Dust to Dust – Green Burials

Dust to DustA Return to the ‘Green Burial’ Appeals to Those Who Seek a Simple Life and a Simpler Death

By Chuck Beard

It matters not, so I’ve been told,
where the body lies
when the heart’s grown cold .
-“Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie”

During a special performance of the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., a lone figure parted  the curtain at the back of the
presidential box and aimed a derringer pistol. One shot was fired, and President Abraham Lincoln slumped forward. It was April 14, 1865.

A doctor in the audience raced upstairs and saw that the bullet had entered through Lincoln’s left ear and lodged behind his right ear. Paralyzed and barely breathing, he was carried across Tenth Street to a boardinghouse for emergency medical care. Despite the assembled doctors’ best efforts, he died the next morning at 7:22 a.m.

Soon after Lincoln’s death was announced and the stunned country fell into mourning, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took over preparations for the funeral. After an autopsy and removal of the fatal bullet, Stanton ordered the president’s body to be embalmed. A 1,700-mile tour via nine-car funeral train was arranged to give grieving Americans a chance to salute their slain leader.

Essentially, Lincoln had not one funeral but 12; along the funeral procession, his body lay in repose in one dozen cities in seven states before finally resting in Springfield, Ill., on May 4 – almost three weeks after the assassination.

An estimated one million citizens viewed the body along the route, and the recent practice of embalming and its preservative effects reached a broad audience for the first time. An embalmer traveled as part of the procession, keeping the body in a presentable condition along the way. Though often noting facial discolorations (owing to the location of the gunshot), newspaper accounts generally reported favorably on the president’s appearance.

Besides being the site of Lincoln’s final resting place, Springfield also is home to the Museum of Funeral Customs, which seeks to provide a deeper understanding of the history of American funeral and mourning customs and practices.

Between the time of the ancient Egyptians’ feats of mummification and the advent of arterial embalming in the Netherlands in the 17th century – a period of about 3,000 years – the treatment of a human body after death was decidedly low-tech.

According to the Museum of Funeral Customs, the most common methods of body disposal throughout history were non-preservative burial and cremation. The world’s cultures have practiced a range of often elaborate rituals to commemorate these deaths, but the actual treatment of the body itself has most often facilitated quick decomposition.

American mortuary science was in its infancy at the start of the Civil War. But as increasing numbers of young men were dying from battle wounds or disease far from home, the desire of their family members to have their loved ones’ bodies returned with a lifelike appearance for burial facilitated the art – and business – of preservative embalming.

Medical training gave surgeons and pharmacists the skills needed to preserve bodies, but growing demand gave birth to a booming mortuary industry peopled with embalming technicians.

Since then, the idea of the modern 21st-century funeral has come to mean embalming, placement of the body in an expensive steel casket, and finally interment in a vault, all handled by a funeral director and blessed by state law. It’s just the proper thing to do.

Or is it?

A Plain Pine Box

I don’t want a circus when I die.

That is how John Wilkerson’s mother expressed her wishes for the time when her death would come.

“It was her description of a modern-day funeral: embalming, viewing, procession, burial. That just didn’t fly in her mind,” said Wilkerson, whose father became ill in the early 1990s and died soon after.

“When Daddy died, we buried him in what we referred to as ‘his’ cemetery,” said Wilkerson, of DeFuniak Springs, “because he and Mama had given the property for a cemetery to a little local church. He already had told us, ‘We want to be buried right here.’ So we buried Daddy in a plain pine box. We dug the grave – no vault. He’s not embalmed. He’s in a plain pine box, not in a casket. And then three years later we buried my mother.”

Wilkerson and his siblings inherited a sizable tract of land in northern Walton County upon the death of their parents, and he lives there still. Pines and hardwoods dot the 350-acre site, a North Florida scrub with creeks, fields and cool ponds. Gopher tortoises and fox squirrels are there, and the endangered and carnivorous white-topped pitcher plant is abundant. Chufa, a specialty seed crop that turkeys find quite tasty, is grown there and sold commercially.

When his thoughts turned to preserving his own slice of heaven in perpetuity, Wilkerson worried that the land one day would be split up and developed. When a friend suggested that he look into the concept of memorial ecosystems and “green burial,” he knew he had found what he wanted, and the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve was born.

What is Green Burial?

The Green Burial Council is an independent, nonprofit organization founded “to encourage ethical and environmentally sustainable death-care practices, and to use the burial process as a means of facilitating the acquisition, restoration and stewardship of natural areas.”

Joe Sehee, founding and acting executive director of the Green Burial Council, worries at the harmful effects that modern burial practices are having on the earth.

“Little research has been done on embalming fluid once it’s in the soil,” he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists the embalming chemical formaldehyde as a “probable” carcinogen, but other international agencies, including the World Health Organization, regard the chemical as far more dangerous.

According to the Green Burial Council, modern funeral practices lead Americans to bury each year more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid; more than 90,000 tons of steel; almost 3,000 tons of copper and bronze; 30 million board feet of hardwoods (much from tropical rainforests); 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete; and 14,000 tons of steel.

The group advocates “green burials,” which simply means placing the unembalmed body in a biodegradable container – be it a plain wood box, a shroud, or even a favorite blanket – and interring the body in a grave, leaving nature to take its course – “dust to dust.”

“Before 1860,” said Sehee, “people were being buried ‘green’ for thousands of years.”

The state of Florida does not require a funeral director’s services. Many people believe that bodies legally must be embalmed before burial, but that isn’t so. Federal law says only that a body has to be refrigerated or embalmed within 24 hours if it is not buried or cremated first. Some also believe that embalming is necessary to prevent the spread of airborne pathogens, but the Green Burial Council says there is “not one shred of evidence that suggests embalming provides any public-health benefits.”

The catch is that most cemeteries insist that all buried remains be embalmed first and interred in a vault. Enter the green cemetery – or “memorial preserve.” These are burial grounds developed as a strategy for protecting natural areas.

Green burials are hugely popular in Europe. In fact, Great Britain has more than 200 green sites, but the United States lags far behind in numbers.

The Grieving Process

Wilkerson admits to years of being forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops before his Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve came to be. Was the land a nature preserve or a cemetery? Under what state board’s regulations would it fall? When the dust settled, a simple $25 license gave him status as an “exempt cemetery.” The preserve has nonprofit 501(c)(13) corporation status, with a board of nine trustees.

“We’re not allowed to sell plots,” he said. “We can only charge money for opening and closing of the grave space at time of need. We charge $1,000 at this point.”
Of the 350 acres on the tract, 70 acres are set aside as cemetery land. Wilkerson estimates that each acre can accommodate from 30 to 100 burials. (Modern cemeteries bury 800 to 3,000 bodies per acre.) Plots are spacious enough for family members and even pets to be buried alongside. The preserve’s policy is that no marker or gravestone can be used that can be pushed over; a flat rock 4 square feet or less, level with the ground, is permissible.

Wilkerson’s first insight into alternative burials came many years ago when a man came to his sawmill and asked for a handmade coffin. Located on the preserve site, Wilkerson’s sawmill still produces lumber for caskets, most selling for between $400 and $800. But he discourages people from using caskets altogether, preferring burial in a shroud or a favorite set of clothes to hasten the decomposition.

An outdoor chapel is available for funeral or memorial services, and a historic 100-foot fire tower is on site for scattering ashes. At each grave, a 4- to 5-foot hole is dug (state law requires only 1 foot where possible), and family members are encouraged to take part in replacing the topsoil.

“The ability for us to ease our grieving process is not addressed in these expensive funerals,” Wilkerson said. “I believe the more physically involved you can become in the funeral of a loved one, the easier your grieving process will be.”

He wants people to ask questions.

“People have said, ‘I was terribly opposed to this idea, but now that I’ve seen it, I think this is great.’ We’ve been thanked profusely over and over again.”

And how is business? So far, Wilkerson has buried 13 humans, three dogs, one cat and one guinea pig. The sale of chufa remains the backbone of the preserve.

“We’ve grossed less than $20,000 in five years – not exactly a booming business,” he said. “But it’s coming, and it feels good at this point. And it’s the right thing to do.

“I rarely meet a potential chufa customer,” Wilkerson said with a wink, “but everyone is a potential cemetery customer.”