Progressive movements in the world of funerals mostly march resolutely forwards into the past. The past is that place where they did things properly, the place we need to return to if we are to reclaim the care of our dead and the rituals of their passing; the place we must to return to if we are to slough off the professionalisation of death and the supremacy (you could call it the dead hand) of the undertaker.
Not that it’s the undertakers’ fault that they became preeminent; that’s the fault of self-disempowered consumers. Let’s be certain of that.
Even for people who want to distance themselves from the care of the corpse, green burial looks like an attractively retrogressive, daisy-pushing option—low carbon, high ethics, no toxins, primal simplicity, rustic loveliness, all nature rejoices, bluebird sings, deer and antelope play, feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole, etc.
It’s not necessarily cheap. Privately owned natural burial grounds do not benefit from subsidies and tax breaks available to local authority owned cemeteries. But green burial makes an attractive offer. Statistics generated for our guidance tell us that over 60 per cent of us would prefer burial to cremation if we could be buried in a nice place. And, as James Leedham of Native Woodland points out, there’s a saving to be made in not having to buy a headstone.
If you’re planning to go green there are things you need to know. Not all these things are nice if you are going to get real and compel ethical necessity to subjugate aesthetic wishfulness. Real green buriers do it for strenuously puritanical and ecological, not sentimental pretty-pretty, reasons.
Many criteria for natural burial are obvious and easy to adhere to—simple coffin made from locally sourced material, no embalming, local flowers unwrapped in cellophane. No problem.
Some criteria present definite difficulties.
First, you can’t have a delineated grave, neither may you, if you want to do it properly, mark the spot. Most natural burial grounds won’t let you. This can be very hard to bear. No, you can’t plant a tree on the grave—it would be too close to the other trees on the other graves, and in any case trees don’t like being planted in disturbed earth. Those natural burial grounds which have relaxed their strictures forbidding memorialisation now fight a losing battle against shrubs, teddy bears, windchimes and all manner of sentimental gewgaws which, in a natural setting, amount to trash. A thoroughgoing natural burial ground looks as if no one is buried there. If you want to overrule the dead person’s wish that you “Do not stand at my grave and weep”, then you will be able to find it using GPS, electronic marker or unobtrusive wooden markers only.
Second, true greens turn their faces against climate warming machinery. This comprises both machinery used to dig graves and maintain the burial ground, and motorcars used to get there. Almost all natural burial grounds require an object-defeating longer car journey than your local authority cemetery, and subsequent visits rack up what natural burial guru Ken West calls ‘grieving road miles’. If you have to visit after the funeral, therefore, you ought to do it on foot or bike. If you can’t, stay away.
Third, probably everyone who uses a natural burial ground fondly supposes that the corpse will decompose in an environmentally agreeable way in a process graphically described by Hamlet:
‘Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.’
It’s a desirable ecological outcome for the body to compost rapidly and push up daisies, fatten maggots and enrich the soil. It’s called aerobic decomposition and it happens only if a body is buried in bug-filled topsoil. Any lower and decomposition is anaerobic; the body simply turns slowly to methane and sludge. It is against the law in the UK to bury a body with less than 2’6” of soil on top (2’ where soils conditions allow). But this law arguably only applies to local authority burial grounds and, in law, there is nothing to stop you from burying a body in a shallow grave or even on the surface, so long as it is covered with at least two feet of earth.
Many natural burial grounds bury at an unaccountable, cold, dark and lifeless six feet. This, more than anything else, makes a nonsense of present-day natural burial and is a typical example of what Dr William ‘Billy’ Campbell of Ramsey Creek, the first US green burial ground, calls ‘green-washing’. So far as I am aware there have been no studies conducted in the UK to determine optimal green burial depth. Billy Campbell has done something I have not heard of anyone doing in this country: he fills in graves with twigs, creating micro-channels to speed decomposition and encourage soil nutrients to rise to the surface rather than be leached into the water table.
When asked why they don’t bury closer to the surface, UK burial grounds tend to rehash what may or may not be a rural myth, namely that foraging foxes and/or burrowing badgers will use the burial ground as a restaurant and charge off with dangling limbs in their jaws. Green grounds also point out that if a corpse is buried close to the surface it stinks out the surrounding area. Well, from another point of view you could regard this as encouraging evidence of merry, useful decomposition. Noxious smells may make you gag but they never harmed anyone’s health. And they abate in a short time.
Billy Campbell confounds (or does he?) the myth of foraging animals:
‘Burial is a very ancient and very successful “low tech” solution for the concern that animals would be attracted to bodies. Pioneer cemeteries located in wild areas that contained animals such as grizzly bears were not disturbed. In the last decade at Ramsey Creek, we have seen absolutely no evidence whatsoever that animals are attracted to natural burial sites, despite the presence of dogs, coyotes, and the occasional black bear. Anyone who has ever dug or filled in a grave would be doubtful about such worries. Even relatively shallow natural burials where no casket is used are safe from animal interference.’
Fourth, are natural burial grounds sustainable? Do they have a reuse of graves policy? No, none of them. So, while such burial grounds, by virtue of having bodies in them, ensure the conservation of their sites, they remain in exclusive occupation until Doomsday by far fewer bodies than makes good green, or even common, sense. Vanity of vanities. What’s the solution? It’s difficult. Once a body is skeletised (8-10 years) it’s time to move on. In the middle ages they had charnel houses to put dug up bones in, but they seem unlikely to make a comeback. Would there be any objection to digging up the bones, grinding them and spraying them over the woodland or meadow? Aesthetic objections, possibly—but grinding’s what we do, after all, to bones burnt in a cremator. Legal objections for sure: you’d need an exhumation order to do it. But, let’s get real, it makes good green sense, doesn’t it?
Natural burial grounds have some way to go to become truly green, a truly ethical option, and they shrink from becoming so because they are commercial operations and need to be alluring to the consumer. Billy Campbell’s analysis is this:
‘In the U.K., dozens of “green burial grounds” are cropping up, but no clear standard is emerging. Projects differ widely in terms of aesthetics, social utility and ecological functionality. For example, most of the projects in the UK are so small – often less than 5 acres – or are located so haphazardly that they fail to achieve even modest conservation goals beyond that associated with not using excessive resources for burial or introducing toxics into the environment.
Consequently, the public will be confused, and might not recognize the difference between a superficially green (“green-washing”) project and one that makes a significant contribution to conservation and sustainability. The range of possibilities for the conceivable permutations for greener or more sustainable cemeteries is dizzying, and the market barriers for creating superficial projects are lower than that for creating larger and more functional projects. Without some broadly accepted rating system for projects, we can expect greater market fragmentation and a lost opportunity for funding socially and ecologically meaningful open spaces.
Natural burial grounds have a duty to educate the public and stop permitting aesthetic green-washing at the expense of ethical imperatives.
At the same time, the public has a duty to educate itself and stop being so squeamish and sentimentalising in the matter of disposing of its dead.
And, yes, Mr Campbell, it’s high time we had a rating system.