When Penny McDougals 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 Marylands 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 dont 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 were contemplating their own departure or a parents; some to talk about death, which doesnt come up much in polite conversation in this country; a few disillusioned by dealings with the funeral industry; one whod been deeply impressed when a friends 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.
And wed really rather not talk about it. Our culture is in major denial of the fact that were going to die, said Morhaim. We only like death in slasher movies or weird videos on YouTube. We dont like thinking its going to happen to anyone we know.
For people who have tried to live lightly, said Morhaim, their last act being one of pollution feels wrong. A burial like Dans, 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.
Historically, the funeral industry hasnt spent too much energy hyping banana leaf coffins. Weve 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 prideful attitudes are thawing. There are 23 funeral homes in New York and New Jersey approved by the Green Burial Council to care for cadavers in ways that wont degrades an ecosystem, like shrouding bodies for transportation to cemeteries and preserving them on the way with refrigeration or ice instead of embalming.
Green cemeteries: Greensprings Natural Cemetery (pictured above)
293 Irish Hill Road Newfield NY 14867
White Haven Memorial Park 210 Marsh Road
Pittsford (Rochester) NY 14534 585-586-5250
www.whitehavenmemorialpark.com Steelmantown Cemetery
327 Marshalville Road Tuckahoe NJ 08270