I was delighted to see Denver Channel 7’s May 10 piece about “The Natural Funeral,” a holistic end-of-life education and natural funerary care center expected to open in Lafayette later this year. For those who wish to minimize their final footprint on the planet by eschewing toxic and/or environmentally harmful death care practices, the facility is long overdue. This is a huge step in the right direction, but there is still one significant piece missing: a truly “green” community cemetery for natural burials. While it is legal to bury people on your own land (unless prohibited by local ordinances), Boulder County has no designated natural burial grounds available for persons wishing to dispose of their bodies in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Each year, along with the bodies of the deceased, our country buries enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build more than 3,500 homes, and enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools (Mark Harris, “Grave Matters,” 2007). While “greener” than traditional burial, cremation still pumps more than 23 million pounds of carbon dioxide and toxins into the atmosphere. For the sake of future generations, we must take steps to ensure that death and funerary rituals promote regeneration rather than degradation.
Green cemeteries are natural areas where unembalmed bodies are buried in simple shrouds or biodegradable caskets, minus unnecessary burial vaults and upright headstones. It is how many of our ancestors were buried for centuries. Besides offering a less toxic and comparatively inexpensive alternative to traditional funerary practices, green cemeteries also help nourish, protect, and sustain natural ecosystems. Often called natural burial grounds, green cemeteries embrace the body’s return to the earth in a true “dust to dust” manner. Rather than the traditional “six feet under,” the deceased are laid to rest in hand-dug, three to four foot deep holes that accelerate decomposition. Soil microorganisms and bacteria immediately begin their composting work, providing nutrients for new life. This is what nature intended — that our bodies replenish the earth, not taint it.
Since 1997, approximately 100 green burial cemeteries have opened in the United States. Many are also beneficial nature preserves that actively promote a strong land conservation ethic. Green cemeteries not only preserve land from development, but also help restore it. They support and expand ecosystems and wildlife corridors. They are not disease vectors. And unlike conventional cemeteries, they require very little maintenance — mowing is infrequent or unnecessary, and vegetation is limited to native plants adapted to the local environment. Plots are usually less expensive, and sales can help finance land preservation, stewardship, and conservation. There are other, less tangible benefits as well. Grieving families and friends are often able to participate in such hands-on…