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When it comes to resource efficiency, even in death, we have choices that can affect a sustainable future. Consider the conventional burial, American style, which annually requires some 828,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid, over a hundred thousand tons of steel and 30 million board feet of lumber.
Over the past decade there’s been renewed interest in “eco-cemeteries”, where people and pets, through respectful, natural burials, are again becoming part of the landscape. And they’re helping preserve land in the process.
Dr. Billy Campbell and his wife, Kimberley, pioneered the eco-cemetery movement in the U.S., in 1996, with establishment of Memorial Ecosystems and Ramsey Creek Preserve, in South Carolina. We asked Kimberley what a natural burial is.
Campbell: It’s kind of the Genisis 3-19 from dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return approach. And I wish that I could say we invented this type of burial but it’s been around for thousands and thousands of years.
Though some cemeteries, like the Campbell’s, are new and located in rural areas, traditional cemeteries can be transformed in both rural and urban settings.
In Mill Valley, California, owners of Forever Fernwood, a cemetery established in the 1880’s, decided that ecological restoration was important, and they changed their practices. They’re replanting lawns with redwoods and native plants for reasons Gary McRae, Marketing Director, explains:
McRae: Traditional cemeteries at the moment is rarely visited, on average a person will visit a cemetery once or twice to visit loved ones, so by turning a cemetery into a place the public can use – hiking trails – where memory and ecology can be interwoven, then we give the land back to the living as well as to the dead, and natural burial –ecological restoration, it does that exactly.
Hospice personnel working with eco-cemetery professionals speak highly of the intimacy associated with natural burials, of how families and friends can participate directly in burying a loved one, if they wish. The integrity of the natural landscape, being joined with a loved one, helps provide a tangible experience of life’s cycles. According to the National Funeral Directors Association conventional burials cost between six and $10,000, while natural burials cost between $1-3,000. The difference is upkeep.
Campbell: A lot of times in the stand alone contemporary cemeteries they sort of tend to look more like golf courses with scatterings of trees and plantings, but basically a lot of green grass where it takes an incredible amount of maintenance, a lot of mowing, a lot of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers… which of course all washes out into the storm drains.
Though only a handful of eco-cemeteries are currently in full operation in the United States, these centers have become resources for people seeking advice on creating eco-cemeteries in their own communities.
McRae: What we hear time and time again is people calling us form all over the nation saying why isn’t my local cemetery doing this? Certainly an existing cemetery offering natural burial is the easiest way for the option to be available, but there’s no reason why communities can’t come together and the entrepreneur saying, “Where is there land which we can restore?” And we can do that through offering natural burials to our community.
Rick Chase and his sister, Laina Corazon Coit are entrepreneurs establishing the Prairie Wilderness Cemetery east of Denver. Colorado.
Chase: Our goal is to use the cemetery to preserve as much prairie as we can and to cut down the waste of a burial. So, we’re going to use our money to buy about 40 acres as our starter cemetery. We will take all the money that we get from selling burial rites, put it in a trust fund and use that to purchase more land when it becomes feasible.
These natural burial pioneers are getting praise from the public and guidance from the Center for Ethical Burials where standards and guidelines for a proper green cemetery are addressed.
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I’m Tom Bartels and I’m Tami Graham. Thanks for joining us on good dirt radio, digging up good news… for a change.