DYING GREEN — How your death can help wildlife
By Eddy Foundation
Modern Westerners hide from death, delay it as long as possible, refuse to talk about it; then when it finally occurs to a loved one, spend thousands of dollars trying to keep that person from returning to the soil, with caskets and chemicals and tombstones. Cemeteries occupy some of the most fertile and productive lands in North America; yet rather than supporting wildlife, or even growing food, most of these cemeteries are managed as lawns, with all the attendant mowing, herbicide applications, and lack of biodiversity in these “green deserts.”
Burial need not be so sterile and destructive. More and more people are embracing clean burials and green or conservation cemeteries, and using their final actions to support good causes, rather than add to their carbon footprints. The guidelines for green burials are simple, and growing numbers of families are embracing them:
- Go organic. Do not use toxic chemicals to preserve the body.
- Favor whole natural burial over cremation, as modern cremation uses large amounts of fossil fuel and releases harmful chemicals into the air.
- Save, rather than expropriate, land with the burials.
In parts of the United States, Canada, and Europe, the green cemetery movement is blossoming with scores of cemeteries now following a variety of green guidelines. Until now, people in the northeastern US have had very few green cemeteries from which to choose.
To give an example of how a green cemetery can save land, reduce pollution, and leave families feeling content about their lost ones, we offer Eddy Foundation’s Spirit Sanctuary, in Essex, New York, near Lake Champlain and the eastern edge of Adirondack Park. A basic aim of this private cemetery is to provide a natural place for loved ones to be buried, and to expand a wildlife corridor.
The wildlife corridor running through Spirit Sanctuary is Split Rock Wildway, which links Lake Champlain and its broad valley with the Adirondack High Peaks to the west. A number of land conservation groups have been working together to preserve and restore this wildway: Eddy Foundation (www.theeddy.org); Northeast Wilderness Trust (www.newildernesstrust.org); Champlain Area Trails (champlainareatrails.org), and Adirondack Land Trust (adirondacklandtrust.org).
Several years ago, the president of the Eddy Foundation board proposed that the foundation create a green cemetery, to give friends and neighbors a peaceful, low cost place to be buried. It would also facilitate the restoration of an old, degraded clay-plain farm field and help increase resources for land conservation in the area.
Eddy Foundation’s Spirit Sanctuary is thus going still greener than most green cemeteries, by specifically requiring that families make financial gifts to conservation groups. Clean and green is good, but we can do better. We can make death a life-affirming process, by helping to restore forestland and by also giving a portion of the deceased’s estate to conservation-minded groups.
Natural burial, as at Spirit Sanctuary, serves the soil and the whole biotic community. Modern people too often forget the fundamental importance of the soil. As the great writer and farmer Wendell Berry has said: “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
For Spirit Sanctuary Split Rock, serving the soil and forest will work thus: If a family or individual reserves a burial site ahead of time, and shows that a portion of the estate (no minimum requirement, but at least a tithe urged) will go to pre-approved conservation groups, Spirit Sanctuary charges considerably less than conventional burial costs, and uses the modest fee to cover our administrative and management costs, including burial itself. (Rewilding Earth editor John Davis is our principal grave-digger!) The Spirit Sanctuary team works with an end of life consultant who introduces the process of reserving a site in Spirit Sanctuary and shares information about other services that are available. (As examples, end of life body care may be provided; a pre-internment service may be held at a nearby farm; and a local horse drawn wagon may be hired to carry the deceased to the gravesite.)
Families who do not plan ahead, and have not reserved a site and committed money to land protection groups, will still be allowed to be interned for a modest price closer to the cost of a low-end conventional burial. In accordance with Eddy Foundation’s mission, we will use money in excess of our administrative costs for conserving wildlife habitat.
In short, Spirit Sanctuary is providing clean green burial, in a beautiful place, at less cost than conventional burial, and with resulting income going toward land protection. Our small three-acre cemetery, once a deserted field, will slowly restore itself and join the other wonderfully forested lands, in the heart of Split Rock Wildway.
If our first green cemetery does as well as we hope, we expect to help set up more conservation cemeteries, generally in cooperation with local or regional land trusts, in other areas, particularly in wildways identified by The Rewilding Institute and Wildlands Network. Live green; die greener.
The Rewilding Institute (TRI) mission is to explore and share tactics and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation and restoration in North America and beyond. We focus on the need for large carnivores and protected wildways for their movement; and we offer a bold, scientifically credible, practically achievable, and hopeful vision for the future of wild Nature and human civilization on planet Earth.