A handcart bears a cardboard casket along a forest trail in South Carolina's Blue Ridge foothills. Attended by relatives and a minister, it stops at a four-foot-deep hole lined with pine straw and flower petals. Waterfalls splash nearby as family members lower the casket into the ground and cover it with earth. Later, the proprietors of the 33-acre Ramsey Creek Nature Preserve will plant endangered smooth-leafed coneflowers over the mound. Decomposition will be complete in about five years.
Devoid of formaldehyde, a heavy steel coffin, or a watertight vault, this bucolic funerary rite amounts to a radical act in the United States. "Our culture has a big problem, I think, with the whole idea of decay," says Kimberley Campbell, who, along with her husband, opened Ramsey Creek as North America's first green burial ground in 1998. So far, 17 people are buried here, in land that will remain eternally undeveloped. Fifty more are signed up for plots.
The Campbells are pioneers in the "natural burial" movement, a small but steady revival of funeral practices that aim to return the dead to the earth in the simplest way. Natural burials do away with the material excess prevalent in most American funerals, and also the hefty bills. A Ramsey Creek funeral costs $1,950 (the Campbells donate 5 percent to local watershed preservation); by contrast, according to the Federated Funeral Directors of America, the average U.S. funeral costs $5,394 -- plus an extra two grand or so for the plot, digging, gravestone, and vault.
According to the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America, the United States annually produces more than 1.8 million caskets, 70 percent of them made from metal and 20 percent from wood (which works out to some 46 million board feet each year, sometimes redwood or mahogany). In addition, most U.S. cemeteries require concrete, plastic, and/or outer burial containers or liners. So beneath hundreds of thousands of acres of well-clipped, irrigated, and herbicide-treated lawns lie buried hundreds of thousands of tons of pure bulk. As Americans, we consume huge quantities of resources during our lives, notes Mary Woodsen of the Pre-Posthumous Society, a nonprofit group that advocates green burial. "As people go out the door, it's worth considering: What are they leaving behind?"
Philosophical and environmental concerns like these have been slow to catch on in North America. The United States has only a handful of green-burial grounds and Canada none at all. (Britain, meanwhile, boasts some 200.) But, gradually, more Americans are demanding a resting place involving less pageantry and posthumous consumption. "Is interest growing? Absolutely without a doubt," says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit funeral-industry watchdog group. "It's a natural impulse to mark a death with ritual. It is not a natural impulse to enclose people in steel and concrete, pumped full of formaldehyde."
The United States and Canada are the only countries where embalming is routine. (A notable exception to this are traditional Jewish burials, which, in accordance with Genesis 3:19, view preservation as disrespectful. "For dust you are and to dust you shall return.") According to Jessica Mitford's muckraking exposé on the U.S. funeral industry, The American Way of Death, we can partially blame our urge to pickle on an enterprising ex-med student named Thomas Holmes. During the Civil War, he charged the families of felled soldiers $100 to preserve bodies for the long ride home from the battlefield. (Holmes, known as the father of embalming, became a very rich man.) Nearly 140 years later, this postmortem formaldehyde treatment remains de rigueur.
Recent public-health studies seem to argue for a return to practicing last rites the antebellum way. Formaldehyde, also used to make photographic film, plywood, and wrinkle-free clothing, has been associated since the 1980s with cancer of the nose in rats and mice. This November, the National Cancer Institute released a study of 25,619 U.S. factory workers, reporting that the risk of death from leukemia and Hodgkin's disease increased in proportion to formaldehyde exposure. And October's issue of Mortuary Management reported that some British embalmers have a 30 percent higher than normal risk of nose, pharynx, and lung cancer.
Formaldehyde-free cemeteries don't promise preservation of the corpse, but they do offer another kind of life everlasting -- in the form of land conservation. Brothers John and Bill Wilkerson arrived at the idea of Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve, on the Florida Panhandle, as a way to save their 350-acre family farm from development. "By burying people in the land we'll have the money to keep it intact," says Bill Wilkerson, who hopes to start offering burial plots soon. And Kimberley Campbell, who employs a botanist, an ecologist, and a land steward, predicts, "Five hundred years from now this preserve will still be here, a refuge for birds and plants and other wildlife."
-- Gillian Ashley