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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

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Emmaus, PA. Poole Sanctuary

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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

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Grave Matters

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