It was just about two years ago when Steve Sall, 61, lost his fight with ALS and was buried according to his pre-planned wishes: in a “green burial” in the White Eagle Memorial preserve on Sacred Earth Foundation land in Southwest Washington. A hiker and mountaineer, Steve loved the outdoors and wanted to become a part of it. “I figure my best shot at immortality,” he spelled out for his wife, “is to stay engaged with the earth’s life cycle.”
Green burials are definitely the way to keep the eco-cycle going.
It’s an ancient idea made relatively new again – and is a good fit for our times: eco-friendly in every way – ecologically and economically. The first question most ask when hearing about this trend is, “Is it legal?” Yes, absolutely, in areas and burial grounds specified for this purpose. Some conventional cemeteries are starting to set aside areas for people who want this type of burial.
Billy Campbell, a rural doctor and pioneer of the green burial movement in the United States is a founder of Ramsey Creek Preserve, in Westminster, S.C., on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, opened in 1998. The first woodland burial ground in the United Kingdom was created in 1993; now there are over 200 dedicated natural burial sites.
I visited a natural burial ground outside of Atlanta to find out more about how natural burials work.
Milton Fields, opened in 2009, looks like a lush, green meadow, surrounded by trees, on 17 acres of land near a horse farm and a church. Owner Jim Bell, an Emory University graduate and former property manager, lives in the adjacent 100-year-old house and lays out the plat of plots on his dining room table. The first burial on the neighboring property was three years ago. Birds, hawks and deer are regular visitors.
“It’s the way of the future,” Bell says. “After every service, someone comes up to me and says, ‘This makes so much sense.’” Instead of upright headstones dotting the meadow, there are engraved stones flush with the ground which not only keep the air of tranquility and peace but also make for easier mowing.
According to the Green Burial Council – an independent and nonprofit organization promoting green burials: “Working to make burial more meaningful, simple and sustainable” – the body is prepared for burial without chemical preservatives and placed in the ground in a simple fabric shroud (cotton or linen) or biodegradable casket made of wood, wicker or recycled paper or cardboard. The GBC website, greenburialcouncil.com, offers history, guidelines, standards and FAQs that are interesting and informative.
Joe Seehe, a co-founder of the GBC in 2005, says there are about 40 burial grounds in the council’s network. Because states, overall, haven’t come up with standards, he says, the council has taken on the certification and compliance process. He cites an AARP poll suggesting that one of five seniors has a preference for a green burial but thinks that the trend will catch up to cremations. Currently, according to the Cremation Association of North America, over 40 percent of deaths are cremated nationwide.
In an online interviewwith Diane M. Cooper, Dr. Campbell – co-founder of the S.C. preserve – said, “What's happening today is that people are de-ritualizing the burial process because the rituals that are available are so foreign to them. The idea that the body should be fixed up as if it were still alive, using elaborate caskets costing upwards of $10,000, or spending $15,000 to 20,000 dollars for mausoleum burials — it's alienating and wasteful…”
At Milton Fields in Georgia, a single burial space is $1,300 ($350 for cremated remains), going up to $4,500 for a “family estate.” Already Bell has sold 88 percent of the first 100 lots and another 100 are opening this month. “The concept is beginning to get traction. Naturally it’s hard to get the word out on a subject most people don’t want to talk about, but I feel this economy has people searching for sensible ways of caring for their loved ones.” He distributes flyers in communities that are open to non-traditional approaches to living – and dying. He recently participated in a continuing education seminar for Hospice workers at a local hospital.
Says Billy Campbell, “If we can take people who haven't had the relationship with nature that some of us have, and show them this beautiful place where they can come after the shattering experience of death of a loved one, perhaps there can be a transformation of the grief process.” For the full interview with Dr. Campbell, visit http://www.spiritofmaat.com/archive/aug2/campbell.htm.
Steve Sall’s wife, Teri, knows her husband is right where he wanted to be. “He liked overlooking a ravine and a nice valley,” she says. “And here I have my outdoorsy husband where I can focus on the prettiness of the place.”
To locate natural burial sites in the U.S. visit http://naturalburial.coop/USA/
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.