Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Green, Natural Burials

Planning for one's burial or a family member's burial isn't the most upbeat thought. But in my opinion, considering it in advance rather than waiting until death seems to be the smart thing to do, logistically and financially. I pondered whether to post about this topic on my personal blog or my genealogy blog, and I chose to go with the latter. After all, the location of an ancestor's burial site is one we usually tend to research as genealogists. We strive to visit an ancestor's grave and/or obtain vital information from a tombstone.

I recently had a brief conversation with my family about what we'd want done with our bodies when we die.  How morbid, right?  I think exploring the topic is somewhat fascinating.  This type of discussion doesn't come up often, but again, I think it's important. People usually consider two options (or a combination of the two): a) traditional burial in a cemetery plot or b) cremation. What many people don't know is there's a third option: natural burial.

What is natural burial?  The Centre for Natural Burial defines it as "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."  Typically, one's body is: a) not embalmed, and as a consequence, buried rather quickly after death, and b) buried in some form of biodegradable material.  It's not a new method historically, although as far as I know it's not common to most western European cultures.

I originally heard about the concept of natural burial from the HBO TV series Six Feet Under (in which the main character, Nate, is buried this way).  Additionally, there's a great book entitled Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (it's referenced in Six Feet Under, as well).  I highly recommend both - they are a bit morbid but very entertaining!  I soon plan to read Grave Matters by Mark Harris.

Photo from Cedar Brook Burial Ground web site
There are only about thirteen places in the United States where one can be naturally buried, though more are in the works.  The only natural burial ground in New England is the Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington, Maine (just west of Portland).  A green cemetery, as it is often called, must be created in agreement with a private land-owner.  Grave markers are sometimes permitted, but only if they lie flat against the landscape and the stone is natural to the area (which means you'd still be able to visit a family member/ancestor there and/or retrieve vital information).  Sometimes a tree is planted at the burial site as a memorial.  A natural burial is much cheaper than a traditional burial or even cremation.  It's also more sustainable and environmentally friendly.  

From my personal perspective, a natural burial is a beautiful and spiritual connection with the earth.  Your body acts like a fertilizer, returning nutrients to the surrounding landscape, and while it wouldn't be a pretty sight to see the decomposition process, it certainly seems better than lying in a somewhat impermeable coffin (that would be an even worse sight over time).  I wouldn't want to embalmed - nor would I want an open casket as that's not the last memory I want people to have of me! - and while I often thought I'd want to be cremated, a natural burial seems to be, well, the most natural and "green" way to go.

Here are a couple informative web sites on natural burials:

The Centre for Natural Burial - http://www.naturalburial.coop/
Green Burial Council - http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/

So, what are your thoughts on natural burial?  Would you consider it?

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