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Thursday, February 05, 2015

U.S. a Cremation Nation? Maybe Not.

Decades ago, cremation was the odd exit strategy for Americans heading to the Great Hereafter.

Today, it’s fairly common. By the end of 2015, it will be more common than not.

That’s the upshot of a new survey showing the cremation rate rising above 48% later this year, overtaking the rate of burials by nearly 2 percentage points.

The result is a sea change in American funeral practices: For the first time in this country’s history – nearly 140 years after the first modern cremation on U.S. soil took place in a makeshift hearth outside of Pittsburgh – more of us will be cremated than buried.

The American Way of Death? It's looking more like Cremation Nation.

And, well into the future, if that survey is right. By 2020, the cremation rate will reach 56%. Ten years later, we’ll see 70% of all Americans heading into the hearth.

Even more may follow their lead. According to one industry official I spoke with, the U.S. cremation rate is likely to track to that of European countries where cremation is firmly entrenched: Sweden (77%), Denmark (77%), and the U.K. (73%). Some, like Switzerland (85%) and the Czech Republic (80%), boast higher rates yet.

Given our somewhat similar demographics to those countries and the growing acceptance of cremation in this one, the official saw no reason we wouldn’t, literally, go the way of that part of Europe.

But I’m not so sure. And here’s why: the green burial movement.

From hundreds of conversations I’ve had with families, I can tell you that the vast majority who come to green burial are converts from cremation. Cremation, they tell me, had been their default choice. It was more environment-friendly than modern burial, plus cheaper and a whole lot more convenient.

Then they learned about natural burial. They read about RamseyCreek Preserve, where the dead are buried sans embalming in a Southern pine forest. Saw pictures of handsome caskets made from wicker, sea grass, plain pine boards, and other readily biodegradable materials. Learned that it was possible to hold home funerals, build their own coffins, and return one’s remains to some beautiful natural environment -- to push up a tree, nourish a meadow, and rejoin the natural cycle that turns to benefit all those we leave behind. And all this without the environmental drag of cremation, with its high energy costs and resulting emissions.

Those families promptly changed their plans.

My evidence is anecdotally, I know. But it’s in keeping with a couple of early surveys showing that roughly a quarter (and more) of respondents say they are interested in green burial. A percentage that will only grow, I’m convinced, as word about green burial spreads and as the number of green cemeteries, home funeral providers, eco-casket makers and the like continues to increase.

As it does, the cremation rate will dip. At the very least, it won’t climb anywhere near as high as industry prognosticators would have us believe.

An early sign that a shift may already be underway comes from one of those Euro-cremation nations itself, Sweden, where a couple of years ago the popularity of earth burial rose for the first time in 70 years. The environmental benefits of burial over cremation was a main driver. 

Green burial. When I look to the future, I see it's where we’re headed. 

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters, “The signature book of the green burial trend,” Bangor Daily News

Web. Facebook (Grave Matters). Twitter (@greenburialist).

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

How many U.S natural cemeteries are there?

When I first began investigating the emerging green burial movement back in the early 2000s, you could just about survey this country's natural cemetery landscape in a single sweep.

There was a budding graveyard on a family farm halfway across the Florida Panhandle, another one ensconced in a pine forest north of Houston, a few others. And then the flagship operation at South Carolina’s RamseyCreek Preserve, ground zero for the chapter in Grave Matters on the natural cemetery

What a difference a decade makes.

Today, my very rough tally puts the number of natural cemeteries in the United States near 150, all scattered across nearly 40 states. And counting. (My definition of the green cemetery is equally rough: it’s one that allows for the vaultless burial of an unembalmed body, which is then shrouded and/or casketed in biodegradable material).

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these new natural burial grounds take root within the environs of existing, traditional cemeteries. As anyone who has tried to start a natural cemetery can tell you, it’s a lot easier to pull off when you have the land, infrastructure (backhoes, staff, etc.), and approvals from the get-go.

Some of these “hybrid” cemeteries, as they’re sometimes called, are places like Mound Cemetery (in the greater Minneapolis area), which allow for vaultless burial anywhere on their grounds. Others have set aside special preserves for green burial only. That’s what we did at Green Meadow (in eastern Pennsylvania, pictured below), transforming a fallow field at the edge of the cemetery into a meadow of wildflowers and native grasses (not as simple as it sounds, turns out).  

If my conversations with alt.burialists and cemetery managers is any indication, the natural burial movement is poised to take off in these established hallowed grounds. One recent indication: Mount Auburn (Boston area), the first rural cemetery in this country (1831), is set to go green. (Join me in celebrating that at a free, afternoon event, on June 14th.) 

A number of other natural cemeteries have rooted themselves on their own property, be it a forest, family farm, municipal land, or, in one case, a golf course. The greenest of the bunch -- the conservation burial ground -- uses the green cemetery model to preserve land and restore it to ecological health, ala Ramsey Creek, that first and enduring flagship.

My survey of the green burial movement since the publication of Grave Matters has shown me what I felt would be true from the moment I first emerged from Ramsey Creek all those years ago: that green cemeteries are changing the face of death in America.

In large part, I think that’s because green burial is not, in the end, a concept that speaks solely -- or even largely -- to off-gridders and hybrid drive motorists. With its lower cost, simplicity, DIY approach and respect for tradition, green burial speaks to old-fashioned American values that still have a strong purchase on this country. Which explains, for one, why there are both Wiccan and Jewish green cemeteries (click on Gan Yarok), plus some dozen Catholic graveyards to boot.

The numbers don't lie: Green burial is a big tent, not fringe, phenomenon. And it’s just getting started.

You’ll find a list of green cemeteries that have earned the Green Burial Council’s seal of approval here. Some two dozen have signed the Natural End Pledge. A listing maintained by the Funeral Consumers Alliance is here (click on 2014 Green Cemetery List). Don’t see anything near you? Email me:

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters, “The signature book of the green burial trend.”
Web. Facebook (Grave Matters). Twitter (greenburialist).

Upcoming Appearances (all free and open to the public, except the Moravian event) 

April 13 (Sun), 2:00 PM
Ithaca, NY. Kendal at Ithaca, 2230 N Triphammer Road.
Event information: click here. 

April 30 (Wed.). 7:00 PM
Pen Argyl, PA. Slate Belt Nazareth Baptist Church, 1620 Church Road.
Event information: click here 

June 7 (Sat.), 2:00 PM
Bethlehem, PA. Moravian College, 1200 Main Street.  
I’ll be giving a presentation on memoir writing, at a wonderful, weekend writers’ conference. If you’re a writer, this conference is well worth attending.
Event information: click here  

June 14 (Sat.), 4:00 PM
Cambridge, MA. Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn Street.
Event information: click here. 

If you’d like me to speak to your group, you can reach me at:

The photo at the head of this blog was taken at the Fultonville Natural Burial Ground, outside Albany, just after a dedication ceremony last October.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Going Back to Blueberry Mountain

On a bright, sultry morning a few weeks ago, my family hiked up the small, blueberry-topped mountain that lies a few miles from the summer home my in-laws own in the wilds of New Hampshire.

When we reached the summit, Theresa set her pack on a granite boulder, looked out to the forested horizon and made the announcement that's become a standard feature of our annual trek into local blueberry territory: "Now don't forget," my wife said to me, our two teenage daughters and, seemingly, the universe. "This is where I want to be buried when I die."

We hardly needed the reminder. Theresa has talked long and openly about her final wishes. Even in grade school our daughters could (and sometimes did) recite the brief of her burial plans to their astonished classmates: My Mama wants to be cremated, have her ashes put in a paper bag and buried under a blueberry bush in New Hampshire.

The blueberry mountain is, our girls know, Theresa's special place. From early childhood on, my wife has been coming to this lush and verdant hill, to hike, pick blueberries, and for at least a few hours commune with a natural world that couldn't look any more pristine and untrammeled. Stand at the peak beside the lone fire tower here and all you'll see is a hilltop overrun in blueberry and raspberry bushes and, beyond, stretching into the far distance in every direction, an undulating and unbroken landscape of trees.

For almost fifty years, Theresa has absorbed this place. Its clean air has filled her lungs; its colors and calm and rhythms have filled her being. In all that time, this wooded corner of the Granite State has, metaphorically but also quite literally, become a part of who she is. Of course, she would want to return here at the end.

When it comes, my wife's green burial on blueberry mountain will rejoin her with the elements that so infused and inspired her in life. At the last, she will simply be one with her beloved patch of earth. And when she is, her children can come and find their mother in Mother Nature -- in these blueberry bushes and red maples, on the winding trail up this mountain and at its peak -- where she lives on.

A green burial can save us money. It's good for the planet, hews to honorable tradition, and celebrates our loved ones. More than all that, it returns our departed to the natural cycle of life -- of life and death, decay and rebirth -- that turns forever. And in that way, gains them immortality.

Mark Harris
author of Grave Matters
"The signature book on the green burial trend." Bangor Daily News

Upcoming Events: November 7, Northampton Community College (Bethlehem, PA)

Monday, September 06, 2010

Green Burials Take Deep Root in Existing Cemeteries

Nature's Sanctuary is a one-acre natural cemetery that sits at the northwest edge of Philadelphia, a stone's throw from a long stretch of the Schuylkill River before it snakes into the urban grid.

It's a surprisingly hushed, leafy locale given its proximity to the country's sixth most-populated city. Dense woodlands rim the cemetery's northern corner. A tree-belted rail line -- soon to become a nature trail -- runs along the backside of the property. The grounds themselves are mostly overspread with rough grass, which grows up to earthen burial mounds backstopped by tall, feather-tipped grasses and wildflowers native to the region.

Nature's Sanctuary offers a fetching view of a natural return to the elements -- and in a place you might least expect to find it: a traditional cemetery.

Pennsylvania's first true green burial ground takes root at West Laurel Hill, a suburban cemetery where Philadelphians have been laying their dead to rest for well over a century.

And so far, it represents an approach to green burial that accounts for a large part of the movement's growth.

Nature's Sanctuary is just one of scores of existing cemeteries across the country that have opened their gates and manicured lawns to a more natural approach to burial.

For some cemeteries, that means allowing vaultless burial to take place anywhere on their grounds. The property may not be wooded or even particularly "natural" in appearance, but without entombment in burial vaults -- the usual requirement of most cemeteries -- a wood-coffined body will at least have eventual contact with surrounding soil and, in its decomposition, rejoin the elements.

Other cemeteries are taking a more wholistic approach. Here, a section of ground is reserved for green burial only. No formaldehyde-embalmed bodies are allowed. Metal caskets are banned, burial vaults prohibited. The grounds themselves are typically landscaped to resemble more natural environments, like woodlands or, as in Nature's Sanctuary, meadows.

Native vegetation is planted atop and around graves, grave markers are limited to indigenous fieldstone or rock.

Siting a natural burial ground within an existing cemetery has many advantages. For one, it's easier and cheaper to establish one of these so-called "hybrid" cemeteries than it is to start one from scratch. Operators don't have locate and purchase land or post the expensive bonds, which sometimes tally into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, that states often require of new cemeteries.

Cemetery owners already have the land, as well as landscaping crews and sometimes even funds to launch new, eco undertakings. And unlike operators of virgin, all-natural grounds, they don't have to depend entirely on their "green" sales, either. They can often afford to wait for interest, and plot sales, to grow.

Hybrid cemeteries have their disadvantages. They're harder to tie to efforts to preserve nearby lands, as Ramsey Creek Preserve is doing. And while often very handsome, a "wild," unpruned green section can look both odd and oddly circumscribed within the broader environment of the well-tended traditional cemetery, with its surrounding landscape of marble headstones and turf mowed to golf-course grade.

As a consequence, you're less likely to lose yourself in natural revelry here than in those broad, forest-bounded meadows at the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, or to feel the "soothing influences of nature" that the ruined, woodland graves of olde England offered Romantic poet William Wordsworth.

Still, for families seeking a dust-to-dusty return in the known and nearby environs of the local cemetery -- albeit one less leafy than elsewhere -- a hybrid ground like Nature's Sanctuary is a beautiful, worthy, and welcome option.

Next week: How West Laurel Hill started Nature's Sanctuary.

Upcoming speaking engagements:
I'll be giving a number of presentations on green burial in the coming months. Click here for times and street addresses. All presentations are free and open to the public:

26: Harrisburg, PA

17: Morristown, NJ
22: San Mateo, CA
23: Berkeley, CA
23: Santa Rosa, CA

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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Grave Matters

Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.