Grounding Ourselves

On rethinking our views of green space and funeral options as we plan for the final disposition of our bodies.

This is part two of a two-part series on funeral decisions. Read part one.

In 2008, Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote “The Bells of Mindfulness” about the need for collective awakening to protect the earth. One decade later, master composter David Buckel connected the self-immolation of Buddhist monastics to his own self-immolation for action against climate change. Tragically, Buckel’s self-described “early death by fossil fuel” caught public attention in a way that his long-term, nationwide contributions to community composting could not. Our most sustainable practices — those that quietly prevent the depletion of vital natural resources — are rarely headline-grabbing.

photo of city of london cemetary
In the historic City of London Cemetery, 1,500 out of 780,000 graves have been reused to date — a practice legalized for the municipality in 2007. Photo by Acabashi.

Natural burial, like community composting, involves acceptance that the organic remains of the living are neither trash nor personal commodities. They belong to the earth. Yet, even though human bodies have been continuously returned to the earth for millennia, the idea that our world will be overrun by cemeteries remains entrenched in popular consciousness.

The experience of the United Kingdom — a tiny island nation that has long promoted cremation to save space — teaches otherwise. “For most environmentalists, it’s actually better to fade away than burn out,” concluded UK ethics journalist Leo Hickman back in 2005. “Our lives … already result in enough gratuitous combusting of fossil fuels. Much better, in death, to compost down as nature intended.” (Read more about the energy inputs, emissions, and toxic impacts of cremation in part one of this series.)

While it may seem alien to conventional expectations, the reuse of graves is a sustainable, long-established practice in Europe and elsewhere. In the historic City of London Cemetery, 1,500 out of 780,000 graves have been reused to date — a practice legalized for the municipality in 2007. As reported in The Guardian, graves chosen for reuse must be at least 75 years old, and notices must be posted for six months at the grave and in advertisements. If anyone connected with the grave raises an objection, the grave will not be reused. Gary Burks, who first came to live at the cemetery as the young child of a gardener and is now its superintendent, reports that very few objections have been registered.

In most cases, the original decomposed remains are lowered by deepening the grave, allowing for a new burial above. The original headstone inscription is preserved, but reversed to allow for a new inscription on the other side of the headstone. Burks believes that, with continued sensitive application of these procedures, the beautifully landscaped grounds will be able to accommodate interments indefinitely.

Most predictions of disappearing space focus on cemeteries within major urban centers. But just as city dwellers regularly leave these centers in search of more spacious real estate, the majority of burial plots — especially in the US — remain available outside of city limits. Like Hickman in the UK, American environmental planning professor Christopher Coutts has concluded that the most sustainable form of body disposition is burial without embalming in a simple biodegradable covering, followed by reuse of graves after bodies have decomposed back to the earth.

Another common variation of grave reuse involves a deeper excavation of graves at the outset, so that two or three family members can be buried one on top of the other(s) in the same plot. “Multiple-depth” burial practices are recognized in the United States, and ritually acceptable in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

While the utilitarian, lawn-style suburban cemeteries of the mid-twentieth century may not represent today’s ideal landscaping aesthetics, they still preserve basic green space against a range of more fossil-fuel-intensive onslaughts. The Green Burial Council recognizes this with three levels of North American cemetery standards.

“Hybrid” burial grounds are cemeteries or cemetery sections that simply forego the use of concrete vaults or other outer containers to reinforce the ground. Such vaults are never required by state law in the US, but rather by the regulations of individual cemeteries. Except in areas where the earth is particularly shifting and unstable (as in cities built below sea level), most Jewish and Muslim burial grounds would qualify as “hybrid” — since these traditions have long upheld a simple, natural return to the earth.

“Natural” burial grounds, besides foregoing vaults and outer containers, do not allow for burial of any bodies embalmed with toxic chemicals, or of any containers not made of biodegradable materials. Again, this is consistent with traditional Jewish and Muslim practices.

“Conservation” burial grounds are natural burial grounds legally committed to long-term stewardship for land conservation and preservation of natural habitat. There are very few designated conservation burial grounds at this time — and significantly fewer people can be buried in conservation burial grounds than in conventional cemeteries, which are zoned for many more graves.

Beyond the technicalities of “green” certification, there are always sustainability tradeoffs between each organic, inorganic, emotional, social, and economic consideration in the human ecosystem of funeral arrangements. For example, the greenhouse gas emissions of long-distance transport to a certified natural burial ground must be weighed against the availability of graves in more local cemeteries that support natural burial practices.

As the Funeral Consumers Alliance points out, “You can make any burial greener by eliminating embalming, and using a shroud or a biodegradable casket. Omit the vault if the cemetery will allow it. Otherwise, ask to use a concrete grave box with an open bottom, have holes drilled in the bottom of the vault, or invert the vault without its cover, so the body can return to the earth.”

Of course, the least privileged are not afforded this full range of choices. A cemetery of layered graves for the indigent and unclaimed is known as a potter’s field, referring back to the New Testament. Potters Fields Park in London is quite cheerful about its origins. In New York City, several now-upscale parks served as potter’s fields long before Hart Island — the largest mass burial ground in the United States — was opened for that purpose. More than one million dead, most of them lost to family and forgotten by history, have been buried on Hart Island in layered trenches by prison inmates since 1869.

Following decades-long efforts of family and community activists, supported by organizations like the Hart Island Project and the New York Civil Liberties Union, relatives of those buried on the island have won limited visitation rights in recent years. Those who “affirm a close personal relationship” can visit their corresponding burial area up to twice a month, while access for the general public remains restricted to a public viewing gazebo once a month. This past spring, the New York City Council moved formally toward transferring the jurisdiction of this municipal cemetery from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.

A few years earlier, the New York State legislature outlawed the use — without consent — of presumably unclaimed bodies for medical research or funeral embalmer training prior to Hart Island burial. Meanwhile, Hart Island continues to challenge us with a tangled thicket of ethical dilemmas, from cadaver shortages through prison reform to land use deliberations.

We may offer tips for “how to avoid the fate of a common grave,” but the unspoken truth is that we are all fated to return to a common earth. The most integrated solutions to the dilemmas of Hart Island actually point toward the most equitable and sustainable consumer choices for all of us at death: layered burials in simple, biodegradable containers; preservation of urban green spaces and history; public transportation access; and community education and counseling for informed funeral decision-making — including fully consensual arrangements for needed anatomical gifts.

Archaeological discoveries remind us that layered civilizations inevitably result in layered burials. Our first priority should be helping to insure that our own civilization will not be prematurely buried (or drowned) in the upheavals of climate change — and that there will be equal access, regardless of income, to whatever sustainable burial options exist locally.

In a poignant twist, one of the family members most active in the struggle to open Hart Island as a public space made arrangements for her own burial there. Rosalee Grable, whose mother was buried on the island in 2014, died two years later at the age of 65. “I am getting quite eager for my little spot on Hart Island,” Grable reflected shortly before her death. She knew that under then-current city regulations she would need to forego a funeral attended by family and friends, that her burial would not be confirmed until 30 days afterward, and that local friends would have difficulty visiting unaccompanied by her long-distance family members.

Even so, Rosalee Grable leveraged her power of choice in solidarity with so many whose lack of choice brought them to the same place. By deliberately choosing “the fate of a common grave,” she left a legacy that challenges all of us to plan the final dispositions of our own bodies in affirmation of our common humanity — and our common earth.

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