More Catholics choose ‘green burials,’ hoping for a lighter footprint

Green burials affirm that death brings new life.
Our Faith

With the unexpected passing of their daughter, Beth and Ken Coleman of Chula Vista, California appreciated the option of burying her in much the same way she had lived: gracefully, simply, and leaving only a soft footprint on the earth.

“She was a very gentle soul, very kind,” Beth says of Kristine, who died just days before her 41st birthday in 2019. “She didn’t like a lot of fuss and hubbub.”

The Colemans joined a growing number of families around the country and the world who are opting for what are called green burials, shunning the use of toxic embalming fluids and hard-case caskets or urns and allowing the body to return to the elements in a cotton shroud or natural-material casket. Graves are hand dug as weather permits, and only biodegradable, nontoxic materials enter the ground.

Kristine, wearing an organic cotton gown, was laid into the sandy earth of Joshua Tree Memorial Park in a beautifully woven wicker casket. As with most green burial sites, simple flat discs mark graves, and families can plant native plants—but cannot install headstones or statuary. In time, native grasses will recolonize each patch of land.

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“The whole process was so respectful of who Kris was,” Beth says. “It is a kinder, gentler way to move from one place to another.

Faith at the fore

Catholics are leading the way in encouraging a trend whose time has come in terms of reverencing both their departed loved ones and weary Mother Earth.

“It’s not just a national trend, but among Catholics the idea is resonating a lot,” says Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Frances Donnelly, director of Life Transitions Ministries for The Catholic Cemeteries in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. “We want to be a part of God’s creation.” 

The Catholic Cemeteries, a corporation that manages five cemeteries serving Catholics, recently dedicated a restored prairie environment for its natural burials at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights.

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“At the end of May 2019 the archbishop blessed the new section of the cemetery,” Donnelly says. “We had 40-some graves and started selling in June—and we’re almost sold out [as of November 2019].”

Minnesota winters being what they are, development of the next two sections will have to wait until the land isn’t frozen, but Donnelly expects a similar response to those new natural burial sites.

As the idea of natural burial gains traction across the United States and Europe, the Vatican has addressed the concept. Opus Dei Father Paul O’Callaghan, a professor who counts end-of-life topics among his teaching specialties at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, points out that the original Christian practice entailed burial followed by natural decay and that such burials are more ecological than conventional cremation.

The ground can simply take from the body what it wants, rather than the body being burned and heating up the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.

Earth-friendly option

Mother Earth may be sighing in relief at this new trend.

According to the Funerals Consumer Alliance, American cemeteries annually bury more than 30 million board feet of hardwood; 90,000 tons of steel in the form of caskets and another 17,000 tons of copper and steel; and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults.

As if that’s not enough of an imposition on the planet, it takes 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid to prepare the dearly departed for those burials. One ingredient in that fluid is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and respiratory irritant to which those preparing the body are inevitably exposed. 

Cremation is another option growing in popularity. Less than 10 percent of deceased Americans were cremated in 1980, but that number has skyrocketed to more than 50 percent today, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

The process of incinerating a body in a 1,400- to 1,800-degree oven releases more than 246,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year—as well as soot and trace minerals such as mercury—into the air. The outsized carbon footprint of one cremation has been equated to that of a 500-mile car trip.

Alkaline hydrolysis, in which a mixture of water pressure, heat, and chemicals are used to hasten soft tissue decomposition, is more energy efficient than either process, but it is not legal in all states.

Catholic tradition dictates that burial plots, which are considered sacred, are not reused, so interments are considered permanent allocations of space.

“You can get a second rite of burial to add a second person’s remains—especially cremains—but with a natural burial, once you’re there, you’re there,” Donnelly says of the policies at The Catholic Cemeteries. “People can rent space in Europe, but I don’t see that happening in the United States.” 

The physical distance between interments in the green burial area varies. Although it might seem that a hard-sided casket and all the accoutrements would require more space than just a body in a shroud or flexible wicker basket, that’s not the case. More room may be needed to accommodate the lowering of the body through the use of ropes and human hands.

“(Natural burial) isn’t a space saver,” Donnelly says. “There’s more space between graves because there’s nothing to keep the ground from caving in. It takes a year or two for the dirt to settle back down.”

Catholic cemeteries often allow the opportunity for ritual celebrations, such as a celebration of the Eucharist and the Rite of Committal for the dead, as well as a peaceful, natural setting for quiet contemplation and prayer. But many such sites are open to people of all religious persuasions—or those who never found a spiritual home on Earth.

“By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity,” details an instruction on burial and cremation issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in October 2016.

But for the short term, green burials allow the human body, when no longer needed by its soul, to simply become part of the earth.

Beautiful choices

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia offers, in its own words, “a quiet and beautiful resting place for people of all faiths, as well as those who have struggled to find faith. We are pleased to provide our land and promise to reverently protect it for those who share it with us.”

Its natural burial ground, Honey Creek Woodlands, lays within 1,000-plus acres of protected streams, wetlands, and native hardwood forests and features hundreds of plant species and freely roaming wildlife. The total costs of interment there can be thousands of dollars less than families might pay for the more popular form of funeral services—and a portion of that money goes toward a permanent endowment for the site to ensure continuing conservation and restoration.

Such wholesome considerations matter to many.

In 2009 Paul E. Magalhaes Jr. of Estero, Florida and his father, then a resident in an assisted living facility in North Bergen, New Jersey, met with a funeral director to plan the elder man’s final arrangements. They were introduced to the concept of green burial, which was only just being launched at Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey.

“Going back to the earth appealed to my father and myself,” Paul Jr. says. “Traditional cemeteries seem depressing, even a bit morbid. But this seemed new and refreshing.”

Maryrest’s Catholic Natural/Green Burial Section accommodates three types of green burial: Dark Green, using simple shrouds; Medium Green, using biodegradable caskets with memorialization; and Light Green, using biodegradable caskets, memorialization, and embalming with fluids that are not harmful to the environment.

Little did Paul Jr. know his father would pass only a few months later, while the area was still being developed for use.

“The Archdiocese [of Newark, New Jersey] went out of its way to make it very presentable,” he says. “Now it has boulders, bird feeders, wild grasses—it’s a very nice site to go and visit. It’s not depressing. In fact, I find it uplifting sometimes.”

Should other family members who are unfamiliar with Maryrest want to visit, they can log on to CatholicJourney.org to learn the name of the cemetery, the section and lot, as well as the date their family member was laid to rest.

More and more cemeteries are even taking advantage of GPS technology to pinpoint the location of specific graves.

Throwback to history

Some peoples of the world mummified their dead and buried them in pyramids or lavish tombs. Others simply let nature take its course in the ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust process of what was promoted in 1998 by Billy Campbell when he established the first “green cemetery” at the Ramsey Creek Preserve near Westminster, South Carolina.

Green burials have been growing in popularity ever since, despite early industry skepticism of a temporary fad.

“I think we are at around 270 in total,” says Lee Webster, who keeps a list of known green burial grounds on the website of the New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy in Holderness. “Unfortunately, I’m not always informed as to what their affiliations are, though I do try to note it when I can. At one time, half the dozen cemeteries in New York were Catholic owned and operated, so that has been a good indicator.”

Some estimates say that about 12 percent of all green burial spaces in American cemeteries are Catholic—and that number is expected to grow.

“Parish cemeteries want more and more information,” says Donnelly. “It’s the same with funeral directors—more and more are getting on board.”

About half of the respondents (48 percent) in the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2018 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Study said they would be interested in learning more about green options to reduce the environmental impact of end-of-life rituals.

For as long as there have been people on Earth, there has been the question of what to do with them after their death. Many earlier Americans were into being “green” long before the environmental meaning of the term existed, lovingly burying decedents under a favorite tree or big rock near others who have passed. Many an urnful of ashes has set sail over land or sea.

Not that such practices are always legal now. Casting a loved one’s ashes to the wind or waves, while tender and romantic, often runs afoul with the law.

And it’s not only legal issues that give pause. In October 2016 the Vatican announced that while cremation is acceptable, the scattering of ashes is not. The body, the sacred vessel of the Holy Spirit, is to be placed in burial ground that has been blessed and identified by a given name. That accurately describes the hallowed space dedicated in Catholic cemeteries to any sort of burial, including natural ones.

New green apparel

My father, the late John Smolen of Buffalo, always said he wanted his ashes buried in a beer can to unite his body and his favorite beverage for all eternity, but most municipalities—and surely the Vatican—frown on such practices. Ultimately Dad’s ashes were set into a handcrafted paper fiber urn not yet moved from the home of his other daughter, although the Vatican also strongly discourages that practice.

Dad’s choice of vessel doesn’t come under the category of “biodegradable,” but he could have had a host of viable options offered by companies such as Kinkaraco Green Funeral Products of San Francisco. It offers a “Mort Couture” section on its website, where it features its original design for a biodegradable shroud. Kinkaraco’s website proudly proclaims, “They are the ONLY shroud with lowering capability attached. (For the first time, four strong women can now easily lower their average weight friend by themselves!)”

The body itself can be a chemical hazard site of sorts too, point out the inventive experts at Coeio, a green burial company.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bodies can contain more than 219 toxic chemicals, including tobacco residues, pesticides, fungicides, heavy metals, preservatives, and others. Coeio’s Infinity Burial Suit aims to remediate and neutralize those toxins, leaving cleaner materials in its wake. As explained in a 2011 TED Talk by Jae Rhim Lee, one of the suit’s developers, the suit is infused with mushroom spores that digest both the body and its toxins—creating an Earth-friendly compost.

Possibly not all cemeteries will welcome the use of the Infinity Burial Suit, Coeio warns, so conversation before interment is advised.

Money’s not No. 1

While estimates vary as much as the options offered at the plethora of high- and lower-end funeral homes serving today’s grieving families across the country, costs to bid a fitting farewell to the dearly departed range generally from $7,000 to $12,000. Cremation and the accompanying memorial arrangements can cost a few thousand dollars less, owing in part to the cost of an urn versus a casket.

At the lowest end of the economic spectrum is “direct cremation,” which shuns many of the standard funeral amenities. This burial process is priced from $700 to $1,200, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance—or potentially even less, judging by offerings posted on the internet by various individual providers around the country.

Cost can be a paramount consideration for some families and may be on the minds of some green burial consumers, but economics seem not to be the driving force behind most choices.

For Paul Jr. and his dad, cost was only one of the elements that swayed them toward their choice of a green burial at Maryrest. 

“My father was retired with limited funds,” Paul Jr. says. “But cost was only one factor. It was more that ‘born with nothing, go back to the grave with nothing’ thing.”

While some consumers might be reticent in asking about the financial aspects of paying due respect to their loved ones, Cool Spring Natural Cemetery in Berryville, Virginia, run by the Cistercian monks of Holy Cross Abbey, has an easy solution. It offers upfront information on its website regarding its three varied placement options: the Circle of Silence, Blue Ridge Meadow, and Woodland Rest. The cemetery’s website states, “$2,800 for a cremation plot in the Woodland Rest, opening/closing, and one engraved memorial river-stone. ($3,000 if purchased at the time of need.) This is equivalent to as little as $1,400 per person, as two interments are permitted on cremation sites.” The website also states, “$4,750 for a single natural burial in the Woodland Rest and engraved memorial river-stone ($5,250 at need). $8,350 for a single natural burial in the Circle of Silence and engraved memorial river-stone ($9,150 at need).” They also offer discounts if you plan in advance.

Allowing the body to decompose naturally in unfinished wood, sea grass, wicker, willow, raw cotton, linen, paper, or even animal hides does not affect the Catholic belief that the body will be resurrected eventually.

The body itself, whether in life or death, is sacred. While alive it houses the Holy Spirit, and in death it assimilates back into the earth to complete the circle of life through a green burial. 

“Now when we go to visit Kris, it’s a place of life versus a place of death,” Beth Coleman says. “It’s raw, unspoiled land, like a national park. You don’t see tombstones—you see a beautiful landscape. Graveyards affirm death, but this is very life-affirming.” 

This article also appears in the April 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 4, pages 28-32). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

About the author

Valerie Zehl

Valerie Zehl is a former USA Today Network columnist and an author, teacher, freelance writer, and editor based in Upstate New York. Learn more at valeriezehl.com.

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