We learn all about green burials, the most natural way to go.

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Tragedy strikes Baltimore while Lucipara 2 is moored in its Inner Harbour. The Francis Scott Key Bridge collapses after a large container ship crashes into one of the pillars. Six men who were working on the bridge at the time of the terrible accident sadly lose their lives. Our immediate thoughts are with their families and loved ones. We realize how precious life is and how abruptly it can end.

And when it ends, what then? It may not be a popular topic to think about, but doing so can help the survivors make the right decisions in difficult times. In addition, what happens to our bodies after death has sustainability implications. Indeed, there is a natural way to bury bodies. Evelyn, our host in Baltimore, happens to know all about it.

Green Grave

“I’ll pick some daffodils in the garden and then we can visit Anne”, Evelyn announces. Her mother passed away at the age of 101 last year and the family decided that a “green burial” most suited Anne’s way of life. Evelyn found the perfect place for Anne at Serenity Ridge, Maryland’s first cemetery where only green burials are allowed. We head there to find out what green burials are.

As soon as we turn into the cemetery, we notice how different it is. No rows of tombstones or mausoleums, and no wall of urns. Instead, we see rolling hills, rows of newly planted trees, and a forest of mature trees in the distance. Only a few paths cross the spacious property. We later learn that only a quarter of the land is reserved for graves. The rest is set aside as conservation land and will remain a forest.

After parking the car, we walk to Anne’s grave, where Evelyn places her flowers next to a simple memorial stone. “We buried my mom in a canvas shroud, like the sails on a sailboat,” Evelyn recounts. “She enjoyed sailing and it felt like setting her off to sail to wherever she’s going next,” Evelyn adds. “Anne loved gardening, too. She was lowered onto a bed of straw, with her cherished soil and flowers above it. Family members shared stories and read some of her poems before her great-grandchildren laid flowers on her grave. Everyone reminisced and enjoyed the bittersweet beauty of the day.” Serenity Ridge let Evelyn and her family decide the details of Anne’s farewell themselves.

Evelyn explains that she is happy with the choice for a green burial: “The simplicity of bringing Anne back to earth in a natural way felt just right. Anne’s green burial gave me so much comfort, knowing that the last acts we did for her were so natural, personal, and simple, and we didn’t unnecessarily pollute the Earth.”

Unsustainable Tradition

We next meet Steve Kuehne, the cemetery manager. Before his current role, he worked in the conventional funeral industry for many years. We ask him what is unsustainable about a traditional burial. “In this country, it is standard procedure to embalm the bodies of the deceased. That practice dates to the time of the Civil War when bodies were conserved so they could be transported over long distances to be buried at home. However, embalming uses a lot of toxic chemicals, which are harmful when they get into the soil. Embalming fluids such as formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene are not very healthy for the people who work with them either. In addition, graves are commonly lined with a concrete wall and making concrete uses a lot of energy and causes CO2 emissions. Coffins are often made of precious hardwood and use metal parts which are not biodegradable. Finally, gravestones often come from far away, which means that their transport also causes CO2 emissions.”

“What about cremation?” we wonder. “Unfortunately, cremation is not so green either,” Steve replies. “Fossil fuels are used to burn the coffin and body. CO2 and toxic gases are released in the process. And cremated remains do not contain any useful nutrients for the soil.”

The verdict is clear: traditional burials and cremations are not very sustainable. So what makes a burial green?

Biodegradable Materials

Steve’s face lights up when he explains green burials. “Basically, our burials are the way they used to be a long time ago. We don’t try to keep the deceased separated from the soil life but return the body to nature. That means that there is no embalming, we don’t use cement lining, and all materials must be biodegradable. We don’t bury the bodies deep in the ground but in the aerated part of the soil, about three to four feet (0.9 – 1.2 metres) deep, so it can biodegrade better.”

It is up to the family which material to use to envelop the body, as long as it is biodegradable. Many choose a canvas shroud, a wicker basket, or an unpainted wooden coffin. “We supply a simple memorial stone, which comes from a quarry ten miles down the road,” Steve adds. Naturally, Serenity Ridge only allows real flowers on the graves.

Immersed in Nature

The advantages of green burials are obvious: less pollution and a healthier soil. It’s music to our ears. When we were in Pittsburgh in 2019, we visited natural burial park Penn Forest just outside the city. We agreed with Laura, Nancy, and Pete that “Green Burial… Is the Way to Go”.

We also learned about green or natural burials in New Zealand, where eco-artist Hundertwasser was buried that way. He emphasised that there is both a physical and a spiritual element to being buried in the soil: it closes the nutrient cycle and makes us realize that we are an inseparable part of nature. He was buried on his own land, so he didn’t have to worry about laws regulating cemeteries. Serenity Ridge only recently opened its gates, and we can imagine that starting a cemetery was not easy.

“What are the rules here?” we ask Serenity Ridge’s community manager Chelsea Berg. “When the owners of the land wanted to turn it into a cemetery for natural burials, they had to make sure that the cemetery would be maintained in the future,” Chelsea explains. “That means that money is set aside for its upkeep, as is the case for ordinary cemeteries. What makes Serenity Ridge special is that a large part of it is set aside as a nature reserve. We are constantly improving it by planting new seedlings of native species and getting rid of invasive ones. It is accessible to everyone, and our walking trails attract residents and bird watchers.” We understand why. Songbirds are singing at the top of their lungs and a hawk is circling above our heads. There are even beehives for pollination.

Increasing Popularity

Chelsea indicates that green burials are becoming more popular. “I think that environmental awareness is on the rise. People are making greener choices in their lives, and that includes the end of life,” Chelsea begins. “Funeral homes are now finding us because they also want to serve this growing market segment. Another bonus is that families have full control over how they want the ceremony to be. And a green burial is usually cheaper than a traditional burial,” she adds.

Chelsea also emphasises that she is creating a community of family members who have buried someone at Serenity Ridge, hence her job title of community manager. “The ceremonies held here to say goodbye to loved ones are often very personal. We assist the surviving relatives as much as we can and become part of their lives in deeply emotional times. And thereafter, too, because their relatives are with us forever. We invite the families to join us when we plant seedlings or sow wildflowers. At such events, they get to know others who have lost someone.”

The Better End

Back at Evelyn’s, we meet Sue Garonzic. She is a board member of the Green Burial Association of Maryland, an umbrella organization that disseminates information about green burials. “By informing people about green burials we help them prepare for the better end,” she smiles, tongue-in-cheek.  She summarises how many natural resources green burials could save. Each year, about 4 million litres of embalming fluid, about 2 million square metres of hardwood panels, almost 2 million tons of concrete, 17 thousand tons of copper and bronze and almost 65 million tons of steel could be saved, her organisation has calculated.

“We want to accelerate this transition by informing funeral homes, helping cemeteries, and lobbying local governments to adjust regulations where necessary. We also want to protect consumers from greenwashing. Certification is an important means of maintaining good standards. Serenity Ridge, for example, is certified by the Green Burial Council, the national organization we work with,” Sue explains.

Their work is paying off. “A second natural burial ground will soon open in the state,” Sue beams. “And there are eight conventional cemeteries in our state that also offer natural burials on their premises.”

A World to Win

While we still wait for Baltimore’s port to reopen, we are pleased to have been given the opportunity to learn all about green burials, the natural alternative to the material-intensive, polluting, and expensive traditional burials. We also like the idea that families can keep the ceremony simple if they want to. However, there is still a world to win before we can call green burials the new traditional way of burying. Which begs the question: have you thought about what happens to your body at the – inevitable – end yet?

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