Why is green burial all over the media lately?
Death is a natural occurrence, and ideally the ways that we mourn and dispose of the dead should feel natural and support nature. Today, many people are trying to lessen the negative impact of human society on the environment in a multitude of ways: by supporting renewable energy, by driving hybrid or electric cars, by eating healthy foods, by promoting sustainable agriculture, by using their own cloth bags at the grocery store, and so on. Another area where we need to consider our impact on the planet is in how we handle the dead.
Green burial is a way of caring for our dead with the least possible environmental impact. It is a set of body preparations and burial practices that allow a body to decompose naturally in a site specifically set aside for this type of environmentally sound resting at peace.
When it comes to green burials, who are your most interested clients at this point—are you able to see any trends in terms of age, income, lifestyle, etc.?
Embracing and driving the green burial movement are the Baby Boomers. Those 78 million Americans born in the two decades following the end of World War II ushered in the first Earth Day and natural childbirth; they wrote their own wedding vows and nurtured the organic food revolution. This is the age demographic calling me to chat, request information, and in fact, choose green burial.
What's been a really lovely green burial you've attended? What made it special?
Wanda's service pops right to mind. Her friends and family played drums, chanted and spoke of her kindness. We all held hands to form a circle around her newly dug resting place and stood in silence as her three sons lowered her gently into the ground. Her tiny frame was cloaked with a quilt she had made as a teenager. Soon the plain grave was covered with earth, with a knoll of dirt on top to compensate for settling that will happen over time. There was no marker, just native foliage. After a closing prayer we feasted on fish caught in the local Clackamas River.
This beautiful experience opened my eyes to the fact that burying loved ones at home can help people through the grieving process by adding an immense amount of joy in caring the body of their loved one on their terms. This intimate time for the family allows privacy in saying goodbye, and also provides a convenient place to visit their beloved.
Do you listen to music/podcasts while you work? What do you prefer?
I adore stations which tout “the music of your life.” Tony Bennett has always been my favorite, and whenever I must deal with something unpleasant, I am mentally cruising down Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny day in a light-blue Ford Fairlane with the top down, singing loudly to all my favorite show tunes played by Ken Denko and his Hammond B3 in my back seat.
Either in film, books, or fine art, what have been some of your favorite artistic renderings of death?
I absolutely love the dramatic moment on a lonely highway in New Mexico which was snapped by Ansel Adams in 1941. "Moonrise, Hernandez" perfectly captures the luminance of moon. I pulled into a 7-11 in San Jose, California about fifteen years ago and was approached by two young men selling prints out of the back of a car. Prices were excellent, so I took a gander. I immediate spotted it -- the white clouds, the moon in a black sky, and especially the sea of white gravestones.
It currently is watching over me as I work in my parlor office. I have learned that Mr. Adams was driving down Highway 285 later one afternoon and suddenly slammed the breaks on his old Pontiac station wagon to get the shot. It was in the moment, just like my purchase at 7-11 that day.
Why did you decide the funeral world was a good fit for you?
My childhood fantasy was to be a Solid Gold Dancer, but that dream is now up in smoke with the dissolve of the program, and possibly some of my technique. But as a small child, I saw a lot of people die, and I attended their rosaries, visitations, funerals, and burials. I knew these people; they were my neighbors, church members, and even my family. My mother and grandparents, who lived with us, all died before I was ten years old. As I grew older, I learned to nurture friends when they had deaths to deal with, whether the deaths involved a grandmother or a gerbil.
As a young adult, it felt only natural to pursue mortuary science and become a funeral director. My first foray into the funeral industry was as the live-in night keeper in a hilly cemetery at age twenty-two. I received my funeral director’s license in California first, and then I moved back to my home state of Oregon and passed the test there. After many years, I finally was able to own and operate my own funeral parlor.
What do your colleagues in the funeral think of the literary direction you've taken your career?
My very first book signing was at the Chapel Pub in Portland, Oregon, an old funeral home turned into a bar and restaurant. Many death care industry colleagues came out and stood in line for an autographed book. I was more than touched.
Where do you write?
I live in a log cabin in the hills with my husband, daughter, rescue dogs, goats and sheep. My home office is in the loft, and my desk is positioned to allow a beautiful view of Mount Hood directly through a large picture window. It is peaceful and perfect.
Also, creativity springs naturally while walking through cemeteries, I spend a good chunk of my time out in country graveyards alone. These burial grounds are way out in the middle of nature. Time hangs lightly, and solitude allows me time to gaze at ivy and grass and take in the nature surrounding me. Flowers glisten with last evening’s rain. I am granted the space I need to process.
How long have you been acting as a side hustle, and who is your favorite actor?
I was a very lonely little girl who became interested in acting so I would have something fun to do with my invisible friends. And I have undoubtedly learned over time that there is a difference between imaginary friends and invisible friends.
I have seen every Clint Eastwood movie even dating back to Francis in the Navy and Tarantula. Play Misty for Me was so disturbing I was thrilled when he face-punched the deranged female fan through a window and over a cliff. My all-time favorite would be Dirty Harry, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Paint Your Wagon because he sings, and I secretly pretend I am the blonde in "I Talk to the Trees."
How did the town of Boring get its name?
It's a rather boring story. The community was named after W. H. Boring, an early resident of the area. Boring was platted in 1903 as Boring Junction. The post office was established and named "Boring" the same year, and the builders of the interurban railway adopted Boring as the name of the community
I do love the jokes. I never get tired of the funny looks, the caller on the other end of the line asking me to repeat myself, or late-night TV making fun of it.
How does natural burial work?
In the most familiar definition, a green burial means a person is buried in a container that can decompose, along with their human remains, and return to the soil. Ideally, all aspects of a green burial are as organic as possible. The body is not filled with embalming chemicals, and it is placed in the earth without vaults or nonbiodegradable caskets. The end goal of green burial is that nothing is used that doesn’t help replenish the soil.
What are green funerals?
Here's an example: A woman named Alyce was dying from ovarian cancer. About a month before she died, her best friend, Diane, came into my funeral home to make plans and figure out how she could create a funeral that best aligned with her tender-hearted friend’s spirit. We made a plan: Once she died, Alyce would stay in her home. We figured out which cemetery she would be transported to and by whom. I assisted Diane with assembling her team of helpers and assigning jobs.
Alyce was also involved in this planning, and she was very thoughtful about what she wanted and how it might unfold. Diane visited George Cemetery in Estacada, Oregon, and chose the burial space. She also had ready Alyce’s oatmeal-hued, organic cotton dress, which Alyce wanted to be dressed in for her final journey to the cemetery. For the burial, Alyce was also wrapped in a natural blanket that shrouded her small frame, and she was placed onto a pine board for easier carrying — from the home, into the back of the station wagon, and to the gravesite.
Once at the cemetery, Alyce’s friends gently lowered her into the ground and shared some words. In particular, someone spoke about how Alyce had always wanted to become a tree, and now that dream was going to come true.
Are green burials legal?
It is legal today to bury a loved one without an embalmed body, nor do you need to use a gasketed casket inside a protective grave liner. It’s a myth that all bodies need to be embalmed before burial, and in most states, you aren’t required to hire a funeral director. That said, burial rules and regulations vary by state and local laws, which is why planning ahead for a funeral, especially for a green burial, is so important, since it avoids unexpected legal problems during an already stressful time.
Can a body be buried without a casket?
Yes. To have a truly green burial, the body should be buried in clothing and a container made of 100-percent natural, biodegradable materials. This allows everything that is buried to decompose and return to the soil. Most people prefer to be buried in a casket or coffin, and using a natural one made of untreated wood like pine is an ideal, green choice. These can be handmade to order, or you can make your own. However, new types of burial containers are being developed all the time, ones that use eco-friendly, organic materials like wicker, bamboo, willow, hemp, banana leaves, and sea grass.
People can also forgo a box and be buried in a cloth shroud. With green burial, the concern isn’t only what we put into the ground, but the amount of resources we use to bury ourselves. After all, we came into this world possessing only a body. How much does our body really need when we leave it?
A very modest, low-priced option for a green burial container is fiberboard or cardboard. Both materials are strong enough to hold a body and are rather eco-friendly. These are used mainly for cremations, but they will work for a burial as long as there is a board underneath to keep the container rigid while lowering into the grave.
Is it legal to be buried on your own property?
A backyard burial encompasses burying a person on residential property, or land that is privately owned. This precludes any land that has been endorsed as an actual cemetery. Most bodies are buried in established cemeteries, but burial on private property may be possible. Laws vary not only state to state but county to county; it’s most accepted and typical in rural settings.
How much does a green burial cost?
There isn’t a standard cost for a green burial, since so many aspects of a traditional funeral and burial can be either omitted or done yourself. Typically, green burials are less expensive than a traditional burial, and in some cases, they can be significantly less expensive. The difference usually depends on how much work you intend to do yourself and the cost of the materials and services you use.
An average estimate of a traditional funeral and burial in the United States is anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000, depending on the specific goods and services you choose. Just like anything in life, you can choose the high-end model with all the extras, or you can pick the stripped-down floor model. Natural burial only requires the basics to get your loved one from point A to point B.
Green burial can be highly cost effective; it’s all about simplicity. For instance, you can lower costs by choosing to be buried in a shroud made of a cloth you already own or in a no-frills pine coffin. If you make the coffin yourself, your only cost is the materials. Even a manufactured, biodegradable casket or shroud usually costs less than a conventional casket, which is often made of fabricated steel or lacquered hardwoods. If you forgo embalming, that cost is gone (both conventional and green embalming cost about the same, and both require a professional). Green burials also don’t require concrete vaults or liners, which is another cost eliminated.