Green Burials Bring Peace of Mind to Final Rest

These beautiful cemeteries offer a tranquil setting and an all-natural burial

March 2, 2011 -- Larry Gyure steps around ferns in a fir-shaded corner of a tiny cemetery outside of Estacada, points to brush across a patch of brown dirt and describes how twelve hours after a woman named “Elise” died, he helped her family remove her body from the back of a station wagon wrapped in a simple shroud, place her on a pine board and lower her into the earth.
“It was really cowboy-like,” he says. “It's just green and backwoods here.”
This is the George Cemetery, a tiny 19th century burial ground wedged between two small farms with a 14-plot wooded section at which Gyure, the sexton of the Estacada Cemetery Maintenance District, requires that everything placed in a grave – from the clothing to the casket or shroud – be biodegradable. Even on top of the grave, mourners can only place real flowers. No balloons. No trophies. And, there only can be a small boulder marking the grave.
That's just what Elise and the other six people already buried at the George Cemetery's green burial ground wanted, Gyure says.
“Eventually, it all goes back to where it was,” says Gyure, who's so enamored with the concept and location that he's reserved plots for himself and his family.
More than 820,000 gallons of embalming fluid are used in the U.S. each year. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of tons of steel and other metals, as well as 30 million board feet of hardwoods get buried as caskets, while burial vaults claim more than 1.6 million tons of concrete. Cremation, though it requires less land and material than burial, is energy intensive and could pose risks of mercury leaking from silver fillings.
Neither embalming nor concrete burial vaults are required by Oregon law.
Cynthia Beal, the founder of Eugene-based Natural Burial Company, says the key for death-related products is using the right materials for the right job. “Why in the world would you make a coffin a single use item out of stamped steel with all of that embodied energy? Forget the natural piece. I'd focus on just the sheer economics of it. A coffin is like a disposable piece of furniture.”
Scott Cummings – a woodworker who sells biodegradable caskets made from locally, sustainably-grown softwoods -- says customers seem to appreciate knowing that they and their family members can trace the exact forest their caskets come from.
“It keeps it a lot more personal and human feeling to me.” Cummings says. “The people who call me really want to talk, and I end up hearing stories, and I feel jittery by the time I'm making the casket. I kind of know a little bit about who I'm making it for.”
Cummings' products are Green Burial Council certified, as is the George Cemetery. Formed in 2005, the Santa Fe-based group works in 40 states to set standards meant to lessen “green washing” in the funeral industry. That group works to protect worker health in the prep room and factories, to reduce carbon emissions, to eliminate material waste through burial vaults and metal caskets and to avoid the water waste and pesticides associated with ground keeping.
“If there's a legitimate environmental aim associated with some aspect of the funeral business, we'll get behind that,” says Joe Sehee, executive director and founder of Green Burial Council. “For the most part, the leading funeral services associations and state associations have been very supportive and receptive.”
Janie Woodward, a director and embalmer at Weddle Funeral Service in Stayton, who’s president of the Oregon Funeral Directors Association, doesn't know of any funeral director who'd refuse a request for green practices.
“We would probably seek every possible method to provide a technically green container,” Woodward says. “Whatever level of green they want to. That's our job. That's our passion to provide the families to meet their needs for the death of their loved one.”
Wider industry adoption of legitimately green practices will require everyone involved to get together at the same table to define what's meant by “green,” she says. “Does this require a definition of what a burial carbon footprint would be? When they say green burials, are they taking a vault or a liner and turning it upside down but we're still putting material in the ground? There are a lot of definitions that need to be worked on.”
The Green Burial Council's strictest standard covers “conservation burial grounds” like the White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Goldendale, WA. The 20-acre portion of a 1,300 acre nature preserve is set aside in perpetuity like a land trust, with the deceased's body or cremated remains placed amid native plant life and geology.
Elsewhere in Washington, near Raymond, Bitsy Bidwell plans to help her friend, Sandy Bradley, an organic gardener, develop a new green burial ground called Fiddler's Green. Planned as a “natural burial ground,” the mid-level of the council's three-tier certification, the cemetery won't have conservation easements and won't use vaults or allow toxic chemicals such as embalming fluids. It will implement an integrated pest management plan and a plan for unauthorized grave designation or landscaping, conduct an assessment looking at endangered species or cultural resources, consult the site's hydrology and limit the type and sizes of markers and curtail visitation through sensitive areas.
“It's a whole new or renewed way of death,” Bidwell says.
In Portland, cemeteries operated by the regional government Metro don't offer green burials, although some Jewish people may be buried using the same practices.
Valley Memorial Park in Hillsboro is certified “hybrid” by the council. Other cemeteries aren't certified as “green,” but have been widely cited nonetheless for green practices. In 2010, for example, the 127-year-old Riverview Cemetery had seven natural burials, says David Noble, its executive director. Twenty-one more people who have reserved plots ahead of time at Riverview have already made advance arrangements for green burials, Noble said.
“We live in Portland, the greenest city in the country,” Noble says. “You find in all of history that people want their death practices to mirror their life practices.”
Beal says this adaptive reuse of an existing cemetery might even be preferable to a green burial preserve that might impact a pristine area, even to a minimal extent.
“The preserve concept is a little misplaced because cemeteries are land that's already locked up forever,” Beal says. “We want to provide the alternative, but we want to make it so it's an alternative that can be used in the existing system. My goal isn't too have the 100 percent perfect best green award, although some of our products qualify.”
Sehee, of the Green Burial Council, says spreading information about green practices is the first priority. “The main rule of thumb to the consumer is to be skeptical and not to necessarily believe what you're told. We’re a clearinghouse of information and work with people on an at need basis.”

For More Information

Green Burial Council
Valley Memorial Park, Hillsboro -
River View Cemetery Funeral Home
White Eagle Memorial Preserve
A Fine Farewell
Weddle Funeral Service
Oregon Funeral Directors Association
Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board
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It still sounds like the land where people are buried is unuseable for any future use besides burials. It's that part of the process that I find to be the most wasteful.

That's another reason why natural burials are so special it helps protect open space for future generations, and enables friends, relatives, and strangers to have a beautiful tranquil place to visit. Who knows how much longer our national parks are going to survive. Many people, it seems are hell bent on felling every tree, and killing everything that moves on four legs. In full disclosure I am the founder of Final Footprint, a biodegradable casket company. But I love open space and am from England where we have over 250 natural burial sites.