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Thursday, March 12, 2015

No Grave Marker Endures

The headstone that stands at the north end of Fountain Hill Cemetery doesn’t tell you much about John Simsack’s brief sojourn upon this earth:

Born: 1849
Died: Jan. 11, 1905
Aged: 55 Years

Even then the inscription's hard to make out. The elements have pocked and faded the script. Mold obscures much of the face. The “k” in Simsack is disappearing, so too the fateful day John passed away that January of 1905.

A century after his death, Mother Nature has all but rubbed out these last words on John Simsack. In another decade or so, She’ll wipe them away for good. And then the limestone marker that fixes this final resting place will more closely resemble those of its older neighbors: blank-faced and leaning, sinking deeper into the ground.

It’s a sobering thought and, as I studied Simsack’s grave recently on walk through this historic Pennsylvania cemetery, it reminded me of the growing debate in green burial circles about biodegradable grave markers.

Most natural cemeteries in the U.S. ask families to mark graves with fieldstone, river rock, or some other “natural” material that’s collected on site or from a similar geological stratum. Unlike the granite or bronze markers you see in standard cemeteries, fieldstones and their ilk break down quickly out in the open. Within a hundred years, they’ll weather into the landscape, leaving future visitors to consult cemetery maps or GPS coordinates to locate the graves of their beloved departed.

The policy on markers is in keeping with the dust-to-dust philosophy that guides natural burial. It's also one not everybody -- green burial advocates included -- agrees with.

Some critics, as I noted earlier in this space, argue that an (eventually) unmarked grave devalues the individuality of the deceased, the uniqueness of that one life. From that perspective, the dead serve as mere soil amendment and the natural cemetery little more than a mass, utilitarian composting scheme. Genealogists dislike the practice, too, as it denies descendants the chance to see evidence of their ancestry and thus feel their rightful place in the long chain of family.

All these arguments have real merit (enough so that some natural cemeteries are working to address them, something I'll explore in my next blog). 

Even so, I think it’s important to keep in mind the lesson of John Simsack’s weathering headstone. Which is this: No grave marker lasts forever. None of the headstones in Fountain Hill Cemetery will endure. Not the fieldstone that will one day cover my grave in the natural burial ground I’ve started within this cemetery. But neither the markers of limestone, slate, and marble that rise from the old section here. Nor the headstones that were cut from seemingly impermeable granite, which came to replace limestone in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A harder stone buys time, for sure, but it doesn't buy eternity. In due time, all the headstones that populate this cemetery, no matter their durability, will degrade. Inscriptions will eventually fade. Stones will eventually topple or, like the bronze marker that rests on the grave of my great-grandmother in a Rochester, NY, cemetery, sink into the earth.  

The green policy on biodegradable grave markers is a tough one to like. In part, I think that’s because it asks us on a very practical level to accept, if not fully embrace, our mutability. A readily-degrading fieldstone inscribed with our name and dates acknowledges that we really are only here for a time. We’re just passing through.  

What endures is not the overt reminder of our one, short life but the on-going pageant of all life.

Mark Harris, author
Author, Grave Matters
“The manifesto of the [green burial] movement,” Indianapolis Star

Upcoming Appearances:
March 27 (Fri), 2:00 PM
Bethlehem, PA. Kirkland Village

April 7 (Tue), 7:00 PM
Allentown, PA. Our Lady of Help Christians School

April 18 (Sat), Noon - 3:00 PM
Emmaus, PA. Poole Sanctuary

April 21 (Tues), 6:00
Bethlehem, PA. Moravian College

Thursday, February 05, 2015

U.S. a Cremation Nation? Maybe Not.

Decades ago, cremation was the odd exit strategy for Americans heading to the Great Hereafter.

Today, it’s fairly common. By the end of 2015, it will be more common than not.

That’s the upshot of a new survey showing the cremation rate rising above 48% later this year, overtaking the rate of burials by nearly 2 percentage points.

The result is a sea change in American funeral practices: For the first time in this country’s history – nearly 140 years after the first modern cremation on U.S. soil took place in a makeshift hearth outside of Pittsburgh – more of us will be cremated than buried.

The American Way of Death? It's looking more like Cremation Nation.

And, well into the future, if that survey is right. By 2020, the cremation rate will reach 56%. Ten years later, we’ll see 70% of all Americans heading into the hearth.

Even more may follow their lead. According to one industry official I spoke with, the U.S. cremation rate is likely to track to that of European countries where cremation is firmly entrenched: Sweden (77%), Denmark (77%), and the U.K. (73%). Some, like Switzerland (85%) and the Czech Republic (80%), boast higher rates yet.

Given our somewhat similar demographics to those countries and the growing acceptance of cremation in this one, the official saw no reason we wouldn’t, literally, go the way of that part of Europe.

But I’m not so sure. And here’s why: the green burial movement.

From hundreds of conversations I’ve had with families, I can tell you that the vast majority who come to green burial are converts from cremation. Cremation, they tell me, had been their default choice. It was more environment-friendly than modern burial, plus cheaper and a whole lot more convenient.

Then they learned about natural burial. They read about RamseyCreek Preserve, where the dead are buried sans embalming in a Southern pine forest. Saw pictures of handsome caskets made from wicker, sea grass, plain pine boards, and other readily biodegradable materials. Learned that it was possible to hold home funerals, build their own coffins, and return one’s remains to some beautiful natural environment -- to push up a tree, nourish a meadow, and rejoin the natural cycle that turns to benefit all those we leave behind. And all this without the environmental drag of cremation, with its high energy costs and resulting emissions.

Those families promptly changed their plans.

My evidence is anecdotally, I know. But it’s in keeping with a couple of early surveys showing that roughly a quarter (and more) of respondents say they are interested in green burial. A percentage that will only grow, I’m convinced, as word about green burial spreads and as the number of green cemeteries, home funeral providers, eco-casket makers and the like continues to increase.

As it does, the cremation rate will dip. At the very least, it won’t climb anywhere near as high as industry prognosticators would have us believe.

An early sign that a shift may already be underway comes from one of those Euro-cremation nations itself, Sweden, where a couple of years ago the popularity of earth burial rose for the first time in 70 years. The environmental benefits of burial over cremation was a main driver. 

Green burial. When I look to the future, I see it's where we’re headed. 

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters, “The signature book of the green burial trend,” Bangor Daily News

Web. Facebook (Grave Matters). Twitter (@greenburialist).

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

How many U.S natural cemeteries are there?

When I first began investigating the emerging green burial movement back in the early 2000s, you could just about survey this country's natural cemetery landscape in a single sweep.

There was a budding graveyard on a family farm halfway across the Florida Panhandle, another one ensconced in a pine forest north of Houston, a few others. And then the flagship operation at South Carolina’s RamseyCreek Preserve, ground zero for the chapter in Grave Matters on the natural cemetery

What a difference a decade makes.

Today, my very rough tally puts the number of natural cemeteries in the United States near 150, all scattered across nearly 40 states. And counting. (My definition of the green cemetery is equally rough: it’s one that allows for the vaultless burial of an unembalmed body, which is then shrouded and/or casketed in biodegradable material).

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these new natural burial grounds take root within the environs of existing, traditional cemeteries. As anyone who has tried to start a natural cemetery can tell you, it’s a lot easier to pull off when you have the land, infrastructure (backhoes, staff, etc.), and approvals from the get-go.

Some of these “hybrid” cemeteries, as they’re sometimes called, are places like Mound Cemetery (in the greater Minneapolis area), which allow for vaultless burial anywhere on their grounds. Others have set aside special preserves for green burial only. That’s what we did at Green Meadow (in eastern Pennsylvania, pictured below), transforming a fallow field at the edge of the cemetery into a meadow of wildflowers and native grasses (not as simple as it sounds, turns out).  

If my conversations with alt.burialists and cemetery managers is any indication, the natural burial movement is poised to take off in these established hallowed grounds. One recent indication: Mount Auburn (Boston area), the first rural cemetery in this country (1831), is set to go green. (Join me in celebrating that at a free, afternoon event, on June 14th.) 

A number of other natural cemeteries have rooted themselves on their own property, be it a forest, family farm, municipal land, or, in one case, a golf course. The greenest of the bunch -- the conservation burial ground -- uses the green cemetery model to preserve land and restore it to ecological health, ala Ramsey Creek, that first and enduring flagship.

My survey of the green burial movement since the publication of Grave Matters has shown me what I felt would be true from the moment I first emerged from Ramsey Creek all those years ago: that green cemeteries are changing the face of death in America.

In large part, I think that’s because green burial is not, in the end, a concept that speaks solely -- or even largely -- to off-gridders and hybrid drive motorists. With its lower cost, simplicity, DIY approach and respect for tradition, green burial speaks to old-fashioned American values that still have a strong purchase on this country. Which explains, for one, why there are both Wiccan and Jewish green cemeteries (click on Gan Yarok), plus some dozen Catholic graveyards to boot.

The numbers don't lie: Green burial is a big tent, not fringe, phenomenon. And it’s just getting started.

You’ll find a list of green cemeteries that have earned the Green Burial Council’s seal of approval here. Some two dozen have signed the Natural End Pledge. A listing maintained by the Funeral Consumers Alliance is here (click on 2014 Green Cemetery List). Don’t see anything near you? Email me:

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters, “The signature book of the green burial trend.”
Web. Facebook (Grave Matters). Twitter (greenburialist).

Upcoming Appearances (all free and open to the public, except the Moravian event) 

April 13 (Sun), 2:00 PM
Ithaca, NY. Kendal at Ithaca, 2230 N Triphammer Road.
Event information: click here. 

April 30 (Wed.). 7:00 PM
Pen Argyl, PA. Slate Belt Nazareth Baptist Church, 1620 Church Road.
Event information: click here 

June 7 (Sat.), 2:00 PM
Bethlehem, PA. Moravian College, 1200 Main Street.  
I’ll be giving a presentation on memoir writing, at a wonderful, weekend writers’ conference. If you’re a writer, this conference is well worth attending.
Event information: click here  

June 14 (Sat.), 4:00 PM
Cambridge, MA. Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn Street.
Event information: click here. 

If you’d like me to speak to your group, you can reach me at:

The photo at the head of this blog was taken at the Fultonville Natural Burial Ground, outside Albany, just after a dedication ceremony last October.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Going Back to Blueberry Mountain

On a bright, sultry morning a few weeks ago, my family hiked up the small, blueberry-topped mountain that lies a few miles from the summer home my in-laws own in the wilds of New Hampshire.

When we reached the summit, Theresa set her pack on a granite boulder, looked out to the forested horizon and made the announcement that's become a standard feature of our annual trek into local blueberry territory: "Now don't forget," my wife said to me, our two teenage daughters and, seemingly, the universe. "This is where I want to be buried when I die."

We hardly needed the reminder. Theresa has talked long and openly about her final wishes. Even in grade school our daughters could (and sometimes did) recite the brief of her burial plans to their astonished classmates: My Mama wants to be cremated, have her ashes put in a paper bag and buried under a blueberry bush in New Hampshire.

The blueberry mountain is, our girls know, Theresa's special place. From early childhood on, my wife has been coming to this lush and verdant hill, to hike, pick blueberries, and for at least a few hours commune with a natural world that couldn't look any more pristine and untrammeled. Stand at the peak beside the lone fire tower here and all you'll see is a hilltop overrun in blueberry and raspberry bushes and, beyond, stretching into the far distance in every direction, an undulating and unbroken landscape of trees.

For almost fifty years, Theresa has absorbed this place. Its clean air has filled her lungs; its colors and calm and rhythms have filled her being. In all that time, this wooded corner of the Granite State has, metaphorically but also quite literally, become a part of who she is. Of course, she would want to return here at the end.

When it comes, my wife's green burial on blueberry mountain will rejoin her with the elements that so infused and inspired her in life. At the last, she will simply be one with her beloved patch of earth. And when she is, her children can come and find their mother in Mother Nature -- in these blueberry bushes and red maples, on the winding trail up this mountain and at its peak -- where she lives on.

A green burial can save us money. It's good for the planet, hews to honorable tradition, and celebrates our loved ones. More than all that, it returns our departed to the natural cycle of life -- of life and death, decay and rebirth -- that turns forever. And in that way, gains them immortality.

Mark Harris
author of Grave Matters
"The signature book on the green burial trend." Bangor Daily News

Upcoming Events: November 7, Northampton Community College (Bethlehem, PA)

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Grave Matters

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