Chapters About the Author Blog Events/News Green Burial FAQ Reviews Buy the Book Contact

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 (

Friday, November 21, 2008

You've Got a [Green Burial] Friend in Pennsylvania

When I first ventured into the green burial underground more than half a decade ago, I had to travel far afield from my home in eastern Pennsylvania to gather the material that would become Grave Matters.

When it came to natural return, not much was cooking here at the time (besides the very real bake taking place in the hearths at Philadelphia Crematories, a model crematory I ended up profiling in chapter three).

Since then, a green sea change has colored funeral and burial customs in this part of the Keystone State, with most of it coming in the last couple of months. Here's what's happening in:

Pocono Mountains
Last week I drove up to the Poconos and walked the grounds of Pocono Plateau (pictured above). It's one of three ashes-only EcoEternity Forests I blogged about a couple of months ago. On a chilly afternoon, I caught up with president Jack Lowe, who talked about how families had approached him with such enthusiasm because they'd been holding onto their loved ones' ashes and didn't know what to do with them -- until now.

Since its consecration back in June, Pocono Plateau has seen three interments (one of which involved a daughter who'd removed her father's ashes from their mausoleum niche for greener burial in Jack's forest). Nearly ninety families in all have purchased burial plots in the three EcoEternity sites, including the newest location due east of Richmond, Virginia.

Pennsylvanians will soon have even more choices for a natural return with the help of EcoEternity. In the coming year, the company plans to open a pair of new sites in the southeastern part of the state.

Two weeks ago, the owners of West Laurel Hill Cemetery opened up a corner of its expansive grounds for natural burial. Founded shortly after the Civil War on the northwest outskirts of Philadelphia, West Laurel Hill is part of Laurel Hill, the second of the "rural" cemeteries that flourished in this country in the nineteenth century during a greening of the American deathscape.

The cemetery's "Natural Sanctuary" is a 3.5 acre parcel where only green burials may take place. Embalmbed bodies are banned, burial vaults prohibited. Natural stones may mark the grave. A funeral home on site understands green burial concepts, makes basic caskets and can help families conduct home funerals.

I'll write more about the Natural Sanctuary in an upcoming blog.

Eastern PA Home Funeral Providers
Families in eastern Pennsylvania -- as is true for the rest of the state, and, for that matter, for most of the country -- have always been able to care for their own deceased. Now, they can turn to two area organizations for help with those family undertakings.

In the Philadelphia region, there's A Natural Undertaking, which is staffed by Jennifer Bingham and Donna Larson. Families in the greater Allentown region can turn to Penny Rhodes (610-756-6253) and Greta Brown (610-865-9050). Penny and Greta might work with a local funeral home that's just gone green. More on Elias Funeral Home shortly.

Barbara Kernan: 1962 – 2008.
Finally, my sympathies to the family and friends of Barbara Kernan, an early advocate of home funerals in the Southern Carlifornia area, who died from breast cancer at the end of October.

Barbara was the founder of Thresholds, an organization that offered home funeral services and support in San Diego. I'd interviewed Barbara for the home funeral chapter of Grave Matters. We very quickly figured out that she grew up literally around the corner from my home in Pennsylvania and knew some of the friends I'd made since moving here. We'd hoped to meet up when she came back to visit her parents.

What I remember most from our exchanges was Barbara's good humor and her spirited engagement with the funeral industry, to the extent that she even earned a funeral director's license (to make it that much easier to encroach on their turf). I hear that Barbara's own home funeral was a moving tribute to her life and work. A celebration of her life went into the wee hours, and when her body was taken to the crematory on Halloween Day, her friends wore witches hats.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (www.gravematters)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Funeral Directors Conference Gets the Greening

It could be that funeral directors averse to green burial decided to sleep in on the morning that Joe Sehee, Darren Crouch and I hosted a panel on green burial at the annual convention of the National Funeral Directors Association in Orlando earlier this month. (Not that I begrudge them the extra shuteye: we did start at 7:00 am.)

But the seventy or so who did show up – and the larger group that attended our roundtable discussion later that afternoon -- seemed to accept the fact of a green burial movement. At least no one contradicted the Jewish funeral director who, very eloquently, stated that green burial was clearly an idea whose time had come and that his colleagues would do well to get involved.

The questions and comments that followed suggested that many of those funeral directors had moved beyond acceptance and were looking to actually venture into planet-friendly burial. Some of those comments and my replies:

One funeral director told the group that he could refrigerate remains and provide the biodegradable coffin easily enough. What he couldn't offer his natural burial clients was a cemetery that would allow for a vaultless grave.

Supply is an issue -- for now. Green cemeteries are springing up around the county (there are some 20 by my last count). I know another score are in various stages of planning. That does not include the growing number of regular cemeteries that are allowing for vault-free burial or are reserving sections of their grounds for natural burial preserves. We'll see hundreds of these open to burial in the coming years. As demand for natural cemeteries increases, sites will grow.

Is it possible to have a home funeral for remains that had been autopsied or whose organs had been removed?

At the biannual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance last June, I'd asked that same question of Jerrigrace Lyons. Jerrigrace, one of the country's leading authorities on home funerals, said that she had held home funerals in such cases, with no issues. Addressing the possibility of fluids leaking from autopsied remains, Darren Crouch said his company was in the process of developing a biodegradable plastic body bag that could be used to capture liquids for the period of a home funeral.

How much are green cemeteries charging?

Prices vary widely from cemetery to cemetery, but most tend to be in the $2,000 to $3,000 range for the plot, plus another $500 for the opening and closing. High? Maybe compared to regular cemeteries. Although I would argue that burial in a green cemetery is a worthy investment in more than just one's interment: the burial not only nourishes soil and pushes up vegetation (rejoining one's remains to the cycle of life that turns to support those we leave behind) but in the best of schemes helps preserve good land from being developed. A powerful legacy, I'd say. Also, in cemeteries that have partnered with land conservation organizations, some of the cost may be tax-deductible.

After the morning session, I walked the huge convention showroom which, as much as anything, proved that the funeral industry is indeed a multi-billion dollar business.

Still, I was pleased to note a number of green enterprises.

One of them is Ecoffins, a British company that's producing coffins made from a biomass of compostable material, like bamboo and the wicker that's woven into the casket pictured above.

I'll report on them and on other green funeral providers in the coming weeks.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, October 10, 2008

First Green Burial Conference: A Lively Affair in Boulder

Last week's first-ever green burial conference, in Boulder, Colorado, brought together the broad, eclectic mix of adherents that continue to bear out my long-standing belief that natural burial has the legs to go mainstream.

There were students and septuagenarians. Hospice workers. Vegetarians and MBAers. Cemetery operators and celebrants. A couple of funeral directors and many more home funeral advocates. A few gutsy souls who had the moxie to take the deathcare of their deceased into their own hands, not because they knew it was legal but because they felt it the right thing to do. Even a couple of attendees who'd never heard of natural burial but thought it sounded interesting enough to invest a day learning about.

I gave a version of my ever-changing presentation on the current lay of the green burial landscape, with a history of death in early America and how it evolved into the more elaborate funerals of today. Joe Sehee, of the Green Burial Council, provided an update on the natural cemeteries across the country he has helped start.

The Q&A sessions and open forums that followed provided an interesting window into how some are viewing the green burial movement and what issues the movement does and may face.

Some highlights:

Green in green burial? A pair of businessmen wondered how to make green burial pay out. Up to now, the natural cemetery has largely provided a strategy that offers not just a dust-to-dust burial but a way to preserve land from being developed. Profit margins, to the extent there are any, are thin. To increase them, the MBAers talked of burying more bodies per acre than is currently the case, partnering with conservation organizations, growing natural cemeteries on or near the urban cores where large populations dwell. The challenge, as they acknowledged, is to do that and stay true to real-green conservation principles.

Natural cemeteries may draw too many visitors. One of the goals of the natural cemetery is to reconnect people with the land, by inviting them to see it less as a graveyard than as nature preserve to delight in. So it's possible, one cemeterian noted, that locals might overtax their natural cemeteries, arriving in huge numbers and despoiling the land in the process.

Ensuring that green cemeteries remain green. A great question from one of the green burial neophytes: what's to prevent the future owner of a green cemetery from deciding to, say, allow for the burial of embalmed bodies or metal caskets? For Joe Sehee the answer is in making sure that green cemeteries partner with reputable conservation organizations, which act as ecological stewards of the land. That's just the kind of arrangement he sets up with the conservation burial grounds he helps establish.

Not surprisingly, the Boulder gathering was friendly to natural burial. I'll report next week on the response I get from a tougher and, perhaps, more suspect audience I’m addressing on Monday: the funeral directors who are attending the annual convention of the National Funeral Directors Association in Orlando.

The photo above comes complements of Clint Crary, of Pioneer Natural Burial. From left to right: Karen van Vuuren (founder/director, Natural Transitions), Joe Sehee, Mark Harris, Laina Corazon Coit (founder, Prairie Wilderness Cemeteries) and Maeve Conran (news producer at KGNU radio).

Note: That's a wicker coffin, distributed by Passages, in the far right of the photo.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Thursday, October 02, 2008

First Green Burial Conference, More on Enduring Grave Markers

There's still time to register for the first-ever green burial conference, in Boulder, Colorado. The date is this Saturday, October 4.

Organized and hosted by Natural Transitions, a home funeral provider in Boulder, the conference brings together green burial advocates and practitioners. I'll be joining Joe Sehee (director of the Green Burial Council) and Karen van Vuuren (of Natural Transitions) to survey the growing green burial movement and learn how to literally bring it to ground in our own communities.

For anyone who's looking to establish a natural cemetery, Joe's presentation in the afternoon is a must. Joe has helped a number of individuals, groups and government entities root conservation/green graveyards on land across the country. He'll share his experiences and insights that you can apply to your own patch of earth.

I'll report back here on what I learn.

For more information, see the conference web site

More on enduring grave markers.
Those of you who have been following our fascinating discussion about appropriate grave markers should note Thomas Friese's recent reply to Billy Campbell. You'll find the original thread by clicking here. I've posted Thomas' comments below.

From Thomas Friese:
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

Friday, September 26, 2008

Funeral Directors Serving Both Green and Non-Green Families

In a previous blog about eco-friendly funeral directors, "T" posts a question I suspect a number of funeral directors have been asking themselves as they look to cater to the growing green burial market: "Is it possible to offer both traditional embalming techniques for our traditional customers alongside green techniques for our 'green' customers?"

As far as I'm concerned, the answer to that is yes.

Since the publication of Grave Matters, I've welcomed funeral directors into the natural burial movement and encouraged them to add green goods and services to their General Price Lists. The arrangement, I've argued, benefits not just families and the environment, but funeral directors themselves.

Refrigerating remains, for one, reduces morticians' exposure to the toxic formaldehyde they'd otherwise be exposed to in the embalming room. Offering a wide array of handsome and affordable caskets made from cardboard, pine, willow and other readily biodegradable materials attracts the increasing number of families who say they are interested in a natural return to the elements (as is true of 43% of all Americans, according to once survey). Green is good for their bottom lines.

That said, I recognize that we're at the beginning of the green burial revolution. Converts are increasing in number but, at this point, perhaps not in large enough sizes to wholly support a funeral home that's green only. As a pure business matter, offering both green and modern funeral/burial services makes good financial sense. And that's just what many funeral homes have done.

What happens then? Well, I'm reminded of the comment that New Jersey funeral director Bob Prout made when talking about families' reactions to seeing the seagrass/willow/bamboo coffins sitting out in his casket display room. The families buy the metal caskets their loved ones requested but tell Bob they want the eco caskets for themselves, when their time comes.

After walking out of Ramsey Creek Preserve for the first time in the summer of 2003, I was convinced most people would ask to be laid to rest in that lush, living pine forest if they could only see it. I think the same can be said for most green burial strategies. If families come into T's funeral home to make arrangements for the typical, modern funeral but then see a willow casket or cloth shroud or learn that T will help them hold a funeral in their own home -- and at a lower cost -- I know what choice most of them will make.

Note on the photo above, which was taken by Penny Rhodes during the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival, in Kempton last week. This is the table where Penny, Greta Brown and Jenny Bingham set out information on home funerals and talked to countless people who stopped by. Penny, Greta and Jenny are home funeral practitioners who service families in southeastern Pennsylvania. Web:

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, September 12, 2008

Green Burial at Existing “Traditional” Cemeteries

It's tempting to measure the growing interest in the green burial movement solely by the rise of new natural cemeteries around the country.

That number is impressive, for sure. When I first visited it back in 2003, Ramsey Creek was the only woodland cemetery in this country. Today, some dozen have joined its ranks, with at least another score in various stages of development.

One of them in Milton, Georgia, a rural hamlet north of Atlanta, gained an operating permit from the town planning commission just this week.

For my money, though, a truer indication of green burial's growth might come not from these new burial grounds but from the old ones. I can't trot out hard numbers, but I count at least a dozen traditional cemeteries that have recently begun allowing for green -- that is, vautless -- burial within their existing grounds. (These are in addition to the countless garden-variety cemeteries across the land that have never required a burial vault.)

Among them are California's Sebastopol Memorial Lawn, and Eternal Rest Memories Park in Dunedin, Florida. There are others in Temple, Texas, and Hillsboro, Oregon. Still more in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Washington State.

Green burial is literally gaining ground there, and for good reason. As many readers have told me, establishing a green cemetery from scratch can mean very tough sledding. For starters, would-be green cemeterians must locate and purchase land, research state/county/municipal cemetery regulations, and move on to gain permits from government entities. Expensive bonds are sometimes required. A cemetery board must form and run a burial business.

Existing cemeteries have it much easier: they can simply decide to offer green burial and bypass all the hassles of starting from ground zero. After all, no law requires them to demand that families use burial vaults (though cemeteries often do, because vaults keep the ground from caving into graves when their wood coffins collapse). Traditional cemeteries can at a moment's notice decide to allow vaultless burial anywhere on their property or, with more work, create a separate, leafy section reserved for the kind of green burial more in keeping (in appearance anyway) with true natural burial grounds.

Recognizing those benefits, a number of eco burial enthusiasts are asking their hometown cemeteries to adopt policies that permit a natural return to the elements. Some cemeteries are responding. As more families request green burial services -- and as a more Ramsey Creeks crop up on the funereal landscape -- I suspect many, many more will follow suit.

Note: I took the photograph above of Pine Ridge Cemetery in Hancock, New Hampshire, a historic cemetery in the southwestern part of the state.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

Friday, August 29, 2008

Funeral Costs: $7,323 and counting

A couple of thoughts on today's announcement by the National Funeral Directors Association that the average cost of a standard funeral in America has risen to $7,323.

First. You'll pay more than that.
NFDA's figures are from 2006, when gas prices were in the enviable mid-$2.00/gallon range. With pump prices two years later just now backing down from nearly twice that amount – and this before Gustav makes landfall -- you can be sure you'll be shelling out more than $233 to have the funeral director retrieve the deceased from the hospital and drive it to his funeral home, or $251 for use of the gas-guzzling hearse. Same goes for almost every other item on that General Price List.

Second. Seven grand doesn't bring the dead to ground.
NFDA's figures include the cost of a vault, metal casket, and basic goods and services for a funeral only – not burial. Expect to pay thousands more for the cemetery plot, opening and closing of the grave, foundation for the headstone/marker, the headstone and market itself, and perpetual care fees, among others.

Third. Modern sendoffs are de facto pricey propositions.
Yes, funeral directors sell caskets at a steep mark-up from the wholesale price, sometimes by more than 300 percent. As does every other service operator, they pad their margins. That said, outfitting even the basic American funeral -- with its embalming chemicals, metal caskets, concrete burial vaults -- demands the inputs of vast amounts of resources that are bought with hard and plentiful dollars. Next time you're in Lowe's or Home Depot, do a quick price check on construction materials (and so much of modern memorialization is just that, a construction project). Have you seen how much concrete mix costs these days?

Fourth. Value depends on who's paying.
Is a modern funeral worth $7,000? That's up to the individual family to decide for itself. My purpose in writing Grave Matters was to present a fuller reckoning of the American Way of Death -- to present the costs not just to the pocketbook, but to the environment, the corpse, and even the health of the funeral director himself. If after reading my book a family still chooses to plunk down $7,000 for the modern send-off, they'll get no argument from me.

Fifth. Green funerals and burials can be expensive, too -- and be worth it.
By skipping the embalming, metal casket, burial vault and the other goods and services that fill out the funeral director's GPL, green burial is almost always a less expensive way to go. But not always, and not necessarily.

A highly biodegradable wicker coffin can set you back $3,000. A burial plot in a woodland ground can cost double what you'd pay at the local city cemetery. And be worth every penny. Your burial fees may not only push up a tree and renew the cycle of life that supports all of us, but they may also fund the preservation and ecological restoration of a piece of threatened wild. That expensive casket may not only encourage an earth-friendly, dust-to-dust return to the elements, but it may also employ workers in a good, green business. Less is more, runs the green mantra, but sometimes more really can be better.

Note: The music video above plays Iron and Wine's "Naked as We Came," a folksy anthem to cremation.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Newest Natural Cemeteries

A greening continues to spread across the funereal landscape of North America.

In the last couple of months, some half dozen natural burial grounds have cropped up in this country, taking root on former farmland and cattle ranches, within unspoiled tracts of big wilds, and even inside the historic cemeteries near urban cores.

The latest additions:

Foxfield Preserve (Wilmot, Ohio)
Former farmland on 43-acres in northest Ohio that's being restored to original prairie and forest. Owned and operated by a non-profit nature center and land trust.

Galisteo Basin Preserve (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
A natural burial ground within a 13,000 permanently protected conservation area on a one-time cattle ranch.

White Eagle Memorial Preserve (Goldendale, Washington)
A 20-acre cemetery within 1300 acres of permanently protected oak and ponderosa forest, meadow and steppe on the edge of Rock Creek Canyon near the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Steelmantown Cemetery (Tuckahoe, New Jersey)
An active cemetery dating back to the 1700s where green burial has been practiced by default. Its one-acre grounds are overspread with oak, cedar and pine and border the Belle Plain State Forest.

Makemie Woods (Lanexa, Virginia)
The third Ecoeternity Forest in the U.S., which is sited within a hardwood forest between Richmond and Williamsburg. Burial of cremated remains only. Opens October 5.

The natural cemeteries join the existing green burial grounds I've reported on in Grave Matters and in this blog: Ramsey Creek (South Carolina), Honey Creek Woodlands (Georgia), Glendale (Florida), Cedar Brook (Maine), Rainbow's End (Maine), Greensprings (New York), and Ethician (TX). A score of others are in the planning stages.

This list does not include the growing number of existing cemeteries that are offering green burial within their grounds. More on those developments coming shortly.

Note: I'll be joining Joe Sehee (of the Green Burial Council), Karen van Vuuren (of Natural Transitions) and others at the first-ever green burial conference in Boulder, October 4. This promises to be an inspiring, informative and fun-filled event. Karen, who is organizing the event, is looking for participants and sponsors. For more information, click here.

Note Two: The photo above was taken at White Eagle Memorial Preserve.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, August 15, 2008

Funeral Director Bob Prout Goes Green in New Jersey

One of the more welcome developments in the green burial movement has been the willingness of some funeral directors to consider -- and in some cases, actually venture into -- green burial.

Perhaps the greenest of the bunch is Bob Prout. A third generation Prout funeral director, Bob runs Prout Funeral Home in Verona, New Jersey, an ex-urb of Manhattan. Bob made news two years ago after he'd installed solar panels on his funeral home (per the CNN clip above). The former Boy Scout (and current assistant Scout master) and livelong conservationist has more recently begun offering families green burial goods and services, from seagrass coffins to embalming-free viewings. His wife has even gotten into the act, sewing cloth shrouds by hand.

Bob's at the forefront of a new wave of funeral directors who "get" green burial and are working to help their families lay their dead to rest in more natural, personal ways.

I interviewed Bob not long ago to ask him about his solar panels, the green burials he has arranged, and what fellow funeral directors make of his ventures into the natural burial movement.

How did you come by your environmental ethic?
Conservation has always been second nature to me. I was brought up in Scouting, and safeguarding the natural resources we have is a mainstay of the Scouting movement. All through grade school and high school I worked in a garden center and thought I'd pursue a career in either landscape architecture or garden center management. In college I majored in horticulture. But after the first semester I realized that I enjoyed it but couldn't see myself doing it day in and day out.

What inspired you to install solar panels on your funeral home?
I've been interested in solar energy for more than thirty years. But the cost [of installing solar panels] was prohibitive and the technology wasn't there yet. What [made it feasible] were the incentives being offered by the New Jersey Clean Energy Program. When we installed the panels in the summer of 2005, I enclosed the solar inverter behind a glass viewing window in a former smoking room, and built in an educational display on sustainable and renewable energy. I invited local schools and Scouting groups, Rotary and Lion Clubs and science classes to come through the funeral home to see the display.

How did you learn about green burial?
The solar panels got a lot of notoriety. There were articles in the New York Times, the New Jersey Network News. Then we starting getting calls from people, saying, I see you have solar panels. Do you also do environmentally-sensitive funerals? I knew a little bit about the natural burial movement. I did some more research on it, learned about Greensprings Natural Cemetery (outside Ithaca, New York) and went to one of their open houses. It was a spectacular place, and what they were doing there was absolutely incredible.

I came back and started putting together natural burial packages. We now have packages for Greensprings Natural Cemetery and for Steelmantown [a new natural cemetery in Tuckahoe, New Jersey]. We also offer "greener" funeral options for existing cemeteries and work within the constraints of their requirements.

What's included in the package?
We either won't embalm or will embalm with gluteraldehyde or Aardbalm [two formaldehyde-free embalming solutions I'll write about in an upcoming blog]. We have sustainable caskets made from seagrass, wicker, bamboo and native pine. We also work with shrouded bodies and do home funerals. We'll work with families to meet whatever needs they have.

Some funeral directors have said green burial is a fad and, like most fads, will fade. Do you agree?
I don't think green burial is a fad. The funeral directors [who think it is] are probably the same ones who twenty-five years ago [mistakenly] thought that cremation urns were a fad.

I don't think green burial will become as popular as cremation or overcome traditional funerals. But I do think there's a growing movement that will certainly feel very comfortable with the concept of natural burial and the green funeral.

Have you handled any green burials?
I have made pre-arrangements for future natural burials at Greensprings and Steelmantown. I've handled more "green funerals" in existing traditional cemeteries, about one to one-and-a-half per month since the beginning of this year. That's because there are more people out there who want to be buried in family plots they own [at existing, traditional cemeteries] but want to do it as green as possible.

What do those green funerals entail?
In January I had a family that wanted to give their mother a green burial. We wrapped the woman in a shroud, placed her in a very simple pine box. The following day there was a gathering in the funeral home. There was no embalming, no viewing in this case, a closed casket. We went off to the church for a traditional funeral Mass and then buried her in the cemetery next to her husband. The cemetery did not require a concrete burial vault, so although she was buried in a traditional cemetery she had a natural burial.

I think you'll see more of those green funerals happen because older family members want to be buried in the plots they already have. As the Baby Boomers grow in number and choose for themselves, then you'll see more growth in the true natural burial concept [i.e., a natural burial in a true natural cemetery, ala Greensprings].

How do families react when they enter your casket display room and see your array of natural caskets?
A number of them have said, I'm [choosing a metal casket] because this is what Mom would want. Then they look at their spouse and say, "But when my time comes, I'd be more comfortable with something like this [natural casket]."

Why do you think some people are turning away from "traditional" funerals and to green funerals and burials?
The traditional funeral has become like some weddings. If you look at your watch and it's four o'clock you know they must be cutting the cake. If it's four-fifteen, they must be doing the garter bit.

Green burial offers families a personalized funeral. It offers them what they need at the time they need it. And a funeral director can't personalize a funeral by [simply] changing a cap panel or unscrewing a corner post. That's not personalization.

How have your fellow funeral directors reacted to your foray into green burial?
Some of the funeral directors who know me understand where I'm coming from. Some others think I'm a little off the bean. And that's all right. I'm not going to try to change their mentality, because some of these fellows are also trying to decide whether cremation is here to stay or not.

Any final comments?
The general public should understand that while some funeral directors are reluctant to change not all of them are Tom Fieldings [the modern funeral director I present in chapter one of Grave Matters]. We're not all totally stuck in the mud. As the funeral industry is educated to the concept of green burial, some funeral homes will start responding to the natural burial movement. It will take time. It's a different concept than what a lot of us funeral directors have been brought up with. To change what has been the norm through the course of a lifetime is going to take time.

You can reach Bob Prout at Prout Funeral Home, 370 Bloomfield Avenue, Verona, NJ 07044. Phone: 973-239-2060.

The Prout Funeral Home has been certified "green" by the Green Burial Council.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Going Gentle into that Good Night

Sometime after he was diagnosed with end-stage cancer of the pancreas, Michael Miller considered the kind of death he wanted.

His would not take place in the hospital, he vowed. A retired physician in his late 70s, Michael had seen too many patients with fatal illnesses spend their final days in the sterile, clinical environs of his onetime workplace, tubes jammed down their windpipes.

His death would also be under his own control. As far as he could, Michael intended to direct the course of his final exit, to ensure that it was gentle, humane and ultimately peaceful.

How Michael arranged for and carried out that considered death is the subject of Karen van Vuuren's poignant and powerful documentary, Dying Wish (2008, WordWise Productions).

Michael came upon that dying wish after turning up research indicating that it was possible to die with less pain -- and in some cases, with an even heightened sense of well being – by fasting, literally, to death. To show us that such a good death is both possible and largely painless (as well as legal), he invited Karen to record the fast that leads, thirteen days later, to his death.

A lifetime is wrapped up in that final fortnight of Karen's documentary. We see Michael recalling childhood events in the company of his siblings. Reading and flagging sections in a book on death and dying. Enjoying a last meal with his family. And as Michael becomes too weak to rise from his bed, we see him slip -- and that's the word, slip -- slowly into the coma that presages the end. Surrounded by his family, in his own home, in his own bed. As he'd wished and planned for.

Like the physician he was in life, Michael notes his vital signs to the end. He tells us of his increasingly dry mouth, of the ache in his back. He is our guide to the afterlife and, with much grace and courage, shows us that we can take our last steps without fear and in much peace.

For more information about Michael Miller, his fast and how to order DVD copies of Dying Wish, click here. DVDs are $19.99 each for individuals, between $49.99 and $89.99 for organizations.

Note: I'm on vacation next Friday. Back with a post on August 15.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, July 11, 2008

Could Utility Trump Memorialization in a Green Burial?

One of the more thoughtful comments to the Grave Matters blog came a couple of weeks ago from Thomas Friese.

Responding to my post about how some funeral directors have dismissed green burial as a mere fad, Thomas praises the green burial movement -- with this cautionary note: Natural return -- with its emphasis on restoration ecology, land preservation, and resource-sparing interment -- is certainly good for the environment. Yet, if the graves in natural cemeteries are marked only with trees, the green burial movement runs the risk of de-emphasizing the personhood, the individuality, the memory of the deceased. If that happens, Thomas writes, natural burial becomes a mere utilitarian and "nihilistic" mode of body disposal.

I have posted Thomas' comments in full below. I invite your responses. I'll return with mine in the coming weeks.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Note: The photo above was taken in on the ashes-only FriedWald in Germany (the subject of last week's blog).

From Thomas Friese:

I can't say enough about how positive I find the growing movement towards natural burials. Poisoning our mother earth with formaldehyde and filling her up with concrete and steel is entirely unjustified. As is poisoning her with mercury from our dental fillings and wasting so much fossil fuel by cremating our bodies. YET I need to mention a potentially nihilistic trend which I perceive in some aspects of the natural burial movement.

The thought was prompted by a recent reading of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, whose awful utopic vision seems to be coming true in many aspects. Among the negative developments for humanity in the brave new world, Huxley predicts the ultimately nihilistic attitude towards death. In the brave new world, only cremation exists. When people die, they are immediately transferred to a central crematorium, where they unceremoniously disappear in a puff of hot air. No funeral service, no mourning or sadness, no memorialization at all - people have been thoroughly conditioned from early childhood to altogether disregard death, see it as quite inconsequential, not worth a second thought. Indeed, the only significant emotion their conditioning leaves in them regarding death is that by being cremated, they will contribute to society via the fertilizer recovered from their body's cremation. That is, they will help grow plants. I quote:

"Why do the smoke stacks (of the cremetorium) have those balconies around them?" enquired Lenina.

"Phosphorous recovery", exclaimed Henry. "On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. Phosphorous used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight percent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of 400 hundred tons of phosphorous every year from England alone." Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as if it had been his own. "Fine to think that we can go on being socially useful even after we're dead. Making plants grow."

We understand that in the Brave New World, the significance of death has been reduced to the amount of useful fertilizer returned to the environment, to a merely ecologically useful function.

To return to the natural burial movement now. We can only agree that land conservation, pollution reduction, energy conservation and tree planting are noble and necessary aims. And that conversely, preserving the material body is evidently NOT the point - only the ancient Egyptians and 20th century North Americans thought this at all relevent.

THE POINT IS that burials and funerals should never become ONLY about their utility to the earth's ecology and to the social collective. Eliminating our negative effects on the earth and collaterally conserving green space are only first steps in redressing the historical aberration that our modern death care has become. Then we need to return to the truly traditional aims of death care, those primary aims which have motivated people through the millenia: paying tribute to the existence and dignity of the individual; creating momento moris for the survivors; and testifying to hopes of transcendence and immortality in whatever form that takes for a particular people. Whether people are cremated or naturally buried, if no LASTING individual markers and no eternally protected and sacred burial sites are left, these three primary functions will not be served and the natural burial movement will have failed in its potential.

Which means that conserving green space by burying people there and then forgetting who those people are is insufficient. That only planting a tree as a grave marker, though it may serve the earth and thus society, is insufficient. Trees are among Man's oldest and most faithful friends and protectors, and the more we have the better - but trees die like humans, sometimes sometimes sooner, sometimes later. Thus they cannot be substitutes for lasting and individualized grave memorials.

Why do we think this is an either/or situation? We can have more trees, more protected green space AND lasting memorials and cemeteries. If "traditional" grave stones and cemeteries provoke aversion and morbidity in people today, let's change the way we memorialize - all sorts of appealing, meaningful AND natural alternatives might be created with artistic imagination and creative use of technology. After all, ancient burial sites that archeologists now uncover contain no plastic or concrete, only natural materials that have lasted thousands of years. Are we not capable - or worthy - of something equally lasting, beautiful, dignified and individual?

Or will we choose the way of the brave new world?

Thomas Friese

Friday, July 04, 2008

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 (

Friday, June 20, 2008

Green Cemetery for Cremated Remains Goes to Ground in Pennsylvania

No natural cemetery on par with Ramsey Creek has taken root in Pennsylvania – at least not yet. Two days ago, though, a German company consecrated a three-acre woodland graveyard in the heart of the Pocono Mountains where cremated remains may be buried beneath select maple, beech, birch and other mature timbers that populate the EcoEternity Forest at Pocono Plateau.

"We're providing families with a green place where they can return the ashes of their loved ones,” says Axel Baudach, the founder of the German-based EcoEternity (“FriedWald” in German), which oversees some two dozen green cemeteries in his home country. When they do, families not only "help preserve a forest but establish a relationship to it that is not just about death but life."

As in Germany, the foresters who manage the Pocono Plateau have blazed walking trails through the new cemetery and identified trees suitable for urn burial, typically those that are mature, healthy and easily accessible. On the morning I trekked the grounds with Axel, scores of trees had been marked with blue bands (which you can see in the photo above), so families may easily spot approved urn sites when they tour the grounds, either at time of need or in advance.

When families are ready to inter their "ashes," foresters trench out a hole roughly a foot deep along the drip line of the tree, creating an opening broad enough to accommodate the biodegradable urn the company supplies families. The urn, which is pressed from cornstarch, will quickly degrade. Families may bury their own urn (as long as it will biodegrade) or simply pour ashes into the gravesite. Trees can be marked with simple plaques the size of an index card; no headstones or groundmarkers are allowed.

When I asked Axel how many sets of ashes a single tree can accommodate, he strode the drip line that circumscribes one of the banded trees, each of his fifteen strides, he told me, marking a potential urn site. Burials are offered in three packages. Up to fifteen urns may be buried around a "Family Reunion Tree" ($4,500 for all burials). Groups of friends (up to fifteen) -- neighbors, parishioners, or, as Axel said, members of the local soccer or bowling team -- can find final rest under a "Friendship Tree" ($4,500). An individual can choose to add her urn to a dozen-plus others that surround a "Community Tree" ($500). The cost of interment is an additional $250 (with a ceremony families can plan and conduct themselves) or $175 (without ceremony).

Unlike some other green cemetery schemes, EcoEternity does not own its forest -- and, thus, its cemetery and graves. The company leases those three acres from the Methodist Church, which owns some 750 acres here and on them runs various camps and retreats. Axel's group leases the cemetery property for 100 years; he can't say for sure what will happen to the cemetery when the lease is up, although, certainly, the Church is a good and solvent owner, which is committed to the long-term stewardship of the land. Also, along those lines, the Church agrees to hew to certain eco-friendly practices in its contract with EcoEternity, including not logging the land. A forester, who manages the cemetery property, is hired and paid by EcoEternity.

As Axel sees it, his cemetery scheme is "a win-win for everybody." Families gain a natural environment for that final rest and a welcome wood to visit in life. The church gains some revenue from very gentle use of its land (and one that's in keeping with a Christian dust-to-dust philosophy of life and death). EcoEternity grows a green burial movement that speaks to the needs of families who choose cremation and earns a bit of green in the process.

Axel admits that translating his German-born approach to burial to an American audience presents special challenges. He finds, for one, that his company has to "explain what a forest is" to a trans-Atlantic public that's more estranged from the natural world than are its German counterparts, who tend to regularly venture into their forests for hikes and walks. "We need to motivate Americans to come into their forests and see them for the peaceful places they are." Axel has also been struck by the number of Americans who hold onto their loved ones ashes at home, with no plan to return them to earth or sea. He's hoping his woodland cemeteries will inspire them to plant those ashes in a more natural home.

In the next post, we'll look at modern German funeral and burial practices and why Axel chose to move beyond them. We'll also investigate how the EcoEternity Forest compares to the natural cemeteries springing up in this country.

I'm on the road next week, giving a presentation on green burial at the biannual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in Seattle. Back with a post on July 4th.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, June 13, 2008

Finding the Green Cemetery Coming to You

Ramsey Creek Preserve was the lone natural cemetery in this country when I began reporting on the green burial movement almost a decade ago. Now there are ten, and like prices at the gas pump, that number is headed inexorably upward.

Just look at the list below.

Here, by state, are the efforts I know about to grow green cemeteries throughout North America. They’re in various stages of development. Some are poised to open; others are still in the exploratory phase. All involve folks who are passionate about creating space for a sensible, natural return to the elements in their own corner of the planet.

Want to know more? Want to join their efforts? Beam me up an e-mail -- -- and I’ll put you in touch with the forces that are driving your project of interest.

Next week: I'll report on a company that's opening woodland cemeteries that allow for the burial of cremated remains only.

The photo above is the ultimate in memento mori. How could you forget your mortality with this image wallpapered onto your living room ceiling?

• Humboldt

• Denver area

• Northwest part of state

• Central Georgia
• Milton

• Maui

• Southern Illinois

• Bloomington
• Northeast Indiana (greater Chicago area)
• Indianapolis

• Cedar Rapids

• Lawrence

• Lexington
• Winchester

• Ann Arbor
• Detroit area
• Lansing area

• Minneapolis

• Rocheport

New Hampshire
• Monadnock region

New Mexico
• Santa Fe

New York
• Tarrytown
• Hudson Valley area

• Cleveland
• Cincinatti

• Portland
• Eugene

• Lehigh Valley
• Philadelphia

• Central Texas
• Houston
• Dallas
• Austin
• Big Bend

• Roanoke
• Culpeper

• Milwaukee
• Barneveld


In Canada:
• Vancouver Island
• Paisley
• Nova Scotia

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

Friday, June 06, 2008

Mary Tyler Moore Gets Eulogy Right

As I listened to the funeral director offer bromides about the brother of an elderly friend at the wake I attended this week, I found myself thinking -- inexplicably -- about the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of the late, lamented Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Chuckles is the clown who appears on the news show Mary writes for in her eponymous sitcom. In this famous episode from 1975, Lou Grant tells the newsroom that Chuckles, outfitted as Peter Peanut in the city parade, is killed by a rogue elephant that "tried to shell him." The clip above is from Chuckles' service at the funeral home (whose slumber room of thirty-plus years ago, a dead ringer for the one I sat in yesterday, suggests that funerary d├ęcor never goes out of style).

Moore's famous segment is both hysterical and poignant. It came to mind, I think, because its fictional pastor manages to do what my director hadn't: capture in brief the humanity, the essence of the deceased. In this case, Chuckles' pastor moves one mourner to both laughter and tears, those perfect expressions of celebration and loss.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

Grave Matters

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


Blog Archive