When Penny McDougal’s husband, “Dr. Dan,” died of ALS last year, his family and friends kept a three-day vigil over his body, at home. On the third day, he was the first person buried in Maryland’s first green cemetery.
It felt so right that McDougal decided to take the show on the road. She and friend Shelley Morhaim gave a presentation at Genesis Farm in northwestern New Jersey in May, to spread the word that while we don’t get a say in how we die, we do get to pick what happens next. Fifteen people showed up from as far as Vermont, some contemplating their own departure or a parent’s; some to talk about death, which doesn’t come up much in polite conversation in this country; a few disillusioned by dealings with the funeral industry; one who’d been deeply impressed when a friend’s son built a backyard berm in which to bury his mother; and one geologist curious about the potential of reclaiming marginally contaminated properties by turning them into green cemeteries.
The modern green burial movement started in the UK, where they never got as far away from it as we did. Dying in America has gotten expensive in more ways than one. Funerals cost $10,000, caskets are entombed in vaults to maintain cemeteries’ pristine landscaping, and we sink 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid like formaldehyde into the ground every year.
For people who have tried to live lightly, said Morhaim, their last act being one of pollution feels wrong. A burial like Dan’s, at a green cemetery, costs between $1,000 and $4,000 (for perpetual care, opening and closing the grave.) The body is buried either in a shroud or a casket of biodegradable material like wicker, bamboo or banana leaf. Instead of a quarried and polished tombstone, the grave marker might be an inscribed field rock, a tree or shrub, or nothing at all. GPS will tell you where your loved one lies.
“The funeral industry as a whole,” said Morhaim, “has not wanted people to know that this was an option.”
We’re not too keen on chatting about it, either. “Our culture is in major denial of the fact that we’re going to die,” said Morhaim. “We only like death in slasher movies or weird videos on YouTube. We don’t like thinking it’s going to happen to anyone we know.”
Those attitudes are slowly disintegrating. “We’ve had a little bit of resistance, a little hostility from a couple of funeral directors,” said Joel Rabinowitz, director of Greensprings Natural Cemetery near Ithaca, which opened in 2006 and has hosted 97 burials. But in the past few years, many funeral directors have adapted, learning how to shroud bodies for transportation to green cemeteries and preserve them on the way with refrigeration or ice instead of embalming. Rabinowitz and his wife have bought plots in Greensprings cemetery.
Green cemeteries: Greensprings Natural Cemetery - Natural Burial Ground
293 Irish Hill RoadNewfield NY 14867
White Haven Memorial Park - Natural Burial Ground
210 Marsh RoadPittsford (Rochester) NY 14534
Steelmantown Cemetery - Natural Burial Ground
327 Marshalville RoadTuckahoe NJ 08270