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Friday, January 09, 2009

Green Burial: The Visual Tour

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As the green burial movement gathers steam, organizations have approached me to ask if I speak to groups about natural return. If so, they've wanted to know just what I'd present and how I'd do it.

The answer is, yes, I do speak about green burial and general funeral issues. In the last year, I gave some dozen presentations around the country on "grave matters" to college students, pro-consumer funeral groups, church congregations, hospice workers, and funeral directors, among others. The events have generally been free and open to the public.

For me, these engagements have offered the opportunity to present an updated tour of the green burial movement using images I'd wanted, but was unable, to include in Grave Matters. It's one thing to write about a moving natural burial at Ramsey Creek Preserve; it's quite another to see photographs of families gathered in that lush pine woods, circled around a plain, wood coffin that's suspended above a cavity strewn with flowers and pine needles, the sun filtering through the tall canopy overhead.

That visual tour includes scores of photographs I took in the course of my research and travels, including those of natural burial grounds and backyard cemeteries, of burials at sea and via memorial reef ball, a honeycombed dome containing the deceased's ashes that serves as an aquatic nursery off the U.S. and Canadian coastline.

Archival photographs I've collected show early American funerals and their progression to the more involved sendoffs of today. By way of contrast, I address the environmental aftermath of the standard funeral and how funeral directors are coming to embrace more natural returns.

If you're interested in seeing one of these presentations, I’ll be speaking this spring in Rochester (NY), Princeton (NJ), and Greensboro (NC). You can find a full list of engagements, with specific locations, by clinking on this BookTour link.

If you'd like to bring me to speak to your group, you can reach me by e-mail: I'll tell you more about the presentation and arrangements. I can also send testimonials from organizers of past engagements.

More on Bibb’s Ban of Green Burial (the subject of my last blog post)

Beth Collins -- the CEO of the would-be Summerland Natural Cemetery in Macon, Georgia -- attended a standing-room only board meeting of the Bibb County Commission earlier this week and asked members to repeal their anti-green cemetery ordinance. The chairman said he'd consult with fellow board members but, according to this story in the Macon newspaper, said he "didn't think they would change their minds." If they don't, Collins suggested she'd bring a lawsuit against the county.

In the meantime, neighboring Twiggs County has quietly been considering its own green cemetery legislation. (The Twiggs County line borders one side of the Summerland cemetery.) From the looks of this item in the April 1, 2008 agenda of the County Commission, any ordinance would seem less than friendly to natural burial:

"After discussion and input from several citizens in attendance, Commissioner Epps made a motion to send a letter to the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission expressing our concerns regarding the placement of this type of cemetery so near to this County, and the environmental impact of such a cemetery. Floyd seconded. Unanimous Vote. Motion Carried.

Commissioner Epps made a motion to send a letter stating these same concerns to Mr. Dave Blankenship, of the District Health Office in Macon. Floyd Seconded. Unanimous Vote. Motion Carried."

A Green Cemetery Ordinance for Twiggs County was passed on November 18. I'll post a copy of the ordinance when I get it.

To see how one county council -- this one in Wellington, New Zealand -- has embraced, not fought, green burial, click on the video at the head of this blog. It profiles the folks who worked to establish the first modern natural cemetery in the southern hemisphere, the Wellington Natural Cemetery.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (


Anonymous said...

Fantastic video, Mark. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This video gives a nice succinct overview of the green burial movement.

What I find most interesting is the mention of a trend in New Zealand away from scattering of ashes and back to burial in places where graves can later be visited. This fits with my own belief that scattering, however it might superficially seem environmentally logical, will come back to haunt us sociologically. I think we will rediscover that it is important to remember our loved ones and for that we will need a fixed physical place, and moreover, an enduring physical indication of the buried person's identity. That is, we need a cemetery with durable grave markers, whether the buried remains be ashes or bodies and in whatever type of "green" cemetery....

In traditionally-oriented islands of culture that remain in the western world, visiting the resting places of own's relatives is still an important part of life - my Greek Orthodox in-laws make daily visits to the graves of their own parents in their village. Scattering would be inconceivable to these people, since it would cut off all possibility of psychological communication with the deceased (however one-way (!) this might be, it serves an important psychological process).

In our own society, we can observe a gradual trend of returning to traditional values - this will continue, and views on death and burial will not be excluded. Scattering will slowly come to be considered a bad idea, as it was in the past.

But let us be clear: if we are to return to traditional ways, let it be to truly traditional ways - embalming and indestructible caskets are NOT part of our tradition, they are relatively recent aberrations.

Let us rather be intelligent: reclaim what was wise in tradition and will work for us too (natural burial, enduring markers in perpetual cemeteries), and get rid of silly deviations (embalming and body preservation in general) and what will no longer work for us (gloomy Victorian aesthetics etc).

But to get rid of everything we have inherited without distinction is simply reactionary and unwise. Scattering is such a reactionary movement; it is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thomas Friese

Mark Harris said...

Thanks for checking in, Cynthia. Hope all's well.

Well said, Thomas. For anyone interested in following the exchange Thomas and Billy Campbell have had on this issue, see this blog post:

Mark Harris

Funeral Director ChCh said...

As a funeral director, I always value people who add value to the information available to educate their readers. Great video.

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