Considering natural burial

At Furman, in politics, and on the news, we often hear about what it means to live sustainably.  From dietary choices to means of transportation, the daily lives of Americans have a direct and significant impact on the environment.  However, what if we took living sustainably a step further?  How can humans be sustainable not only when we’re alive, but when we’re six feet under?

It’s an uncomfortable topic, but, nevertheless, a thought-provoking one.  Consider all that is buried with a body, including steel, copper, and bronze from caskets; metal jewelry; and embalming fluid.  It is a bit disconcerting to consider the negative impact of one’s burial on the environment, especially for those who have committed themselves to acting sustainably during their lifetimes.  However, for the environmentally conscious, there exists an option for being buried sustainably.  The Natural Burial Cooperative  lists 14 “natural burial preserves” in the United States, located across the nation from California to Florida to Maine.  Here is an excerpt from the NBC website which explains the basic concepts of a natural burial:

A modern natural burial is an environmentally sustainable alternative to existing funeral practices where the body is returned to the earth to decompose naturally and be recycled into new life.

The body is prepared for burial without chemical preservatives and is buried in a simple shroud or biodegradable casket that might be made from locally harvested wood, wicker or even recycled paper, perhaps even decorated with good-bye messages from friends.

A natural burial ground often uses grave markers that don’t intrude on the landscape. These natural markers can include shrubs and trees, an engraved flat stone native to the area or centralized memorial structure set within the emerging forest that provides places for visitors to sit. As in all cemeteries, there are careful records kept of the exact location of each interment, often using modern survey techniques such as GIS (geographic information system).”

The Natural Burial Cooperative also provides interesting and startling statistics about the negative impacts that traditional burials and cremation have on both the environment and the economy.  I challenge you to research natural burials further, considering the harmful effects that your body could have on the environment even beyond your living existence.

One thought on “Considering natural burial

  1. Thanks so much for noticing the importance of natural burial for both our personal and environmental planning!

    I’d like to add two things to your post:

    1) There are thousands of cemeteries in the US that CURRENTLY have vault-free “natural” graves in them, and many of them still offer vault-free burials on request. The use of a vault – the chief impediment to a natural return, outside of the casket’s materials – is a relatively new thing for American cemeteries, only universally adopted in the last 50+ years, with the advent of the lawn cemetery.

    It’s not even that smart of an “innovation” – according to Ken West, the ostensible UK founder of the modern natural burial movement, England has “been there and done that” with vaults, and found they, too, collapse. Just give them 150 years, say our older cousins. The expensive heavy-duty ones may survive like bomb-shelters, but most won’t withstand the rigors of a century or two (see http://www.baysidecemeterylitigation.com for an interesting tale) and will just be a problem for a future generation.

    2) Many small existing cemeteries that still don’t require vaults do very little (if any) artificial grounds maintenance and already provide wonderful habitat. Because they are cemeteries, they technically fulfill the requirement of a preserve – i.e., it’s legally bound to be there forever – and, while advertising a preserve might be a good marketing technique for the more well-heeled cemeteries, it’s not necessary to actually provide the environmental benefit to the community.

    The suggestion that there are only a few places doing this, and the suggestion that it’s necessary to set up a preserve (thousands of dollars in cost) can make it look much more difficult and precious than it actually is. Many cemeteries – especially the older ones – are very well positioned to accommodate natural burial without going to much additional expense. All they have to do is return to vault-free burial with biodegradable caskets and shrouds, and actively support habitat in their cemeteries.

    In this day and age when small non-profit public and church cemeteries face budgets that are almost non-existent, it’s important to keep the best goals within reach of the many and not reserve them for the ranks of the wealthier few. The costs of formalizing a preserve are prohibitive for most, but the benefits to the community of habitat support and a natural end don’t need complex endorsements and deed restrictions – they just need DOING!

    Thank you again for attending!
    Cynthia Beal
    Natural Burial Company

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