Sense and sustainability

Charles 5 Comments

Reindeer grazing at Usk Castle Chase natural burial ground,
which is managed by Native Woodland Natural Burial Sites

Cynthia Beal heads up the Natural Burial Company in the United States. She’s a friend of many in this country. This blog is her most ardent admirer. Before becoming a green burialist Cynthia spent a good many years in organic foods. That experience has proved invaluable to her and to many others looking for greener, more sustainable ways of disposing of their dead. Cynthia is not only an idealist with a long and admirable commitment to environmental responsibility, she is also a seasoned realist with the nous and experience to show dreamers how to make their dreams doable. Big heart, big brain, that’s our Cynthia.

She does something that we in the UK are in danger of losing sight of, I sometimes feel. She honours all that Britain has contributed to the natural burial movement and she honours those whose vision it originally was. Above all, she uses the K-word a lot. I like that. Because it was Bereavement Services Manager Ken West who, in 1993, translated an upsurge of best intentions into practical action by seeing through the opening of the first natural burial ground in 1993. What it took to get that past the good burghers of Carlisle I can’t begin to imagine. It must be a heck of a story, a little piece of history which we should cherish in the recounting. Ken is writing a book at the moment. I hope he will reveal all.

Cynthia has written an article about sustainable cemetery management which can’t be beat. It’s intelligent and it’s wise and it’s a very good read, especially the section on sustainability.

“Sustainability” has three primary components: social, ecological, and fiscal. Each of these affects the other two when a “full-cost lifetime accounting” is done, and the overall sustainability of an endeavor – i.e., its likelihood of success – is best served when all three aspects are in balance …

[D]eveloping a well-conceived sustainability plan may be your next order of business. Future capitalization may depend on demonstrating you understand all the bills coming due – the social ones and the ecological ones, as well as the fiscal ones. Chances are a superficial greening won’t pass muster – you’ll need to demonstrate you understand (and believe in) what you’re doing, and you’ll have to shop carefully, as there are plenty of companies that will sell “green” hype to you, too.

You don’t need hype – you need tools that work. Quarter-to-quarter expense management may require immediate resource-use analysis and reduction, transitioning the landscape to new conditions and developing new techniques and networks of experience. Master planning that proves your future income stream is in touch with environmental and consumer trends while addressing liability in a balanced manner may be what keeps your investors on board. After all, a cemetery is still forever – and sustainability is a big part of forever.

Read the whole piece here.

Another piece about natural burial caught my eye a few days ago. The writer, an American, raises two matters of interest to Brits. The first is aesthetic:

If I am not allowed the option of a casket, or a burial vault, what happens to my loved ones body when the burial is complete and a couple of tons of dirt are dumped on their body? This is a viable question, considering I buried my Dad, Grandmother, and Grandfather some years back and would not care for the visual this gives me. Personally, I like the idea that my loved ones weren’t crushed by the weight of the dirt during backfill.

Well, what do we think? Do people know that a cardboard coffin will be crushed as a grave is filled in, an MDF one within a few weeks? While they’re tending the grave in the time thereafter, what picture do they have of what’s going on below? My supposition is that they have none: their dead person is already idealised. What’s your view?

The writer’s second point is a strong one and it’s all about sustainability:

Green burials are great if you are into getting back to the old ways of performing burials. No casket expense, no vault expense, no memorial expense because in a true green burial space no memorial is allowed. This for a burial business means little or no streams of revenue to keep the cemetery profitable and in business. In 20 years, when the business is no longer solvent what happens to those burials? Who looks after the properties and maintains any record of those burials? I offer this as a brain teaser to this question: Many pioneer cemeteries and other old non marked cemeteries are disturbed annually with new road construction, new housing developments, etc. etc. I see this as a repeat of those same issues, 50 or 100 years from now. So for those who preach green, I want to know how they intend to protect the sanctity of these “new” green burial places for generations to come? Or, does that matter?

This is a matter which was raised by
James Leedam a few weeks ago in this blog. At the time I thought it had the quality of dynamite. I still do:

Sadly, the majority of the general public are not savvy when it comes to the environmental credentials of individual natural burial grounds, which vary enormously. In the absence of a “Go Compare” comparison website for natural burial grounds, consumers should interrogate the burial ground operators about their long-term future plans for the land – what happens in 30, 50 or 100 years time, when the income from burials ceases? How sustainable is their long term future? Many trading under the “green burial” banner, have apparently little concern for long-term sustainability (but are profiting nicely in the meantime). Others can offer you well considered plans and more confidence, their natural burial grounds will be future assets, not long-term liabilities.

Do not accept fuzzy visions – some operators suggest that a wildlife trust will take over when the ground reaches capacity – but be sure to ask the wildlife trust before accepting this; they might well have a different view. Ask yourselves how can these places sustain themselves once the income from burials dries up?

I’m not sure that many of us would feel competent to conduct this sort of due diligence. We’re in small-print territory here, where everyone speaks legalese. Have the seeds of our first natural burial scandal already been sown?

Strange and bitter crop, if so.


  1. Charles

    My very first thought in response to this is that it's about our values and cherished illusions more than anything. We are talking about decomposing corpses, not granny looking over the lovely view we can still see, and perhaps part of what we need is a more realistic version of death. Start with school trips to mortuaries, GCSEs in bereavement, dying and death, open discussions about mortality over the dinner table with those whose dead bodies we will be burying one day, and we could end up with a pragmatic acceptance of change and loss that we currently lack, and which influences our sensibilities in a way that makes a motorway over a graveyard a less disgusting and more practical prospect. When I think of my (then) 83 year old, fragile mother struggling down the steep concrete steps to see her husband's corpse in the funeral director's mortuary because it smelled too much for him to let her visit it in his chapel of rest, and her wanting to see it in whatever condition it was in, and being grateful for the opportunity, I can only respect her.

    My second thought is I need to think more deeply about this one before commenting further, as I expect you agree, but I've just come back from a Cruse management induction day in a Holiday Inn and I need to dash off for a GOOD cup of coffee.

  2. Charles

    I think this raises some interesting thoughts, especially the part of the final resting container. I personally think that a solid wood box, constructed from local materials, glued together with water based glue is the best option to balance the need for green and the families wishes to take care of the body. If one is concerned about the ground settling, one can gentle fill the extra space within the box before replacing the lid. This would speed up the composting process and yet keep the loved one protected until the only thing left would be bleached bones.

  3. Charles

    Composting? Hmmm. What gave you that idea, Simply Pine? A woodland burial site abides by the same laws of physics and chemistry as any cemetery.

  4. Charles

    I think comparing the Untied States to the UK ideas about death and burials is really like comparing orgainc to convetional growing methods -The United States has a very tainted and polluted view of it all. A cemetery is already quite egotistical -no one seems to be so concerned about a crematorium in the same sense since the body has, poof -gone up in the air, therefore no more. Who cares the future of the crematorium? Who cares the pracitices of those who work there?The whole philosophy pivoting on the natural burial concept is that ashes to ashes, dust to dust, earth to earth -just as our agricultural anscestors paid homage to the earth by refershing it with our own body, it too will dissappear just like the mighty oak or the stone in the creek. If three generations later a cemetery goes 'poof' -who was coming to see you anyhoo? Your great grandchildren? -Highly unlikely. Is there a mall full of pawn shops and matress outlets above you now? Well, no one seems so concerned about it in terms of our forefathers -Native Americans who are buried all over the place over here. Perhaps the concept need to sink in a bit more and maybe perhaps we should get over ourselves a bit more as well.

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