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Monday, December 22, 2008

Open Letter in Favor of Green Burial in Bibb County, Georgia

The fight for a green goodnight in Macon, Georgia, continues.

You may remember my blog entry from earlier this year, in which I reported on the efforts of Jim Wood and Beth Collins to site a green cemetery on a fifty-seven-acre pine forest on the eastern edge of Macon. Despite some local opposition and after numerous appearances before county planning and zoning commissioners, Jim and Beth finally gained the permit to open and operate Summerland Natural Cemetery.

Last month, however, the Bibb County board of commissioners passed amendments to the county cemetery code that would effective ban green cemeteries -- and thus Summerland itself -- entirely from Bibb County.

Below is the letter I sent to the commission, asking that it reconsider its action.

Heading this blog is a photo of Summerland, courtesy of Beth Collins.

Back with a post in January.

December 22, 2008

To: Board of Commissioners, Bibb County, Georgia
In Re: Ordinance Amending Bibb County Code, Chapter 20, Cemeteries

Dear Commissioners:
I am writing to ask that you reconsider your recent amendments to the Bibb County Code that pertain to cemeteries (Chapter 20).

I am an environmental journalist and the author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (2007, Scribner). The book examines the negative environmental impact of modern funeral practices and advocates for more natural, ecological-friendly alternatives. One of those alternatives is burial in a "green" cemetery, which your ordinance would ban from Bibb County.

Josh Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance has already spoken to the more egregious provisions of the ordinance. I won’t repeat them here, but will confirm Slocum’s well-articulated arguments, particularly in regards to the ordinance's requirement that remains be buried in a "leak-proof casket or vault." There is, as he notes, no such container. My own research found that the elements in the environs of the grave will eventually degrade any casket and likewise open cracks in any burial vault. Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission has acknowledged as much, prohibiting funeral directors from making claims to the contrary. Your requirement for leak-proof burial containers thus can’t be met, and, as such, effectively prohibits any new cemetery, green or otherwise, from being sited in Bibb Country.

What I would like to address more directly is your ordinance's seeming bias against green burial. For the last half decade I have studied the natural cemetery, as both a concept and as an actual environment, and found it to be asset to any community.

For one, the green cemetery -- that is, a natural environment in which the minimally-casketed, unembalmed dead are laid to rest in vaultless graves -- is a good use of land. Returned directly to the earth here, one's remains renourish soil, encourage the growth of vegetation and help restore land to ecological health. The result is more nature preserve than mere graveyard. In some natural cemeteries local residents treat them as such, going there for nature walks, reflection and for peaceful communion with the natural world. In the best of schemes, the natural cemetery -- by dint of its cemetery designation -- not only preserves good land from being developed into yet another strip mall or housing subdivision but works to ensures that it stays green forever. A natural cemetery in Macon wouldn't just offer families a beautiful place in which to be laid to rest: it would allow them to preserve a slice of ecological Georgia.

The natural cemetery is certainly preferable to a regular cemetery. A typical 10-acre cemetery contains enough coffin wood to construct more than forty homes, enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a small backyard swimming pool, many thousands of tons of concrete and metal and the residue of untold gallons of poisonous weed killer. As I see it, the standard cemetery functions less as a bucolic resting ground for the dead than a landfill of largely non-biodegradable and hazardous materials. Not so the natural cemetery.

In the end, the natural cemetery asks us to see death in a new light. Death is no longer the mere endpoint of a life; it's part of a larger natural cycle -- of growth and decline, of decomposition and rebirth -- that makes life on this planet possible. Instead of working to short-circuit that cycle at literally all costs -- as our modern funeral practices do, with chemical embalming, bullet-proof metal caskets, and concrete burial vaults, all of which will only delay, not halt the inevitable -- green burial says, let's let Mother Nature follow her natural course. To the benefit of the earth, of families, and, not coincidentally, our pocketbooks.

Green burial argues that our best last act may be the simple one of using what remains of our physical existence to fertilize depleted soil, push up a tree, preserve a bit of wild from being developed, and, in the process, perpetuate the cycle of life that turns to support those we leave behind. That, I contend, is lasting, noble legacy to a life well lived.

I ask that you make that possible for the families of Bibb County.

Thank you,

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters

Friday, December 12, 2008

Grave Matters: The New, Updated (and Cheaper) Paperback

Grave Matters may not exactly be a holiday read -- well, maybe it is to the readers of this blog -- but on Tuesday, almost two weeks from Christmas Day, Scribner released an updated, paperback version of the book.

The hardcover, which was published in January of 2007, chronicles the experiences of families who found in green burial a more natural, more economic, and ultimately more meaningful alternative to the tired and toxic American Way of Death. For some families that meant burying their loved ones in natural cemeteries or at sea. For others it involved conducting home funerals, hiring local carpenters to furnish simple pine boxes, maybe casting ashes into memorial reefs.

The paperback gave me an opportunity to update that material and to report on the phenomenal growth of the green burial movement.

New material in the paperback, in part, includes:
* Profiles of nearly two dozen natural cemeteries that have sprung up around the country
* Lists of almost 40 home funeral providers from coast to coast
* Information on eco coffin manufacturers and distributors
* A new afterword on the growth of the green burial movement

Price is better, too: $15. Even cheaper on-line.

Finally, a heartfelt thanks to the many, many wonderful folks I've met who have helped me with this project. You’ve graciously shared your experiences and knowledge, invited me into your homes and communities and made the writing of a book feel almost like a family endeavor. For that, and much more, I'm grateful.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, December 05, 2008

Metal Implants Find Second Life via Recycling

When the door to the cremation unit retracted and I looked into the still-radiating hearth, what I noticed first was not the low-spreading mound of bones.

It was the metal hip joint that caught my eye.

Glowing bright red (as you can see in the photo above), the titanium ball-and-socket joint had survived its ninety-minute cremation, with hearth temperatures reaching 1,800 degrees, fully intact. As the cremator swept the implant and accompanying bones into a collection pan, I couldn't help but think the metal joint looked perfect enough to stand in for another damaged one just as is -- or at least be melted down (at higher temps) and recycled.

At the time (this was a few years ago) neither was the case. Federal law prevents body-to-body reuse of implants, the cremator told me. As for recycling, it just wasn't done in this country. Implants were just buried in local cemeteries or sent to landfills.

That's still the case, but it's happening much less often. In the last couple of years, a handful of companies have started collecting post-cremation metal implants – hip and knee joints, plates, rods and screws -- and sending them out for recycling.

One of those recyclers is Implant Recycling. The Detroit metal processor collects prosthetic implants from crematories across the United States and, with the help of a spectrometer, separates them by alloy: stainless steel, titanium, and cobalt chromium. The alloys are then melted into ingots, which are sold to recyclers who, in turn, transform them into new prostheses or into parts that are used in the aerospace industry.

While novel in this country, the recycling of metal implants is hardly new. It's fairly common practice in parts of Europe, where cremation rates run as high as 80%. For good reason: the recycling benefits the environment, preserves space in landfills and cemeteries, and gives second life to still-valuable material.

It's also perfectly legal, says Brad Wasserman, managing partner at Implant Recycling. Regulations in some U.S. states and Canadian provinces are murky when it comes to recycling (a few take issue with funeral directors and cremators profiting from the resale of implants headed to the recycling plant). But lawyers for Implant Recycling conducted a thorough review of the regulations and found nothing that prevented the prosthetic recycling itself.

As for the funeral industry profiting from the sale of implants, those that work with Wassserman's firm don't. Although some charities certainly benefit. For each sale, Implant Recycling offers to make a donation to the charity of the supplying funeral home/cremator's choice.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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