Green Burial: We’re All in the Same Cycle of Life
Apr 04, 2020 12:14PM
By Nancy DeVault
As the decision to live green is on the rise, the decision to die green is likewise growing in popularity. The $20 billion a year funeral industry is starting to get significant competition from green funerals and natural burials. “What we label as ‘traditional’ burial is really not… it’s ‘modern day’ burial. Natural burial is what our ancestors did,” affirms Freddie Johnson, executive director of Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, in Gainesville.
Prior to the 19th century, natural burial was the norm. What we now consider conventional burial practices (including chemical embalming) came about during the Civil War when families mourning fallen soldiers desired an extended period of time for viewing and funerals.
“Real green burial is body to earth unimpeded, allowing nature to decompose our organic bodies naturally while contributing to the natural lifecycle of the land,” explains Lee Webster, education president for Green Burial Council, a nonprofit encouraging environmentally sustainable deathcare.
There are 236 green burial cemeteries nationwide, seven of which are in Florida. Aside from Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, the list includes Brooksville Cemetery Green Meadows, in Brooksville, Eternal Rest Memorial Park, in Dunedin, Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve, in DeFuniak Springs, Heartwood Preserve, in Trinity, Riverview Memorial Gardens, in Cocoa and South Florida Jewish Cemetery, in Lake Worth. The Green Burial Council ranks three kinds of cemeteries: hybrid—a conventional cemetery inclusive of burial spaces that forgo concrete vaults and embalming, and use biodegradable containers; natural— a cemetery dedicated to natural burial where all three elements are employed; and conservation—where a trust entity preserves land used for natural burial.
Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery is the only conservation certified cemetery in the state (only nine exist in the country). In collaboration with the Alachua Conservation Trust, the cemetery’s 93 acres of blooming wildflowers and swaying trees is an extension of Prairie Creek Preserve, adjacent to Paynes Prairie State Park. Trails are intermitted throughout, allowing people and wildlife to organically flow. “We offer a place for people to hike, bike, picnic and have renewal in nature,” Johnson shares. He says more people are seeking out this type of living memorial in a flourishing ecosystem—a stark contrast to the atmosphere of conventional cemeteries.
Johnson asserts it’s important to recognize the difference between saving land and exploiting it. He boldly describes conventional cemeteries as underground condominiums of cement vaults, metal caskets and toxic chemicals. Conventional cemeteries bury 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper or bronze and 64,500 tons of steel each year. Consequently, studies have discovered these contaminants in nearby waterways.
Webster says he often fields questions about whether eco-friendly burials cause adverse effects on the environment, such as compromising water quality. When natural burials are done properly at three-and-a-half feet deep, he says, there is no danger of contaminating potable water that is found about 75 feet below the surface. “Keep in mind that all animals and plants end in the equivalent of natural burial,” Johnson adds. “It’s no different for human bodies. We’re all in the same cycle of life.”
Natural burials are not only gentler on the environment, but easier on the pocketbook, too. Conventional funerals with burial average $8,500 and funerals with cremation average $6,200, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. “Green burial is less expensive, and often the fees are used to further conservation efforts rather than profit,” says Webster. Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery charges $2,000 for a body burial and $650 for the burial of cremated remains. Johnson and Webster both emphasize the added value that comes with natural burials. “Families and friends can participate in ways that bring meaning and create community around the death of a loved one that is not available elsewhere,” Webster says.
Home funerals may further enhance sanctity for some and provide a tremendous healing affect, says Dennis Shuman, leader of Final Friends, a small citizens’ group that helps families safely and legally execute deathcare in the home. Final Friends does not charge for their compassionate service. “People know about home births, and this is just the other end of it,” says Shuman. Supporters believe families that tend to and spend time with the bodies of their deceased are better able to come to peace with the passing. “When you take care of your own loved one and actually touch them and clean and dress them, on a very deep level, it affects the grieving process and promotes healing of the loss,” Shuman says. When possible, it’s best to preplan home funerals, because deathcare procedures should commence quickly after expiration.
Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery has accommodated 500 natural burials since 2010 and while interest has risen, Johnson hopes awareness will further educate the community about deathcare options. “The process of natural burial is about doing nothing to the body at all, other than honoring it as a vessel that once had a living being,” Johnson advises, and sometimes doing nothing translates to something divine.
Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery is located at 7204 C.R. 234, in Gainesville. For more information, visit PrairieCreekConservationCemetery.org, GreenBurialCouncil.org and FinalFriends.org.