Environmental Echo, February 2015.
The idea of “green burials” may not be new, but the practice is seeing new interest. Green and natural burial areas are gaining new ground as well, and offer individuals and families more environmentally friendly choices.
The concept of a “green burial” may not be so new, but rather it may be a return to a simpler time and older way of doing things. In St. Louis, the environmentally friendly burial option is gaining new ground, in a literal sense, with the soon to open “Evergreen Meadows” located at Bellefontaine Cemetery.
Also, 17 Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis offer “green” options. The question simply becomes to what extent a person wishes to be “green” at the end of life.
A “green burial” is considered one that does not involve embalming with chemical-based fluids or use of outer vaults and caskets. Containment involves the use of biodegradable materials, like shrouds, wood and wicker.
Gracie MacDonell, associate vice president of customer relations at Bellefontaine Cemetery, said the idea of green burial is a relatively new concept, but that type of burial is something that has been done for “ages and is really just going back to our roots.”
Bellefontaine is a non-profit cemetery that works to be flexible and meet the needs of St. Louisans, according to MacDonell. “Green burial” is something the cemetery is seeing an interest in now. She said she receives a couple of questions a week about green burial.
Evergreen Meadows is in the final planning stages at Bellefontaine. It is an area designated to offer more environmentally-conscious choices. Bellefontaine allows variations of green burial in all areas of the cemetery, but Evergreen Meadows will be their strictest site.
MacDonell said the cost for grave sites in Evergreen Meadows is about the same as other areas of the cemetery. The cemetery also offers a few items like wicker caskets and burial shrouds that are specifically related to green burials. She stressed that Bellefontaine is “strictly a cemetery and is not looking to encroach upon other funeral establishments in the area.”
The new green area would be limited to “green burials” and have “shared memorialization,” which means each gravesite would not have individual markers or a headstone.
“People are very interested in green burial, but I think that a lot of individuals aren’t quite sure where they stand on memorialization,” MacDonell said. “The idea of being buried somewhere but not having an individual marker is something that people are still pondering.”
In addition, considerations such as grounds maintenance would be sensitive to the environment with the limited use of mechanized equipment and “no use of pesticides, herbicides or inorganic fertilizers.”
MacDonell said the site should be open sometime this spring. Evergreen Meadow is in the early stages of pursuing certification for the new area by the Green Burial Council.
Jeanne Besselsen, associate director and sales director at Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said it has had “green burials” in the Catholic cemetery system for years.
A person can choose to be buried in a cloth shroud anywhere in the Catholic cemetery system, according to Besselsen. She said many nuns choose to be buried in cloth shrouds. The only exception is a casket is required in mausoleums, which are above ground burial places.
Besselsen said at this time, Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis do not have a separate area designated as a “green” only burial site at any of the 17 cemeteries in its system.
Baue Funeral Homes, St. Charles, offers green burials and are approved by the Green Burial Council. Requests for interview have not been returned at the time of this article.
Green Acres is an entirely “natural” burial cemetery located near Columbia. It is the only fully “natural” burial site in Missouri at this time, according to William (Bill) Goddard.
Goddard, manager of Green Acres and a certified cemetery operator, opened the site five years ago. He said the site was an existing cemetery established in 1842 and he does not own the land. He described the area as a rural setting and also spoke about the cemetery’s origins. A gravel road splits the cemetery and originally, whites were buried on one side and the other side was used for slave graves. Goddard said he only manages and operates the cemetery area that was used for slaves.
A “natural” burial site, according to Goddard is one that forbids anything that is not earth-friendly, such as the use of vaults, formaldehyde-based embalming fluids, metals, and plastics or concrete. All materials used in burials must be bio-degradable. Only Missouri limestone or granite can be used for ground-level burial markers.
“Natural burials” are the way things were done before the Civil War, Goddard said. He explained that during the Civil War embalming a body was a way to preserve it long enough to enable a soldier’s remains to be returned to their families. And since then, the funeral industry has stuck with Civil War embalming.
Goddard said he has worked for a cemetery in the past and did not care for certain aspects of the business. He decided to open Green Acres as an alternative and to give people different choices. He said for basic cemetery services the cost can be under $2000. Also, Goddard added he has a Native American Cherokee heritage and wants to do “no harm to the land, water or air.”
“In my opinion, we should not equate how much you loved somebody by how much money you spend,” Goddard said. “And that is the way the industry is driven.”
Goddard said a fully natural burial option, which can include the family handling body preparations, may not be for everyone and that is “okay.” There are services and organizations that can pick up and prepare a body for “green burial.”
Not everyone is comfortable with or wants to be involved with every aspect. It is personal preference how involved a family wishes to be. He said the ultimate final act of kindness, love and respect that a family can do is to be involved at a deeper level with the burial preparation elements. Those things can include bathing, dressing or even hand-making a casket or the use of a burial shroud for the deceased.
Goddard described one burial at Green Acres that involved several brothers whose father had passed away. There was a pine tree at the family’s home that held special memories. The tree no longer was standing, he did not know the reason, but the log had been saved. Family members fashioned a casket out of the log and buried their father in it.
“The families that have done this on their own are so enriched. When you look into the eyes of a son or daughter that has buried their mom or dad and that final farewell was a gesture that they did within that family unit,” Goddard said. “There’s something there that you could not buy with ten million dollars… What I want to be able to do is give people a choice. If this is something that makes sense to you, great, and if it doesn’t, we are still going to be friends. This is just earth-friendly and it’s doing what is right for the land.”
Published: Environmental Echo, February 2015.