In recent years, the ultragreen practice of natural burial has attracted some media attention. The idea of rejoining the ecosystem by peacefully decomposing in a designated natural area would certainly appeal to any environmentalist.
However, the United States lags behind other countries—notably the United Kingdom—in the development of natural-burial areas. The Green Burial Council (greenburialcouncil.com), an American certification agency, provides more information on natural burial, and the Natural Burial Company’s site includes links to existing natural-burial grounds in the States. Portland seems like an ideal market for natural burial, but right now the council certifies only one cemetery in the metro area: Hillsboro’s Valley Memorial Park (503-648-5444). Valley Memorial, started as a traditional cemetery in the 1950s, decided three years ago to set aside some of its 40 acres—parcels close to wetlands, streams, and hiking trails—for less intrusive development. That means graves dug by hand, mandatory use of biodegradable coffins, and use of natural features, like on-site boulders or newly planted trees, instead of traditional headstones. “It came about through our desire to leave these areas in a more serene state, and not turn them into a typical cemetery landscape,” says David Schroeder, Valley Memorial’s executive director. “We scratched our heads for a long time. When we started to learn more about natural burial, the lightbulb finally went off.”
Dust in the Wind
Even as demand for natural burial increases, cremation remains the default choice for those seeking a lower-impact end. According to Beal, it’s still important to shop around. “You want to find the cleanest crematory you can,” she says. According to Be a Tree, 80 percent of US crematoria use dated equipment—so look for a business that uses modern, fuel-efficient ovens built within the past 10 years. Mercury emissions from incinerated dental fillings pose a particular problem: in the United Kingdom, cremation accounts for about 16 percent of airborne mercury. However, Beal writes, “Green cremation ‘wins’ over an embalmed body and nondegradable casket system any day.”
Ashes to Ashes …
If you choose cremation, now comes the fun part: the disposition of your remains. A number of green-hued options present themselves. You can choose a sustainable urn (available at the Natural Burial Company), which can be buried on any private property, or, with permission and given certain restrictions (some national parks forbid the practice), ashes can be scattered on public lands. Alternatively, you can hire a gardener to design an outdoor memorial on your own property, or fund a Friends of Trees (friendsoftrees.org) planting. If you prefer to disperse into a river, lake, or sea, you might consider an urn made out of water-soluble Himalayan rock salt. It comes in a fetching shade of pink.
Most important, as you contemplate how to green up your exit, take heart: death is, after all, integral to the natural systems environmentalists revere. And once you’ve truly reunited with nature, you won’t have to worry so much about global warming anymore.