Shrouded green burial, photo courtesy of Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery

Life is full of many cyclical trends — from fashion and food to names and colors — but it all starts with the cycle of life and, consequently, death. Burials, like produce, began trending in a less natural direction with the manipulation of an organic process.
Pre-Civil War burials were an intimate affair with many customs taking place within the home. The women of the family would wash the body and lay it out for viewing by relatives and loved ones. A local carpenter constructed a simple coffin, likely out of pine, and family members often participated in digging the grave together. A family laid the body to rest on their own land or in a church graveyard.
Around that time, the burial process started to move farther afield with the introduction of embalming, a practice invented by ancient Egyptians. The U.S. War Department started utilizing embalming to ship northern soldiers’ bodies home. Mercury and arsenic were used to replace the body’s natural chemicals and delay decomposition. Today, embalming uses formaldehyde which is carcinogenic.
Embalming became a trend and a profession was born — that of the mortician. Because the mortician held the bodies, they started renting out their parlors for viewings and providing other services, effectively distancing the family from the burial.
Following her parents’ modern-style burials, Janice Thorup, one of the founders of Wild Sage Natural Burials, was inspired to return burials to a more natural and familiar practice and started researching the green burial movement in 2020.
“Death is part of life, but we’ve tended to sanitize it and push it away,” Thorup said. “I think that has increased our fear of it and doesn’t really honor the body’s return to the earth.”
She describes modern cemeteries as lawn parks that are resource-intensive due to fertilization, watering and mowing. In conventional burials today, airtight caskets are often made from tropical woods shipped from far away lands and inlaid with copper and bronze, metals which leach overtime into the soil and water sources. The caskets are interred in vaults of fiberglass, steel or concrete to prevent the earth from collapsing and to support an even turf for mowing grass.
An advantage of green burials is that they cost about half of the average $9,000 price tag of conventional burials. Thorup said, “Those fancy airtight caskets are expensive, and embalming is expensive, and the funeral homes will rent hearses and provide a bunch of products and services that you might need, but you don’t have to have.” She explained, “There’s the environmental cost, there is the consumer cost, and there is the cultural cost.”
Unlike the tight, uniform rows in a traditional cemetery, green burial grounds look more like a nature preserve. The bodies are scattered throughout the land and accessed by walking trails, identified with flat native stones and GIS markers. Thorup said, “Each grave is dug so as not to disturb the roots of existing trees and native species are planted.” People often donate land for green burial preserves and ideally conservation easements protect the land in perpetuity while providing the donor with tax credits.
Green burials prohibit anything that would interfere with the natural cycle of decomposition. Microorganisms in human intestines start breaking the body down within 72 hours, and within six weeks, most of the tissue is returned to the surrounding soil. Thorup said, “the process of the body’s breakdown is fascinating and really quite beautiful … There have been studies that show it can improve air quality and soil health.”
Cremation has long been considered an environmentally-friendly after-life option, but the 28 gallons of fuel and chemicals used during the process emit some 540 pounds of carbon dioxide per cremation, along with mercury, nitrous oxide and particulate matter, into the air. Plus, Thorup said, “Cremations have a high PH level with 200 times the calcium phosphate and sodium that plants can tolerate. So it creates a dead zone if you bury them.”
In green burials, bodies are often interred in a shroud and placed atop pine boughs, or within a pine or cardboard box. Sometimes local artisans create caskets out of seagrass or willow. Then pine boughs are also laid on top of the body for aeration. Preserve managers mound earth on top of the grave and, when it settles, continue the mounding process until the grave is level with the surrounding ground.
Most green burial preserves are clustered on the East Coast and southeast, with some in the Northwest. Wild Sage Natural Burials would like to offer green burials in the North Fork Valley. The 501(c)3 is actively looking for land to be donated to establish these preserves. Thorup said she wanted to honor “our spiritual values of just embracing death as part of life, wanting burials to be simple, and having families involved in a way they haven’t been since the Civil War.”
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