Four years ago, my brother was shopping in a Best Buy on a Saturday afternoon with his 10-year-old daughter. Blu-Ray player in hand, they stopped to look at DVDs on the way out. Suddenly my brother staggered back and fell to the ground. “Daddy, are you all right?” his daughter asked. “No,” he said, and fell quiet. He had been hit by a stray bullet from a gang shooting outside the store’s front doors — and within a minute or so, he was dead.
Where do the grieving find comfort when such horrors visit our lives? The funeral director persuaded my brother’s widow that the careful preparation of his body for a viewing would be one such comfort, and especially important for his daughter, so that her last image of him would be a peaceful one. So his body was pumped full of formaldehyde and made up to look more “natural,” and a University of Oklahoma cap placed on his head to hide the sutures from his autopsy. He was wearing a contra-dance t-shirt that he never, in a million years, would have paired with that hat.
Author Anitra Sue Brown and her brother, Wes, in the spring of 2008
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After the funeral, his body was whisked away to be cremated, expensive oak casket and all. A few weeks later, we were called to participate in a short graveside service where we left his ashes on a table and drove away. “Are we not even going to place his ashes in the ground?” I agonized.
As the sister, none of these decisions were mine to make. But I pondered how, in the past, the family would have gathered up his body and laid it out in the parlor as neighbors came to pay their respects. There would have been some comfort, I felt, sitting with his body and the other people who loved him, sharing memories and stories. I wanted to lay him in the ground, weep at the mouth of his grave, and cover him with earth. As it was, everything felt so very distant and disjointed. Instead of comfort, I was left with painful memories.
One thing I learned: None of us knows the hour of our death, so it’s important to think about what we want to have happen with our bodies, and to make our wishes known. Fortunately, the number of options is growing beyond embalming or cremation. The practice of green burial, unheard of just 20 years ago, is rapidly spreading. Today there are approximately 100 registered green burial cemeteries and memorial woodlands in the United States, including several here in the Valley.
In a green burial, the body is not embalmed, placed in a fancy casket, and then buried in a concrete vault. It is simply wrapped in a shroud made of natural cloth, or placed in a biodegradable casket made from pine, cardboard, or even wicker. Once lowered into the earth, the unpreserved body decomposes naturally, eventually mingling with and nourishing the earth.
In contrast, modern burials dump approximately 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid, 20 million board feet of hardwood, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 64,000 tons of steel, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete into the ground every year, according to data compiled for the Green Burial Council. On top of that, traditional cemeteries use fertilizers and pesticides to keep their lawns well manicured. Cremation is “greener” (and much less expensive), but it has its own set of problems. Incinerating just one body is estimated to be the equivalent of driving six hundred miles, and releases between .8 and 5.9 grams of mercury from amalgam dental fillings into the atmosphere.
“Most people would want a green burial if they knew they could have it,” says Suzanne M. Kelly, author of Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie To The Earth. “But you’re not going to choose it if it’s not offered to you.”
Kelly was part of an effort to make green burial available in the Town of Rhinebeck cemetery, which opened a natural burial ground on 10 acres of young hardwood forest in 2014. Two and a half acres have been surveyed for about 200 burial plots, which cost $1,300 each ($650 for 1/2 plots for cremated remains). Twenty plots have been sold since it opened, and five burials have already taken place. Where the conventional town cemetery, Grasmere, is flat, largely treeless, and studded with machine-cut polished granite and a few mausoleums, the grave sites in the natural burial ground are set among the woodland shade, with natural headstones that lie flat to maintain the natural views.
Elsewhere in the Valley, there’s a natural burial ground in a grassy open meadow at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady; Sleepy Hollow Cemetery’s Riverview Natural Burial Grounds overlook the Pocantico River. And Kerry Potter, the host of Dying To Bloom — a monthly radio show on WRCR-AM 1700 in Pomona that addresses environmental, legislative, and cultural issues surrounding funeral and burial choices — is working to create a conservation burial area in either Rockland or Orange county.
The green burial movement was started in America by Dr. George William (Billy) Campbell. After the rituals surrounding his father’s death left him profoundly dissatisfied, Campbell decided to develop a memorial park that also would restore and nourish the land. He opened the first conservation burial ground in Westminster, South Carolina, in 1998.
Kerry Potter hosts a monthly radio show about funerals and burial choices. She also speaks about green burials to local business groups.
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“What we’re doing is basically land conservation,” says Campbell. Currently, the Ramsey Creek Preserve protects 33 acres and a quarter-mile of creek frontage; they’re hoping to acquire another 38 acres and half-mile of creek frontage upstream. “By setting aside woods for natural burials, we preserve them from development,” says Campbell. “At the same time, I think we put death in its rightful place, as part of the cycle of life. Our burials honor the idea of dust to dust.”
Suzanne Kelly, who serves on the cemetery committee for the Town of Rhinebeck, began studying burial practices after her father died. Rather than simply being allowed to return to nature, she felt her father’s body had been transformed into a pollutant. “This trio of practices that make up the conventional burial — embalming, the modern casket, and the burial vault — just seemed wrong,” she said. “I started wondering, ‘Why do we do these things? Why is the only alternative cremation?’ ”
As she delved into the issue, she learned that modern embalming started during the Civil War. For families who could afford it, embalming allowed soldiers’ bodies to make the long, slow, and sometimes hot train ride home for burial. Today embalming is not required for burial, but it is part of the standard treatment when a body is prepared for viewing. The idea is that the family can have one last look at the body in peaceful repose, a “memory picture” they can forever keep.
The body is displayed in a coffin made of expensive hardwoods, often harvested from the rain forest, and finished with metal handles. While the beauty of the coffin can represent the esteem in which the deceased was held, it is also the most costly single item in a burial, and another source of chemical contaminants going into the earth. At the cemetery, the casket is placed in a reinforced concrete vault that prevents the grave from eventually subsiding into the earth. Most cemeteries require this in order to maintain their neat, park-like appearance.
The intent of the conventional burial is to treat the body with respect and give loved ones a body to grieve over, Kelly says. The problem is that it is a resource-intensive, unsustainable approach to burial, and many people want their death to reflect the values they hold in life.
“The thing I am most concerned about in the entire world is the environment,” affirms Susannah Gilbert of Millbrook. She and her husband, Tim, lived at a nature center and raised their daughter on two different farms. So when Gilbert read about the natural burial ground at Rhinebeck, she thought, “That will be the place for me.”
Coeio Company makes infinity burial products — including shrouds and burial suits — for both humans and pets.
On August 11, 2015, her daughter died unexpectedly at the age of 26 — and Gilbert knew that would be the place for Antonia, too. She called the caretaker, who offered to pick them up to look at plots. “We were somewhat incapacitated, so he drove us down a wide, grassy path they keep mowed,” she recalls. “He took us to an area where they had planted native trees and shrubs. A little shaft of sunlight came down through the trees into the glade, and it was so peaceful. I knew immediately that it was the right place.” She bought the plot for Antonia, and the one next to it for herself. Her husband plans to be buried in a family cemetery in Vermont.
On the day of the service, the funeral home wrapped Antonia’s body in a simple cotton shroud, and transported it to the burial ground. The body lay on a thin piece of wood at the opening of the grave, and Gilbert placed a bouquet of wildflowers on Antonia’s chest. Again, the sun filtered down through the trees. Two little girls — one was Antonia’s six-year-old daughter — played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on their violins. A few loved ones spoke.
Gilbert sat by her daughter’s body to say a final goodbye. She lay her head gently on Antonia’s head for a while, until someone touched her shoulders, and guided her away. The funeral director asked, “Are you ready?” They were. Antonia’s body was lowered into the grave. When it reached the bottom, Gilbert walked to the pile of soil, sunk her hands in it, and scattered the soil on her daughter’s body. A few others did the same. Then the funeral staff filled the grave using shovels. The mourners left the wildflowers on top of the heaped earth.
In the months afterwards, Gilbert took comfort in the fact that her daughter’s body had been treated with such reverence. “I’ve never been back there, and I’m not sure I’m going to go,” she says. “But I think back to that day that was so quiet and peaceful and lovely. I have that vision of those lovely woods and the idea that she can help preserve forever 10 acres of land in Rhinebeck. She will become part of that land.”