When Joan Pillsbury’s grandfather died, the family held a viewing, had a funeral — the works.
“He was embalmed, and I remember thinking he did not look anything like that when he was alive,” she said. “The whole idea that you can preserve a loved one in perpetuity is not something I agree with.”
Then, in 2009, she heard an interview with Mark Harris, author of “Grave Matters,” a book that follows families who found green burials to be a more natural, economical, and even meaningful alternative to the funeral parlor.
“I knew about the funeral process, but that really hit home,” Pillsbury said, “that we are putting so many chemicals in the ground with the embalming process that I had never considered before.”
She began talking with her husband, Dennis, both in their 60s at the time, about planning their own green burials.
“We were very interested in recycling and reusing, and having a low carbon-footprint,” Pillsbury said. “We have a home that’s energy efficient and it just made sense, to have an end-of-life plan that was consistent with our values.”
According to Harris’ book, a green or natural burial is a way of returning human remains to the earth simply, and without the toxic chemicals associated with metal caskets, cement burial vaults, and embalming fluid, which contains formaldehyde — all standard elements of modern burials.
Instead, the deceased is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or placed in a coffin made from cardboard or pine. Bodies are placed in vault-free graves, often in natural, woodland settings or on private land.
Headstones, if used, are made of natural stone, and emerging technology trends pair plots with QR codes, so loved ones can upload memories and photos to a webpage.
Green burial allows the body to rejoin its original elements to regenerate life.
In 2014, Dennis passed away, after a period of in-home hospice care. Joined by her sons, Pillsbury, who had a career as a nurse, prepared her husband’s body for burial: cleaning him, purchasing an unfinished pine box, and decorating it inside with biodegradable memories.
Pillsbury dressed Dennis only in cotton-derived clothing: no glasses, no belts, nothing that wouldn’t biodegrade.
That was seven years ago, at a time when no green burial cemeteries existed close to their home in Massachusetts. The family rented a van and transported Dennis’ body to his home state of Maine, where they buried him in a natural cemetery.
Today, Pillsbury works to educate and advocate for green burial. As a board member for Green Burial Massachusetts, she gives talks at libraries, senior centers and churches about the benefits of the natural route.
Caitlyn Hauke, Ph.D., Green Burial Council board member, agrees that education is key. The GBC is a national nonprofit dedicated to education and certification of green burial providers.
In a fall 2019 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association, 52 percent of consumers said they would consider a green burial. “People are just not aware (that green burials are an option),” Hauke said.
She pointed to other roadblocks to green burials, including state and municipal regulations. Although green burials are federally legal, she said, some states and municipalities require embalming, for example, if a body needs transport. And certain cemeteries require a vault for burial.
Another roadblock: accepting our own mortality and planning for it.
“Pre-planning becomes really important,” said Hauke. “People don’t want to talk about it or think about it. But if you can open up that conversation and have a plan in place, you can find the right home and cemetery with less pressure.”
Death doulas facilitate these conversations and help families through the grieving process, educating them on natural burials and helping with arrangements.
Caroline Yongue is a death doula and director for the Center for End of Life Transitions, which provides such education and guidance for end-of-life planning, in western North Carolina.
She’s consulted families through the end-of-life process for decades, and one thing kept coming up: “People were unwilling to accept that they were eventually going to die, and so they weren’t prepared for it,” she said. “Death would happen, (the family was) in shock, and then they took the path of least resistance — calling a funeral home.”
That often left little time for researching more natural options.
In 2016, Yongue opened Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, a natural burial site in Mills River, N.C. “There are those who like the idea of being in nature and are unhappy with the traditional burial setting,” said Yongue. “They want the natural setting.”
The green, conservation burial ground offers woodlands, creekside and meadow plots.
As of spring 2020, 600 plots had been purchased and roughly 100 people are buried at the sanctuary. Deceased pets are also laid to rest naturally on the land.
And though the sanctuary isn’t the most economical route — scattering cremated remains costs $1,250, while a natural burial runs from $3,500 to $4,500, depending on the location — green burials are generally more economical than traditional burials, according to the Carolina Memorial Sanctuary.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2019, the median cost of a funeral including viewing, vault and burial, was $9,135, a cost that increases with headstones and burial plots, which can add thousands.
For her husband, Dennis, Pillbsury spent $800 on a pine box, $700 for the plot, and $800 to dig the grave.
But more importantly than the money saved, Pillsbury said, it’s a natural way to honor the earth you inhabited while alive. “As you decompose, you’re giving back to the earth, so hopefully you’re making the earth a little better,” she said. “There’s a tree next to Dennis’s grave, so he’s giving back to that tree.”
She has no regrets about choosing the green burial process for Dennis. “Having someone else care for him at the end of life, I couldn’t fathom it,” she said. “It’s not for everyone, but it definitely works for me and my family.”
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