The respectful burial of the dead has been a part of human culture for tens of thousands of years. In fact, many paleontologists believe that our early human ancestors had rituals for this life passage. This reverence has been continued by faith communities for millennia. In Judaism, for example, bodies are not embalmed and coffins are constructed of wood without any metal so the body easily returns to the earth. Muslims also practice natural burial. In that tradition, the body is covered in a simple shroud and buried facing Mecca.
Until the last century, in the United States burial was handled by the person’s family or close community such as the church congregation or village council. The loved one’s body lay in state in a simple pine box in the living room or parlor so that family and neighbors could pay their respects and comfort each other in the familiar surroundings the person loved. After a community ceremony, the body was buried in the local graveyard.
During the Civil War, the bodies of fallen soldiers had to be transported by train to their home communities far from the battlefields. Out of necessity, the use of embalming fluids and other methods to delay decomposition of the bodies became commonplace. As a result, the modern funeral industry came into being.
In many parts of the country, caskets made of exotic hardwoods and precious materials, as well as impenetrable vaults of metal and concrete, replaced traditional burial practices. However, in other places, such as Steelmantown Cemetery in New Jersey, traditional natural burial has continued to be practiced since 1700.
People are now returning to traditional burial to protect our environment. In England there are now 270 natural burial sites, and in the United States there are now 41 sites in 26 states. Natural burial sites are un-landscaped, woodland and meadow areas where bodies are buried among the natural vegetation. Stone markers or GPS coordinates are often used to designate the graves.
Final Footprint is working with the Funeral Consumers Alliance and multiple environmental organizations to integrate natural burial into existing open space throughout the United States. These natural burial sites are economical, environmentally-friendly places that offer an alternative to conventional cemeteries. These sites will provide conservation habitat for generations to come.
Sources: Mary Woodson, vice president of the Pre-Posthumous Society of Ithaca, New York reported in Mother Earth News, April/May 2003. Philip Donald Batchelder, “Dust in the Wind? The Bell Tolls for Crematory Mercury” in Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal, Vol, 2, No. 1, 2008. Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule