Note: I’ve updated some of the statistics and links in this article as of December 2022.
Have you given much thought to your life after you die? I’m not thinking of any type of spiritual existence, but rather about how your body becomes part of the earth, one way or another.
As uncomfortable as it might be to think about it this way, conventional cemeteries are really toxic waste dumps. Think about it. Your body is pumped full of embalming fluid (formaldehyde and other chemicals) to preserve it long enough for funeral home viewing, then placed in clothing (often synthetics that take a long time to biodegrade), then placed in a wood coffin that’s been treated with chemical sealants and contains metal hardware. Sometimes the coffin is placed inside a steel or concrete vault, then the whole bundle of poison is buried six feet under and covered with turf grass that’s kept alive for all eternity by chemical pesticides and fertilizers. I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck don’t want MY final act to be one that poisons the earth like that.
For the past decade or so I’ve been convinced that I wanted to be cremated when I die. Cremation is actually fairly common in this country; about 50% of all Americans are cremated at death (per 2016 statistics). Cremation seemed much more environmentally friendly than the other available methods, at least at first glance. You simply get reduced to a pile of ashes that can be scattered at sea or in a special wilderness place, or just buried in an urn. But then I started thinking about the air pollution generated by the cremation process; specifically there are concerns about the mercury vapors from dental fillings. I don’t have any mercury in my fillings, but even so, I’m unhappy with the pollution aspects. So I started looking into other options, and I think I may have found the perfect choice for me.
But before I tell you about that, I found one other interesting option for people who still want to be cremated. It’s the “Bios Urn,” a biodegradable urn that contains your ashes and a single tree seed. The idea is that you help fertilize a tree, which then grows and stands as a living legacy to your life. That sounds pretty good, but I’d be worried that someone would cut me down for firewood. Wouldn’t that be ironic if I chose not to be cremated and then I grew into a tree that someone burned in their fireplace? Funny.
So my choice is a natural burial in which your body isn’t pumped full of chemicals. There’s no chemically-treated wood or steel coffin being placed into the soil to poison it further. What happens instead is that your body is placed in a simple cloth shroud (or sometimes a biodegradable pine coffin) and placed directly into the soil to decompose naturally. It gives me a feeling of deep peace to think that my body will fertilize the soil, and perhaps feed earthworms or insects, which will in turn become food for the birds I love so much. It might even be possible that a molecule from my body will one day fly across a meadow in the body of a beautiful Northern Cardinal or Red-winged Blackbird. How can you top that? (Of course my sister doesn’t like the idea, and says I’d probably poop on her car…funny girl.)
There are some great places being established as natural burial cemeteries, and I hope more will pop up as this idea gains support. There’s an interesting one in Northern Ohio called Foxfield Preserve, a lovely-looking nature preserve cemetery owned by the Wilderness Center. Take a look at their website and see if it doesn’t seem pretty amazing.
So what do you think about this whole idea of natural burials? Do you think it’s important or not? Would you consider it for yourself or your loved ones?
Resources for further reading — I haven’t read any of these books yet, but offer them here as possible starting points for those who want to read more.
Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson
Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Burial, by Bob Butz
Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, by Mark Harris
List of Natural Burial Preserves in US – some of their websites have good information too.