As I see it, more of us are coming to believe that a lasting legacy to a life well lived may be as basic as good earth. Our best last act may, in fact, be the simple act of using what remains of our physical existence to fertilize depleted soil, push up a tree, preserve a bit of wild from development, and, in the process, perpetuate the natural cycle of life that turns to support those we leave behind.
Mark Harris, Grave Matters (afterward)
The concept of a natural or green burial is not a new one. It remains common practice in much of the world and, although burial practices in the United States have largely shifted away from home funeral care and natural burial practices since the late 1800s, its popularity is rebounding. This is largely driven by the desire to reduce the environmental and economic impact associated with current standard funeral practices.
Today, many people are seeking a gentler approach to after-death care. The growing desire to protect the environment and reduce greenhouse gases has led many to question the procedures used in conventional burials and cremation and to seek a less wasteful and more environmentally friendly approach to burying the dead. For some, natural burial is more attractive simply because it is less costly than conventional burial.
Prudence Memorial Park, LLC will be pursuing natural burial ground certification. Natural burial grounds or cemeteries achieve Green Burial Council certification by prohibiting the use of vaults (partial, inverted or otherwise), vault lids, concrete boxes, slabs or partitioned liners, and by prohibiting the burial of decedents embalmed with toxic chemicals, as well as by banning burial containers not made from natural/plant derived materials. Natural burial grounds must also develop an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy for the removal of non-native vegetation and be designed, operated and maintained to produce a naturalistic appearance, based on use of plants and materials native to the region.
The practice of natural burial returns the body to the ground in its natural state. As a result, this approach avoids using embalming fluid, metals and synthetic fabrics, all of which contaminate the natural environment. In addition, natural burial honors the dead by avoiding the invasive procedures used in conventional funeral practices.
Embalming uses a variety of preservatives, disinfectants and restoratives intended to slow decomposition of the body and promote a life-like appearance. Concerns relating to embalming focus mainly on health impacts to funeral care providers and the impact of toxic compounds such as formaldehyde seeping into the groundwater. With natural burial, the body can be preserved for a considerable time using refrigeration and/or dry ice.
All burials within Prudence Memorial Park require the use of naturally biodegradable containers such as shrouds, blankets, bare wood caskets, biodegradable urns, or cremation grade cardboard boxes approved by the Green Burial Council (see Certified Product Providers for examples). Shrouds, blankets or drapes are preferred because they require less disruption of the root systems where the burial takes place. Caskets cannot be made with metal or exotic woods.
Many people choose cremation because it is perceived to be a simpler, less expensive alternative to whole-body burial. Given its popularity, Prudence Memorial Park offers the opportunity to bury and/or scatter cremated remains. A limited option also exists for the incorporation of ashes into the tumbled stone of old foundations on the property (i.e. niche placement).
However, the practice of cremation is not environmentally friendly. Over a period of two to three hours the body is transformed by intense heat (800 to 1100° C) to a state of small skeletal fragments, which are then cooled and processed to a reduced consistency. This process relies on fossil fuels and produces greenhouse gases (i.e. approximately 250 lbs. CO₂ per cremation plus byproduct emissions of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, and particulates) and releases mercury and other elements into the air and water.
Nevertheless, cremated remains themselves take up less space and pose no health threat. Except for disposal in inland and offshore waterways, which is governed by the federal Clean Water Act, there are no limitations as to where ashes can be spread.
Prudence Memorial Park will allow an engraved permanent stone marker comprised of native field stone to be placed along permanent pathways or other designated areas; however, it must sit flush to the ground (i.e., extending no more than three inches above grade) and must meet the established size limitation (i.e., a maximum of 225 sq. inches and no more than 24 inches in one dimension).
Native plants may be placed on individual burial sites, but they must be approved by Prudence Memorial Park management prior to planting to ensure these plants are natural, appropriate to the specific location, and noninvasive. See Prudence Memorial Park’s Commemorative Planting Guide for assistance in selecting appropriate and approved plantings. Generally, plant growth on the grave site will be allowed to return to its natural state.
Regardless of whether the grave is marked in any way, careful records are kept of every interment so that the location of any grave can be established at any time.
In keeping with the requirements of a natural burial ground, the Prudence Memorial Park property will be actively managed to control non-native invasive species and promote a greater biodiversity of native plant species on the landscape. Management of invasive (e.g. autumn olive, Japanese barberry) and nuisance (e.g. green brier) species will be performed through periodic cutting/mowing and, if necessary, the application of natural non-chemical herbicide products.
Plants that are native to this area and suitable to specific conditions (e.g. sun/shade, dry/moist) will be planted throughout the property as appropriate to support the widest variety of wildlife; primarily pollinators and birds. The presence of rocky areas (e.g. foundations), mature trees and shrubs, open field, and moist soil available from the windmill overflow provides a canvas on which to establish a broad range of native species that will serve to extend wildlife foraging opportunities across multiple seasons.
Native plantings will also be used to create a greater sense of privacy by screening nearby homes from view as well as to create private seating areas along pathways for quiet reflection. Given the soil type and the mix of open and sheltered aspects that are already present on the landscape, achieving these goals should require minimal effort after the first few years of more intensive management. However, it will take several years and, in some instances, decades for plantings to mature and spread out to achieve the full effect.