return on investment than for a projects doing true conservation.

I am not saying that such cut rate operations should not exist, but consumers need to be able to compare apples to apples. The above examples are not the same in terms of being green. Not even close.

While I do not have a dog in the fight (we do not sell caskets), and with all due respect to Cynthia, I think (at this point) hand-made pine boxes are often a lot greener than the Eco-pods she sells. Eco-pods are beautiful and made of re-cycled materials and undeniably greener than metal caskets, but they are certainly not the greenest option available. They are currently imported and cost about what the plot, grave opening and closing and marker do at Ramsey Creek. I do not object to Eco-pods in general, but I do object to the idea that they are the epitome of green burial vessels. When the Eco-pod people approached us several years before Cynthia, we turned them down-because we wanted to focus on the land end of things, and because we did not think that the option was all that green for the price.

Not long ago, I had a call from National Geographic, from a woman working on a story on green caskets. When she asked me, I talked about plain pine boxes made from wood that was harvested from sustainably managed woodlands. As I explained, the income from such woodlands could help family farms survive and be more wildlife friendly, etc. The idea is that natural burial and its resultant supply chains should have a multiplier effect if possible. The marginal income from green certified wood sales and caskets could help leverage much larger tracts of land than you might expect. Getting the wood and caskets locally decreases the carbon budgets and helps build community support for the projects….”Actually”, she said, “I was looking for something a little more cutting edge”. Miraculously, my head did not explode.

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Thomas Friese said...

Billy, I particularly like your observations on the “re-storying” aspect of restoration ecology -without a consistent multigenerational human engagement, one cannot expect to naturalize/restore/recreate a landscape in any intended direction, be it back to its former wild condition, its former cultured condition or to a new state altogether. Since you prioritize the ecological benefits of natural burial, the particular forms of “natural” landscape one tries to achieve from the process are important to you. I, on the other hand, am more interested in the cultural and spiritual benefits of this return to nature per se – we emphasize different benefits from the same process.

So that we understand each other, I require a short digression…. Though I share your goal of returning the planet to more natural ways (intentionally vague words), I am more focused on the human cultural and spiritual aspects of burial, since I believe the earth will take care of herself and the real danger posed is to the human realm.

In my world-view, the earth is a far more intelligent and resilient being than the human species which momentarily lives on and of it. Her life span is of a different level of magnitude than our species’. With respect to her, we are temporary guests, as individuals and even as a species. And even though our recent generations seem to be (indeed, are) rapists and pillagers of their own mother, I still believe that the earth is essentially in control of its own geological and ecological evolution, and that she is presently undergoing an especially rapid and dramatic phase of change - a complete change of clothing, a new incarnation, if you like. Of course this has happened many times before, without human “help”, before humans even existed. I see the human species as a relatively unconscious agent of the present changes our earth is going through – and only one of many agents: our actions and their effects (CO2-induced global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation etc etc) complement or counteract other forces like vulcanism, magnetic pole movement, astronomical precession, “natural” elements of global warming, and so on. The earth wants and needs to change, it is an important moment for her, and we are called, forced, to participate.

Our role in these changes includes a real, though limited and usually over-rated, element of free will – we can do more or less, better or worse things to help her achieve a new state of equilibrium. But we should not presume to know what she wants – long ago, Nietszche said that above all we should never doubt the will of the earth, it is her will that counts and will be effective, not ours. Who knows, she may want, may need desertification, flooding, a warmer temperature, no more ice caps. Why not? Let’s not be small-minded, just because it is inconvenient for us, one of her many ephemeral guests. Time and destiny gave her the Sahara where a rain forest grew for millions of years, it gave her ice ages and mass extinctions – these are facts we view reluctantly or deny.

But, as a hypothetical example of our potential role, I would guess she probably does not want vast areas spoiled for eons by nuclear or chemical pollution. Or perhaps she does want some of her former fauna and flora preserved, at least certain parts of it. Here, in the few choices we can effectively make, as consciously as possible, is where our ability to help or hurt the earth begins and ends. The rest is up to her and higher forces of the universe. Whatever, we cannot hope to preserve her as she is, that would be titanic presumption, impossible, and in any case against her will. So what can we do?

Firstly, we should believe in her – she is infinitely longer-lived, smarter and more powerful than us and in the end she has always been and will continue to be able to look after herself.

Secondly, we should try to understand what she wants and aid her according to our modest means – this is tricky terrain, I know, and vulnerable to all sorts of self-serving justifications.

Thirdly, we should be realists rather than idealists, and learn to accept what we cannot save, adapt where there is no other choice. Or we will waste our energies defending the indefensible.

Lastly – this is my priority – we must act vigorously to ensure our own cultural and spiritual survival. For the first time, Man risks total destruction - physical, cultural, and spiritual. His physical survival is hopefully part of the economic/ecological plan of the earth – but who knows, the dinosaurs are now only fossils. But whether or not that survival is given in the long term, our medium term cultural survival and our spiritual survival above all is our own responsibility. Here we must act for ourselves. This is why my focus is first and foremost on perpetuity and preservation of individual and collective human heritage.

On cultural survival…. To paraphrase a favourite author of mine, ahistorical Man knows no peace; even his graves, like all his structures, are intended to last thirty years. But thirty year graves are no basis for cultural continuity and growth. For graves form the very soil of humanity - we are humans because we create humus. And not organic humus, which every plant and animal does, but cultural humus, which only humans do to any significant degree. Clearing away graves after thirty years to replace them with others, removing entire cemeteries to build gas stations, parking lots or housing developments, or worst of all, not leaving any physical memorial at all by relying entirely on ash scattering, is exactly akin to the slash and burn agriculture of the Amazon - the cultural humus that is beginning to be laid down is wiped out in one fell swoop and a basis for rich and sustained cultural diversity is precluded. Cultural desertification results. Graves (or memorial markers – cremation or burial is irrelevent IMHO, what matters is the memorial) preserve the past and thereby form the basis of culture. The longer they preserve that past, the better. The disappearance of our old cults of the dead announced the end of culture and history – if they were to start again, culture could also take new root.

On spiritual survival… In our mundane titanic age, death and graves could become the most effective access to transcendence remaining to modern man: his religions are corrupted and no longer credible, his art has become abstract, fragmented and directionless, and to make things worse, he naively believes himself the new king of the universe, with even Great Nature at his feet. The only power that remains invincible, awesome, mysterious is death – hence his exaggerated terror of it. But it is precisely in death’s invincibility, in its true and enduring mystery, that a new spirituality could take root – if, big IF, he is encouraged by cemeteries that are beautiful, that reflect transcendence, that inspire hope, that point in the direction of eternity. This requires a new vision of cemeteries and our death rituals.

Now finally I can close the circle and return to the topic of natural burials and cemeteries: I believe that part of a positive and workable new vision would be a conscious integration of Nature into the world of cemeteries and death rituals. Nature’s eternal cycles, seasonal rebirth, unblemishable inner purity, immutable laws, and intrinsic beauty can all be powerful symbols of higher order, of hope and of transcendence for man. And, especially if the intention is genuine, the ecological aspect makes the movement very marketable, which, like it or not, is critical to its success.

I hope this has explained my angle on natural cemeteries, and I welcome personal correspondence from anyone who even partially shares this vision and would like to work to make it happen.

Thomas Friese

PS. Is the LIMBO comment above not pure marketing?

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Grave Matters

Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.