I was delighted to see Denver Channel 7's May 10 piece about The Natural Funeral, an end-of-life education and natural funerary care center expected to open in Lafayette later this year. As the first venture of its kind in Colorado, The Natural Funeral offers a bright, welcoming atmosphere to provide grieving families with a greener personal death care option. This holistic death care center will make a real difference in helping grieving families as well as healing the planet.
While the new facility is a huge step in the right direction, there is one significant piece missing: There are currently no established "green" cemeteries in Boulder County. It is legal to bury people on your own land here, but the county has no designated natural burial cemeteries available for persons wishing to dispose of their bodies in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Each year, along with the bodies of the deceased, our country buries enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, enough wood to build more than 3,500 homes, and enough carcinogenic embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools (Mark Harris, "Grave Matters," 2007). While "greener" than traditional burial, cremation still pumps more than 23 million pounds of carbon dioxide and toxins into the atmosphere. For the sake of future generations, we must take steps to ensure that death and funerary rituals promote regeneration rather than degradation.
Green cemeteries are natural areas where unembalmed bodies are buried in simple shrouds or biodegradable caskets, minus unnecessary burial vaults and upright headstones. It is how many of our ancestors were buried for centuries. Besides offering a less-toxic and comparatively inexpensive alternative to traditional funerary practices, green cemeteries also help nourish, protect, and sustain natural ecosystems. Often called natural burial grounds, green cemeteries embrace the body's return to the earth in a true "dust to dust" manner. Rather than the traditional "six feet under," the deceased are laid to rest in hand-dug, 3- to 4-foot-deep holes that accelerate decomposition. Soil microorganisms and bacteria immediately begin their composting work, providing nutrients for new life. This is what nature intended — that our bodies replenish the earth, not taint it.
Since 1997, approximately 100 green burial cemeteries have opened in the United States. Many are also beneficial nature preserves that actively promote a strong land conservation ethic. Green cemeteries not only preserve land from development, but also help restore it. They support and expand ecosystems and wildlife corridors. They are not disease vectors. And unlike conventional cemeteries, they require very little maintenance — mowing is infrequent or unnecessary, and vegetation is limited to native plants adapted to the local environment. Plots are usually less expensive, and sales can help finance land preservation, stewardship, and conservation. There are other, less-tangible benefits as well. Grieving families and friends are often able to participate in such hands-on burial tasks as transporting the body, decorating the coffin, or even shoveling dirt. These final acts of love can be powerful and very healing.
Establishing a green cemetery in Boulder County will not only reduce our final carbon footprint, but will also help to nourish, protect, and sustain natural ecosystems. Our community benefits by preserving acreage for passive recreation and land buffers, wildlife remains undisturbed, and our carbon footprint is reduced. The 2017 opening of The Natural Funeral is a marvelous first step, but now it is critical to find a suitable location for a natural cemetery to complete the cycle of dust to dust. The nonprofit group Green Burial Boulder County is actively seeking available public/private land, donations, and/or a benefactor to help launch this important project. Please contact us at greenburialbouldercounty.org if you can help. It is literally a matter of life and death.
Mary Reilly-McNellan is a Boulder County resident and green burial advocate. She retired in 2016 after 17 years as preservation manager of Boulder's historic Columbia Cemetery.