Natural Burial Is Gaining Ground: Advocates Are Speaking Up Across North America

Natural Burial is gaining ground all across the country. Sometimes it even gets media attention, as in the case of Lynn Redgrave's funeral. Two events featuring natural burial -- the Solar Living Institute's Solfest XIV in Ukiah, California on September 25th & 26th and the September 27th evening on "American Culture & Death" at the Mankind Project Center in Houston, Texas -- came to my attention this week as I continued my conversations with funeral homes across the country about natural burial.

This weekend, Jane Hillhouse of Final Footprint will have a booth at Solfest XIV featuring environmentally friendly, hand-crafted fair trade caskets and urns. Jane has been part of the movement to "green" the funeral industry since 1994. In addition to hosting a booth, Jane will also be making a presentation on natural burial at 5:15 pm at Solfest's Sustainable Living Village on Saturday, September 25th. She's in good company -- this year the annual "greentech fair" will feature Arianna Huffington and Robert Kennedy, Jr. as the keynote speakers.

Then, next week, on Monday, September 27th at 6:30 p.m., Houston land conservationist Terry Ward will be leading an evening of multi-cultural, ecumenical dialogue about natural burial and the spiritual and practical importance of planning your own funeral at the MKP Center in Houston. Co-leaders will be Tom Hopwood and Darlene Ward. In addition to this in-person event, as a part of his commitment to sustainability Terry has produced a series of videos on natural burial that can be viewed on YouTube.

For several months, I've been speaking with people across the United States and Canada about the natural burial movement. Natural burial, also known as "green burial," was the standard practice in our country until the Civil War, when it became common to preserve the bodies of fallen soldiers in order to make the long trip home by train from the battlefields. Since that time, natural burial has continued to be quietly practiced in the United States by members of Jewish, Muslim and some Christian faith communities. For example, in the Louisville, Kentucky area, Herman Meyer & Son has been providing natural burial options for over 100 years. And now, Milward Funeral Directors in the Lexington area, is also one of the 300 Green Burial Council certified funeral homes in North America.

In the course of my conversations, I've learned that a number of cemeteries in this country are historic natural burial sites. One of these is Steelmantown Cemetery, located in the midst of the Belleplain State Forest in southern New Jersey. Steelmantown has been a natural cemetery since the 1700s. Thanks to the proximity and commitments of that cemetery, a number of New Jersey funeral homes are advocates for natural burial. Bob Prout of Prout Funeral Home leads workshops on natural burial. He's been asked to lead seminars on the topic for groups in Florida and Colorado, as well as in New Jersey. David Doser is convinced that natural burial can be a gentle component of end-of-life care. His daughter, who is a nurse, designed the Doser Funeral Homes website's green burial page. In addition, a number of other funeral homes, such as the Fertig Funeral Home, Gardner Funeral Home, and McCann-Healey Funeral Home also provide natural burial services in New Jersey.

Other natural burial advocates on the East Coast include Dennis Keohane of Keohane Funeral and Cremation Service. Dennis has taken the lead in Massachusetts by creating the New England Green Burial Society as a resource for those interested in green burial. Joe Smolenski of Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh, North Carolina has long been a proponent of natural burial. He offers continuing education courses in natural burial for funeral directors.

There are also natural burial grounds in the heartland of America. Foxfield Preserve is a green burial site in northeastern Ohio. Owned by The Wilderness Center, it is the first "green cemetery" to be operated by a non-profit conservation organization in the United States. For a decade, this former farm has been undergoing ecological restoration, including reforestation and the reintroduction of prairie grasses, so that it will eventually blend into Sigrist Woods, the adjacent historic old growth forest. Busch Funeral Service, Custer-Glenn Funeral Home & Cremation Services, and Lane Funeral Homes all work with Foxfield Preserve to provide natural burials.

In Waterford, Michigan All Saints Cemetery just opened The Preserve on Lake Maceday. Situated among native prairie and wetlands, this is the first cemetery dedicated to natural burial in the Detroit area. A number of local funeral homes have partnered in this initiative, including A. J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Directors and The Martenson Family of Funeral Homes. A bit farther west, the Staffan-Mitchell & Caskey-Mitchell Funeral Homes have taken the lead in bringing green burial to Chelsea. When I spoke with Paul Buchanan of Generations Funeral and Cremation Services in Ann Arbor, he told me that he, and many others, are convinced that natural burial is the wave of the future.

Likewise, Brian Bowser of Hall Funeral Service in Mena, Arkansas told me that he believes that there will be an increase in demand for natural burial in the United States over the next decade. He has the distinction of being the first funeral provider in the State of Arkansas to be approved by the Green Burial Council.

Funeral homes in Indiana are also leaders in natural burial sites and services. Hippensteel Funeral Service and Crematory in Lafayette offered the first natural burials in Indiana among the 200 year old trees at the Preserve in Spring Vale, and their website features a beautiful, sensitive slide show of a natural burial. Worthington's Nathan Butler Funeral Home has also been at the forefront of this movement, as has DeBaun Funeral Homes & Crematory in Terre Haute. DeBaun owns New Harmony Cemetery and plans to open a green burial section there this fall. This natural burial ground will have trees, shrubs or flowers, instead of headstones, to mark where loved ones are buried. Tami Edwards, DeBuan's Advance Planning Manager, says they fully expect natural burial to be as popular as cremation within 10-15 years. In addition, Flanner & Buchanan Funeral Centers in Indianapolis own Kessler Woods Natural Burial Ground, a secluded, five-acre area of meadow and woods. They regularly host on-site informational seminars on green burial.

Nearby, in Illinois, David Fisher of Simplicity Funeral and Cremation in Woodridge offers natural burial services. The Kolssak Funeral Home in Wheeling is also a pioneer in natural burial in that state.

It is possible to plan a natural burial in Topeka, Kansas with both Dove Cremation and Funeral Services and Penwell-Gabel. In fact, when I spoke with their team, I learned that Dove carries the same model of casket, supplied by Final Footprint, that was used for actress Lynn Redgrave's burial earlier this year.

Finally, I learned that two funeral homes in Fort Collins, Colorado are also offering home-based services. Bohlender Funeral Chapel offers natural burial services and home wakes. When I called Goes Funeral Care & Crematory, Stephanie Goes told me that their team offers natural burial and also assists families with home funerals. As part of their commitment to this movement, they are in the process of learning about new preservation options from natural burial advocates in the United Kingdom. They have also decided to go "green" as a business themselves.

Clearly, throughout the United States there is increasing interest in natural burial as a way to honor lives that have been lived with care for the planet. And, as I discovered, many funeral homes and conservationists are taking an environmentally conscious, long-term view and working together to make natural burial a real option in every state.