Sense and sustainability – 2

Charles 3 Comments

I am incredibly grateful to Cynthia Beal for this long and deeply considered response to this post. I wish I felt I were worth it, Cynthia! But I know that all readers of this blog will find in your words a great deal of food for thought.

Dear Charles,

Thanks so much for another provocative post! I’m not sure I can add any light here, but I’ll try.

First, you mention my position on “sustainable cemetery management” and help to remind all of us that a cemetery is, at the practical end of the stick, the fulfillment of a fiscal, environmental and social obligation, serving a vital public purpose – the management of our dead. I believe Ken and I are in agreement on that score, and I think sometimes it escapes people that those three tasks of sustainability are NOT about the perpetuation of an individual in human memory.

I don’t believe either of our countries’ laws requires that we pay for the memorialization of a single person in perpetuity, nor mow, irrigate and pesticide their little scrap of lawn. There are a number of businesses that have marketed and sold that promise to people, however. Just because they can’t deliver on it doesn’t mean they won’t keep the fiction alive as long as possible – but it also doesn’t mean that society is responsible for picking up that tab.

I find it’s often helpful for people if I break down “natural burial” (I don’t use the word “green” any longer) into three components:

1) the funeral – a natural one, generally without toxic embalming, often with a spiritual accompaniment that can include home or institutional presentation, virtual or face-2-face components, or even circus parties

2) the burial – using biodegradable “packaging” (coffin, shroud, etc.) in a liner-free grave at a depth suitable for decomposition, often done in the rain in both the UK and Oregon, my home state

3) sustainable cemetery management – what’s done with the surface of the land after the burial has occurred. “Memorialization” – the personal bit about how the future is forced OR permitted to remember the past – is a subjective choice that’s dictated in part by the landscape management style, and should be seen as a function of what the maintenance budget, the site’s aesthetics, and the grave fees allow.

One can think about each of these elements – funeral, burial, and landscaping – separately from the other two, and clarity comes. Some folks in the “green” burial movement have an “all or nothing” attitude and speak as if these form an inseparable ‘whole’, suggesting that if one doesn’t do all three perfectly there’s no point in doing any one of them alone. That’s a mistaken position in my view, and also leads to all sorts of mis-understandings and mis-representations.

Your second writer – the fellow who’s offended by the “non-allowance” of things “green” – exhibits this confusion when he talks about all the things he can’t do. It’s not about ‘can’t’ in his mind – it’s about ‘won’t” and there’s a difference.

While there are some members of the “green” community that adore rule-making (hence all the “thou shalt nots” with respect to the “greenest” burials, which can too easily devolve into a holier-than-thou marketing competition, if you ask me, instead of an educated continuum of option) the fact of death is this:

Idealized end or not, one gets buried in a hole. There’s dirt there. The dirt will someday touch the body – sooner or later. The relative handful of people who cannot tolerate contemplating that fact and don’t have the powers of mind to ignore it have the readily available option of an underground bomb-shelter (casket and vault) to comfort them. I don’t deny them that choice.

However, the rest of us should be able to go into our chosen dirt just as easily, without a lot of extra handwringing, especially from business people whose income streams are wrapped up in selling the packaging that keeps the dirt off. I’m an Earth Girl – I like dirt. I’m not a fan of excess packaging. I don’t like it that I can’t easily go back to my maker in a compostable plain (or fancy!) wrapper if I choose.

The fact is that the earth-phobic aging public (a generation that seemed afraid of the planet itself, addicted to germ-killers, artificial environments, and insurance against the world in general) is shrinking, and rapidly being replaced by people who are not repelled by Nature. Many in this next wave of future dead-people actually like to lie down on bare grass and some even indulge in visions of sinking into the soil and becoming trees and daisies someday.

Regarding the implied invincibility of vaults securing the body from a cave in- your second cited writer’s logic is a bit faulty, too — there are MANY vaults and liners sold on the market that collapse eventually. The cheaper they are the weaker they are. Some collapse very quickly. Some take longer. None are allowed to state that they will not leak or they will NEVER collapse (truth in advertising laws require this).

In fact, when I talked to Ken West about vaults and asked why the UK didn’t use them he said “We tried that. They don’t work. Sooner or later they all cave in. That’s just the way of it. Give yours a century and they’ll collapse, too.”

One thing this writer also misses is the fact that natural cemeteries, if operated properly, need never run out of income. There is no science-based reason NOT to practice grave reuse, especially by families who would like to maintain the plots over many generations. (Queen’s Road Cemetery at Croydon in London is experimenting with this and having good success). In 2006, UK cemetery management that included the possibility of grave reuse was growing as a common position in your own local authorities, and it’s continuing ever faster today:

There are plenty of alternative memorialization options, too, and creatively run cemeteries can offer MUCH more than just a place to dispose of the dead, while still being environmentally and socially respectful, and administratively prudent.


The UK’s cemetery space conundrum came about in large part because of all the cement and marble and granite loaded into each grave. That, coupled with a prohibition on the desecration of a grave monument, as well as the grave itself, prohibited removal or disturbance of remains – i.e., reuse – without the invocation of public health laws. Since skeletonized remains are not hazardous, graves have been sacrosanct and highly resistant to intelligent intervention.

If the Victorian-fueled “Edifice Complex” (that we were infected with over here, too) hadn’t required such a land-grab of stone-like stuff the soil microbes can’t possibly digest in a reasonable period of time, you’d still have room in your cemeteries today and all this would probably be moot.

We still have plenty of grave space in our cemeteries over here, but they’re eating up an increasing amount of resources every year, the service infrastructures are increasingly prohibitive to install, burial’s giving way to cremation, and sooner or later we’re going to have to pull the cheap-resources plug.


If I have my druthers (“I’d rathers” in hillbilly talk), we won’t even be talking about “natural burial grounds” in 10-20 more years because so many of our existing cemeteries will have transitioned to sustainable techniques out of necessity — we’ll be talking about cemeteries, plain and simple.

(Hence, please be careful about making up a new set of rules for a new class of cemetery…try to stay on task with the issues of pollution, energy use, and staying out of peoples’ private business if it’s not REALLY about public health, and you’ll probably do just fine, and set us a good example, as well. We’re counting on you, UK!)

In my preferred future with respect to cemeteries, “Natural” will be an increasingly prevalent style of activity reflected in management as a function of COST-SAVING and ENVIRONMENT PRESERVING “sense”; it will be connected to resource-use reduction and habitat support, will use fewer toxins and pollutants, and will be the common-sense approach of any landscaper worth her salt and paying attention to the triple bottom line.

We’ll be funding affordable basic disposition of the dead through natural earth interment for people who don’t WANT to be burned, and people who do will have the ability to be cremated in energy-efficient crematoria that don’t create pollution.

We’ll do this because the fulfillment of LAST WISHES in line with ecological as well as spiritual principles with respect to one’s own physical body – while not a clearly articulated right but still a preference worthy of notice – should be honored to the degree possible. And we’ll make this basic Last Right affordable, and not channel it into an industrial interest’s pocketbook automatically, just because we all die and someone’s going to be paid to put away our pieces.


It makes sense that an environmentally friendly and economic option should be available to everyone, equally. It makes so much sense that I’m surprised a simple natural burial isn’t a public utility, offered equally to every single one of us, without charge. That’s the definition of a public utility – it’s something we all need, that we agree to pay for collectively, and that we pull the profit out of in order to make it most affordable to all. Since we all die, and we’re made of water and earth, it seems perfectly obvious to me that we should be put back where we got ourselves.


The aesthetics – the “sensibility” of the thing – seen in the dressing up of the cemeteries; the decency clauses that reach beyond a national consensus (that rightfully includes atheists, pagans and open-pyre-cremationists); the rules and prohibitions that make up a “club” and gather members based on shared assumptions or desires for similar treatment – should really be left up to individual groups, churches or private cemetery budgets. Local public authorities can provide the basic no-frills options. The private market can pick up the rest.


People who want their voice regarding land maintenance to last long after their bodies should probably go to either their local cemetery and leave a directed cash endowment for the establishment and preservation of cemetery habitat, VIA the local Living Cemetery/Living Churchyard program OR they should be buried in one of the more responsible natural burial parks that Leedam mentions.

They should also expect to pay top dollar, and these cemeteries should charge it. They’ll need it to do everything they claim they’re going to do, without public funds, forever, so yes, Leedam’s right and buyers should scrutinize the fine print here. After all, they’re buying a gardener “forever”, and wages and taxes in 2200 may not come cheap!


People who don’t care about who disturbs or visits their body, or what happens to the land after they’ve decomposed – i.e., they’re done with their bodies and they’re putting them back into the earth; come on in and plant corn, for goodness sake! – are the IDEAL candidates for low-cost farmers’ field cemeteries, and I say let them have their INEXPENSIVE natural burial without castigating the operators or the future residents for their choices.

This seems a private deal between two free individuals. As long as public health is not compromised, and bones are identified so that forensics’ teams don’t have expensive community headaches in 50 years, I fail to see the rationale for interference from anyone in the transaction. The cemetery operators can have the buyers sign releases saying as much and that should be the end of it. (Maybe I’m over-simplifying a bit but I don’t think this is beyond reason…)

So, in short Charles, I’d say you were right when you say we’ve already idealized our future vision. In fact, having a variety of burial options that suit our particular tastes is one great step to idealizing the beyond, in whatever fashion we choose. I like looking through a lot of choices. It’s inspiring and fun, and even makes me less nervous about what might be “next.” To think I may have a choice in the matter, even if it’s just ‘being a tree,’ is awesome.

I’m sure you’ll end up with scandals. The question is whether or not everyone will go all a’twitter because of an individual’s disappointment about how “green” the lawn care is, and whether or not the guy next to you gets buried in polyester. (If it matters that much, do go somewhere with a written dress code, and read the rules before you rent the space for the hole!)

It’s rarely the best business of government to defend people from disappointment, hurt feelings and failed expectations outside of clear breach of contract – going down that road is a formula for either disaster or too many meetings one doesn’t have the time nor patience to attend. And where privately run cemeteries are concerned, there are plenty of examples of gross negligence coming our way – see for a US case in point.

There’s NOTHING that’s perfectly “green”. Every option anyone has shown to me has plusses and minuses. All are context-dependent. Taking off the green-coloured glasses with respect to natural burial won’t do a bit of harm. Natural burial can stand up to the test of time and functionality – Ken West’s proved it. So have your local authorities. They wouldn’t be doing it in these tough economic times if it didn’t work.

“Green” is being sold heavily these days, and arguments do sell. “Who’s the greenest of them all?” creates a lot of buzz and fills papers and conference-panels and even makes for sometimes-useful trade associations. But language is important, and I don’t want to see important meaning – the ecological “sense and sensibility” of moving to saner interaction with the environment via smarter disposition – lost in the catfight.

“Green” is a color. Traditionally, it has meant “youthful”, “jealous” or “naïve.” It’s the naïve who are often disappointed. Jealousy compares. The youthful need nurturing – that’s true – but somehow I fear that “green” will soon reveal itself to be too much blush and not enough skin unless its proponents take themselves down a peg or two, strip off the righteousness, innuendo and hype, and get about the real task of making quality businesses, practices, and institutions that demonstrably work AND clean up the mess, both. A tall order, but it’s a tall time.

“Green” needs to grow up, and when it finally does it will no longer be “green.” It will, instead, be what we do. We’ll just do it more naturally.

What do you think?


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14 years ago

Usk Castle Chase has been open now for five years. Green grow up? The landscape has not changed one iota during that time. How is that not green?

Perpetua's Garden
Perpetua's Garden
14 years ago

"Green" is the color of the month, or as Cynthia says, the color of our lenses today. This is understandable, since we do face enormous difficulties with the environment. But green should not consume or monopolize every argument, every possible subject. Certainly, burials have an environmental cost, like every aspect of living, even eating. But this does not mean you don't eat because it has an environmental cost. You just try to eat in a lighter manner. You also don't make eating environmentally your only consideration. You continue to think about nutrition value and the enjoyment of your food. And… Read more »

James Leedam
James Leedam
14 years ago

What particularly concerns me, after a recent visit to four more "green burial grounds" and meeting a number of "green burial ground" owner/operators, is that many of the "green burial grounds" are actually just greener cemeteries with no clear vision for the future nor a sustainable plan. As a first time visitor, some simply appear to be a shambles (let's hope that the woodland and natural decay and erosion will one day prevail) whilst others are gardened – closely mown, artificially arranged and far from natural. I often wonder how many such places those who comment on green burial have… Read more »