Over the last two decades, the Green Burial Movement has worked to mend U.S. deathcare ways by advocating for simple dust-to-dust human burial. Rejecting the trio of practices that have come to make up the American Way of Death – chemical embalming, the modern casket, and the burial vault – the movement calls for the earthly return of the body by way of simple containers made from biodegradable materials with minimal impact to the environment. We once buried our dead in this way. But that was before public health reforms in the 1800s swept through towns and cities and turned the dead body into a menace to be managed, before the Civil War introduced embalming in the names of preservation and sanitation, and before the creation of the manicured-lawn garden-cemetery that imposed an in-ground burial vault requirement separating the dead from the soil.
Today, that trio of practices – and the modern crematory, too – drive a polluting, resource-intensive and unsustainable deathcare industry. But the industry’s effects run deeper than environmental harm, augmenting human alienation from the earth, and a growing disaffection from one of life’s few shared experiences. The Green Burial Movement is changing that.
While the movement has a critical eye on the industry, I’m one of many advocates who recognize the need to balance critique with the call to work with industry players. If we are to grow this movement into the strong one it has the potential to become, advocates must build bridges with those who have long cared for the dead.
Of course, industry folks are not – even today – the only caretakers of the dead. Another bastion of care for the dead, one which has been around longer than this century-and-a-half old industry, resides in spiritual communities.
Even as the family’s hold on the dead began to evaporate by the early part of the twentieth century, and give way to the industry model, some spiritual communities held fast to their dead. There’s the Jewish Holy Society, the Hevra Kadisha, who are still responsible for overseeing the dead prior to burial, including the hands-on work of washing and dressing the body. In other spiritual communities, where such societies have not been common practice in the U.S., and where body preparation once mostly fell to familial inner circles, the dead were, and still are, ushered out of life by way of rituals meant to carry them and their families over the threshold.
Given these past and present connections, it would seem likely that spiritual communities would already be an integral part of this movement to green our deathcare. But, despite a number of faith-based green burial grounds that have opened in recent years, spiritual communities remain on the margins of the movement.
What will it take to change that?
Reconciling the Secular and the Spiritual
There are many reasons why people are drawn to the idea of green burial. Some of them look strictly practical, material, or matter-of-factly secular: the rejection of toxins that pollute the earth, the promise of decreasing one’s carbon footprint, spending less money on funeral arrangements, and the fact that in some cases green burial conserves, preserves, and restores land.
But for all the secular reasons, just as many that we might call philosophical, immaterial, or spiritual are coursing through the movement. I mean spiritual in the broadest sense, in the way that anthropologists Hannah Rumble and Douglas Davies have defined it “as a good word for those folks who may or may not be religious, but who foster a sense of depth and meaningfulness about life.” Unfortunately, those secular and spiritual reasons are very often talked about in such distinct and compartmentalized ways that we sometimes miss their resonance.
While it’s true that the trio of practices that make up the American Way of Death have been resource-intensive, polluting, expensive, and not good for the land – all environmentally practical reasons to reject them – they’ve also fundamentally distanced humans, especially human death, from the earth. This distance has a material basis: chemical embalming, the modern casket, and the burial vault all create barriers that literally separate the body from the land, and thwart the direction and flow of decay. But that material basis is, at the same time, compounded by an immaterial one where human death, and thus human life, becomes figured outside the realm of nature.
Even green burial grounds that have the goal of conserving land in perpetuity, which is most often pitched as environmentally practical in nature, are also tied up with spiritual significance. Their mission may be conservation, but they’re also turning on its head the idea of human death’s place within the land by burying bodies in an environmentally protected land area. This practice bears out a deep reversal in meaning that’s about much more than mere land use.
Prior to the Green Burial Movement, the prevailing environmental position on human burial was that it was a poor use of land. Championed with slogans like “Save the Land for the Living,” this belief helped to offer up cremation as the only answer to the question of how best to deal with the dead, on a planet saddled with endless environmental problems. Unfortunately, this thinking was spiritually shortsighted, as it effectively fortified mounting divisions between human beings and the land. Green burial grounds, especially ones with conservation goals, turn this around.
Indeed, no matter what reason people offer for preferring green burial, its practices are—burial by burial—literally and figuratively reconnecting the dead to the earth.
What Moves Us
Given the West’s long history of situating human life and death outside and above nature, the environmental feminist philosopher Val Plumwood rightly understood how it was a “major challenge,” for us “to reconceive and reinterpret both death and the significance of human life in ways which are both life- and nature- affirming and death-accepting.” This challenge was clearly a call to an earthian identity, a call to discern what it would take to lead us back to the earth. But, it was also a call to recognize the necessity of the spiritual component of both our lives and our deaths, and how our attempts to repair the world ultimately depend upon it.
The word movement means “to effect with emotion, to impel toward some action.” And, so, what in us is being stirred? What in spiritual communities? What in secular ones? And what if these stirrings look more alike than we might imagine? Yes, there are practical reasons like pollution, contamination, money, and resources. But something more consequential has also captured the human imagination: the possibility of interrelationship, of the interconnection between human and earth.
Expressions of this connection find voice in the midst of secular chatter, showing just how hungry people are for meaning. We hear it when folks say they want green burial because they want to return to the earth. This claim is a recognition of origin, that they want to become part of the flora and fauna of the land, to nourish the roots of a tree. It’s a claim that we ought to acknowledge our debt to what has sustained us, that we ought to give something back, that we are all “stardust.”
These expressions can also be found in emerging green burial rituals, some of them long abandoned by the deathcare industry and taken away from families. In these rituals, human death’s connection to the land is laid bare: journeying to grave with a simple burial container, facing the open hole, shoveling the dirt back into the hole, and creating the burial mound.
The green burial movement is, of course, about redirecting our deathcare practices in an attempt to mend them. But the movement is also a repair at the level of meaning. If, as Plumwood said, “death in the modern western context is a nothing, a void, a terminus whose only meaning is that there is no meaning,” the green burial movement is doing the work of turning that around.
A Good Fit
Given these meanings, spiritual communities – especially established religious communities who are already expert at doing the work of connecting human life back to something larger than the self – are a good fit for the movement. In dominant U.S. culture, death has long been swept under the rug. But spiritual communities have never walked away, providing care and rituals for making meaning around the end of life.
Another powerful element that spiritual communities have brought to movements in the past, such as the Civil Rights movement, is the holding of two necessary points of opposition. One is recognition of what’s wrong, and the other of what ought to be. This is precisely what Green Burial Council founder Joe Sehee learned from the Jesuits: that we are apt to “bring about change when we can get behind a vehicle to make things right.”
Some integration of spiritual communities into the movement has already been underway in the development of faith-based green burial grounds. Other signs of spiritual communities’ engagement include the work of theologians and congregational leaders who find support for green burial within their own traditions, and offer that back to the communities they serve. Congregational leaders are expert at building community, as well as fostering the kind of communal fellowship that can give life to hard-won projects, such as growing a green burial ground.
Still, obstacles are likely to get in the way. Some may be theological in nature. Christian rationalism has a history of setting spirit apart from matter, leading to the denigration of nature and the body, and the privileging of a transcended soul with continuity beyond the earthly plane. How will spiritual communities who engage in such splitting find entrance into a movement that’s clearly trying to bring those things together? We saw this obstacle nudge to the surface in late 2016, when the Vatican issued new guidelines for cremation disposition that urged parishioners to “bury” rather than “scatter”, saying that the church could not condone attitudes, or permit rites, that involve erroneous ideas about death, “such as considering death as the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration.”
It’s also not clear to what extent green burial grounds grown from spiritual communities will welcome outsiders. A number of Jewish green burial grounds have emerged in the last decade or so – seemingly paradoxical developments, given that Jewish burial grounds have always been “green.” Unfortunately, the industry’s mandate for the burial vault has increasingly intercepted these laws, and many Jewish cemeteries have begun requiring some kind of burial vault or liner. Vaults are marketed on two promises. First, that it protects the dead from the elements, and, second, that it prevents subsidence of the grave, making it much easier to mow the lawn. While the first contradicts Judaism’s strict laws around a swift return to the earth sans obstruction, the second does not. Many Jewish cemeteries have adapted to industry pressure by drilling holes in the bottom of vaults, inverting vaults, or placing soil inside the vault. While the development of Jewish green burial grounds is clearly resistance to this industry practice, many of these burial grounds are only open to people of the Jewish faith. How will questions of access be negotiated against histories of shared suffering and the need for religious distinctiveness, within a movement that seems to be all about extending borders and growing relationships?
No doubt, particular histories will bear out unique problems guiding congregational leaders as they seek to understand the social forces that have shaped the funeral industry, and the intersection of spiritual traditions with the racial, ethnic, economic, and gendered histories of care for the dead. Spiritual communities are uniquely positioned to take on these histories in ways that can help bridge the gap between who has access to green burial and who is not yet being reached.
Bridging this gap is key to movement wholeness. But such wholeness will remain a dream without the integration of spiritual communities. As spiritual communities navigate the waters of this growing movement – deciding where and when they might enter – advocates must do more than extend their reach. They must share in the vision. Indeed, there is one earth to which the dead belong. One movement will take us there.
- ^ Davies, Douglas and Hannah Rumble. Natural Burial: Traditional-Secular Spiritualities and Funeral Innovation (London: Continuum, 2012), 124.
- ^ Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (Routledge: London, 1993), 102.
- ^ Rehagen, Tony. “Green Burials are Forcing the Funeral Industry to Rethink Death,” Bloomberg, October 27, 2016.
- ^ Kelly, Suzanne. Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 6.
- ^ Povoledo, Elisabetta and Gaia Pianigiani, “Vatican Clarifies the Rules for Cremation: Bury, Don’t Scatter,” New York Times, October 25, 2016.