MY PATERNAL GRANDPARENTS, Lawrence and Capitola Rehagen, died within a day of each other in early August 2006. They had been married for nearly 60 years, and I remember thinking that it was a blessing that neither had to sit and grieve through the other’s funeral. Instead, I was one of 12 pall bearers escorting two caskets down to St. Lawrence Cemetery, on the outskirts of the tiny mid-Missouri town where I grew up.
My roots already ran deep in that ground. We were putting my grandfather to rest in the same soil — and in much the same manner — as his father and his father before him. My great-great-great grandfather, Johann, who had been born in Germany in 1818, was just a few yards away in a box beneath a weathered, lichen-patched monolith put up when he died in 1903. And I know that one day, hopefully far in the future, my father will join them.
But as I enter middle age and start to put my own affairs in order, I feel increasingly compelled to break with that family tradition. It has nothing to do with my affection for that place or those people, both of which are sacred to me. It’s the way in which my family members were buried.
Every year, Americans put 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, much of which is toxic formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene, into the ground. We bury 20 million board feet in hard, non-degradable woods and 81,500 combined tons of copper, bronze, and steel in the form of caskets, which are placed in vaults that total about 16 million tons of sunken concrete. Cremation, while long thought to be an eco-friendly alternative, is actually a significant user of fossil fuels while releasing harmful mercury into the air and water and 1.74 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
Further, the median cost of a traditional funeral in 2017, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, with a viewing, burial, and concrete vault, was $8,755; the median cremation was only slightly cheaper, at $6,260.
More and more people are looking for cost- and eco-friendly options. So-called green burials offer an alternative. They skip the embalming and the concrete vaults and opt for more bio-degradable caskets or coffins, or none at all, allowing the body to decompose naturally back into the soil. Often they even eschew the traditional cemetery for a more natural setting, where the habitat can be maintained, sometimes even replacing the permanent tombstone with a tree or plant to mark the grave.
According to funeral industry publishers Kates-Boylston Publications, 51.6 percent of survey respondents are interested in exploring green funeral options, up from 43 percent in 2008. That increasing consumer demand has, in turn, spurred the industry to go greener. The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable methods of interment through public awareness and certification, reports that the number of green burial cemeteries in the US and Canada is now at least 270, nearly twice what it was just three or four years ago.
There is, no doubt, an element of do-gooder consumerism going on here; a bit of virtue signaling at the graveyard. But maybe it’s something more than that. Maybe it’s an attempt to atone, in some small way, for the indelible footprint even the most environmentally conscious of us leave on this Earth.
“Why does anyone think they’re entitled to own property on this planet even after they’ve left it?" asks Lee Webster, president in charge of education and outreach for the Green Burial Council. “People have the sense that they want to leave the planet as undisturbed as possible — no headstone, no marker. And after their body has decomposed, they don’t see any reason why they can’t.”
THERE’S NOTHING REALLY traditional about what we consider traditional burial. We’ve long preserved our more powerful, honored, and wealthy along with their worldly valuables in ornate sarcophagi, crypts, and tombs. But for centuries, most regular people were buried pretty much as their prehistoric ancestors had been: Returned, shrouded or naked, to the earth. The rite is documented in the Bible. The Koran and the Torah go even further to prescribe that the body must be left in direct contact with the soil.
The idea that every John and Jane Doe deserves a permanent and impenetrable place of repose dates back to the US Civil War, when dead soldiers were embalmed for the long train ride home. The advent of refrigeration not only enabled the shipping of bodies all over the globe, but it also allowed families to delay funerals as far-flung relatives converged to pay their respects. And because bodies could be maintained and even reconstructed with care, the bereaved were more inclined to encase their lost loved ones in concrete, steel, and plastic in order to protect them from water, insects, worms, and bacteria. The modern death care industry was born.
Previously, visitation happened at the decedent’s home. But now, sophisticated embalming methods and the need for refrigeration meant the body had to be treated and stored at the mortician’s office or funeral home. If the body was there anyway, why not move visitation to the same place? Eventually, funeral directors became the catch-all phone call for anyone who’s lost someone, so much so that even hospital, hospice, and nursing home workers often dial the number themselves when a body needs to be picked up — almost cutting out the family’s direct involvement altogether.
If that growing bill of services has driven up the cost of funerals and pumped up the amount of chemicals and materials we put into the ground, it’s also alienated survivors from the process. “We’ve been outsourcing so long that we’ve lost touch,” says Webster, who has also served as the director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy, a nonprofit that promotes green burials and home funerals in the Granite State, and president of the National Home Funeral Alliance. “People are desperately looking to change this into a more positive experience. And what could be more in tune than putting a body in the ground so Mother Nature can do her thing?”
Today, there are all sorts of ways to return loved ones to nature. Laws differ by state. Some mandate the involvement of a funeral director or require burial in an established cemetery. But most states allow home burials, as long as local zoning codes permit it. The family takes immediate custody of the body, bathes and preps it without embalming, hosts a visitation for friends and relatives, and buries it on private property. There are smaller alterations, too, many offered by funeral homes, such as embalming with an all-natural, vanilla-bean-based fluid or forgoing the vault and casket for a biodegradable container made of soft wood, grass, or even recycled paper. For those who really want to go retro, there’s a simple cotton shroud.
Other, more exotic options include putting your cremated remains in a reef formation and setting them on the ocean floor, putting your ashes or body into an egg-shaped burial pod that is planted beneath a tree, or going to your maker in a biodegradable mushroom suit that will accelerate decomposition. A Washington state company called Recompose is developing another more pragmatic — and perhaps more dignified — method that amounts to human composting, placing the body in a bed of wood chips and straw where it will decompose into nutrient-rich soil that can nourish plant life.
More practical still — as concern over the environment intensifies and we gradually run out of land, particularly in urban areas — is the idea of renewable cemeteries. At Virginia’s Duck Run Natural Cemetery, you can lease a lot for 75 years, enough time for complete decomposition and about four generations of family visitors before the lot is made available for the next decedent. “Americans believe they have the same right to notoriety as any person in history,” says Webster. “But the truth is, many of us don’t even know where our grandparents are buried. And we know from other cemeteries that, after a while, families stop coming to visit.”
I KNOW EXACTLY where my grandparents are buried — and where their grandparents are buried. And I visit them as often as possible. Of course, it’s easier for me because they are mostly in one place, a town that I still visit regularly because my parents live there. When that changes, and my parents have moved on, well, who knows?
Ultimately, the decision about the degree to which the surviving family should be — or wants to be — involved in a burial is up to those individuals. Grief is handled in different ways. I’ve been present for many funerals where the family was grateful to have a thoughtful funeral director shouldering the burden of the proceedings so they could be in the moment and connect with the people around them. At my grandparents’ funeral, I distinctly remember my father pulled temporarily out of the daze caused by losing both parents at the same time by the freedom to stand at the front of the community center and shake hands and hug his way through the long line of people who had come to share their stories and pay their respects. In that way — and many other ways — I am very much like my father. When, or if, the time comes for me to take his place, I could honestly see myself wanting to grieve in a similar manner.
When it comes to my own death, perhaps a funeral director could make things a little easier on my wife and children. An element of the traditional might be helpful. But as for how my body will be disposed of: I know that I don’t want to be a further burden to this planet after I die. Perhaps I can be buried in an eco-friendly way in that tiny small-town cemetery, literally returning to the soil that bore me and my forefathers. But no stone, no marker. Just the memory of a person and a place — there for anyone alive who cares to share it.
Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @trehagen