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Natural burials could change how we say goodbye to the dead

They could bring the heart back into our grieving process.

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Florida's Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery describes its mission as "providing green burials while simultaneously protecting land for future generations."

Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery

Do you ever wonder what happens to your body after you die?

Like many, you'll probably end up six feet under the ground. There'll be a service. Friends and family will say a few words. Then your loved ones will leave, and workers at the cemetery will use a machine to fill in the dirt on top of you. At its best, it's a prelude to a long road of grieving.

But what if the act of burial was a healing process in and of itself?

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Enter natural burials. A natural burial is quite simple. The remains are placed directly into the ground, without the use of a nonbiodegradable casket, burial vault or embalming fluid. Grave sites are dug by hand, and funeral goers are sometimes the ones doing the digging. Natural burials seek to transform our ideas of death and grieving, allowing for a hands-on healing process for the living.

Reimagining death

"We've handed the death process over to professionals because we think we can't handle it."

That's Cassie Barrett. She works for the Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, a conservation and green cemetery in the Asheville area of North Carolina. She says we see death and violence in the media all the time but, for some reason, death itself has become taboo. 

Barrett believes the process of dying and death has become, for the most part, commercialized and depersonalized. "Most deaths are not good deaths," she says. People often die in sterile hospitals or hospice environments, sometimes without a loved one nearby. The post-death care of the body and funeral is usually handled by a funeral home. The whole process typically costs anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000.

Often family members aren't involved in an unmediated way at any point during the traditional burial process. While some cemeteries let funeral goers shovel dirt onto the casket, most use a backhoe to perform the majority of the process, and won't let the grieving stay while this industrial labor is being done. This holds true for other post-death conventions. People don't typically handle the cremation of a loved one themselves, for example.

carolina-memorial-sanctuary-jpg.png

The Carolina Memorial Sanctuary is a green oasis located outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

Conserving Carolina

Proponents of natural burials seek to reimagine the concept of dying and death, envisioning a more intense familiarity with mortality. Guests in natural burials are invited to be hands-on with the burial, Barrett explains. People carry loved ones to the grave, help lower them in and either put a few scoops of earth on top or even shovel full the entire grave. She names the benefits of this process as the "physicality of grief."

"Using our bodies in the closing of the grave," she says, "creates a sense of closure for ourselves."

Saying one last goodbye

In early April, Jim Dufek's father died. After cremating his mother in 2016 and leaving the ashes in the ground to decompose, they decided to skip the incineration process this time and perform a natural burial at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery outside Gainesville, Florida. There were only a few people present, but the family was able to broadcast the ceremony to loved ones across the country.

"I've been at funerals before when you just say goodbye to your loved ones and then walk away." Dufek says. But during the natural burial of his father, they lowered the remains into the grave and "proceeded to shovel the dirt in on top," closing the grave. "There's just a tremendous sense of closure that comes from that," he tells me. "It's just a very beautiful process."

The last few years haven't been easy for Dufek. "I've lost a stepfather, a mother and a father all in the span of five years," he says. "But there's something about going through the grieving process, and the very hands on aspect of [natural burials] that absolutely puts you in touch [with mortality] and makes you realize how short and fragile life is."

Jan Tiura echoed similar themes about the death and burial process of her close friend Bob Swift. After a few years of deteriorating health he decided to invoke his right to die. Swift had chosen a natural burial in Purissima Natural Burial Ground, situated in Half Moon Bay, California.

"People do anything to avoid death and to not be around it," Tiura tells me. Similarly to Dufek, she and a few others filled in Swift's grave after sprinkling in a few handfuls of compost as a way to start the process. "To actually see [the burial] and to observe the body and see how peaceful he was was a gift."

The day they buried Swift, Oct. 25, 2019, was the warmest day of the year on the California coast. There was no fanfare or exaggerated lamentation at the burial. "We sat there with our shovels and had a beer afterwards. We thought about all the happy thoughts," Tiura reminisces.

Going back to our roots

From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.

While this specific phrase comes from Christian Ash Wednesday liturgy, the concept of a life cycle is pervasive across global cultures. Cultural views of life phases vary, but almost every civilization has rites of passage to mark people's journey through life. Birth and death are typically the most important, or most visible of these.

But some of these rituals are practical in their application.  Human beings are essentially made of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, some of the most important nutrients found in soil. When people are returned back into the earth, they literally complete the life cycle. "This is incredibly emotionally satisfying for the grieving family," Barrett says.

Depending on your cultural lineage, practicing a green burial can mean a return to your roots in more ways than one. Natural burials are nothing new -- Jewish, Muslim and Indigenous Americans have long practiced eco-friendly burials, preferring to wrap the dead in a simple shroud or wooden casket.

The natural burial movement is interconnected with another rising trend: home funerals.

Home funeral

Bringing a dead body into your home may sound outlandish, but home funerals are a growing trend.

Friends Funeral Home

Instead of leaving the preparation of the body up to a funeral home, it's possible to take a body home after death and care for it yourself. The reasons people pursue home funerals are similar to those behind natural burials -- they're less costly, better for the environment and more hands-on.

Dani LaVoire is president of the National Home Funeral Alliance. She says that home funerals are a process of "meaning making -- when families care for the loved ones at home and wash the body themselves, the heart is put back into the experience."

When LaVoire's grandmother died two years ago, the family didn't know how they'd make meaning out of the death. Her grandma was a complicated person, and LaVoire says there were a lot of "issues and trauma" left unresolved. Though LaVoire's mother was skeptical, they ended up bringing the body home from the hospital to have a day-long home funeral.

Within five minutes of bringing the body home, LaVoire's mother told her that "this feels so right and I shouldn't have doubted you." There was laughter, anger and tears at the bedside -- each of her grandmother's daughters got to spend time alone with their mother to grieve. LaVoire's children, nephews and nieces brought flowers in from the garden and climbed on the bed to give her kisses goodbye. 

"[Home funerals] gives people time to experience all the emotions they want," LaVoire tells me. She graciously admits that bringing a dead body into your house sounds outlandish, but it just may be what we need to let the grieving process unfold naturally.

Being kind to nature

Natural burials aren't inherently eco-friendly -- the term actually refers to a minimalistic burial service and can be performed at most cemeteries. However, when most people use the term "natural burial" they're typically referring to a green burial, which is performed at a cemetery that doesn't use any toxic or nonbiodegradable materials, like caskets, shrouds or urns.

Purissima Cemetery

Purissima Cemetery is only the second natural burial ground in the greater Bay Area.

Find A Grave

In traditional burials, a surprising amount of stuff ends up in the ground alongside the body. Every year Americans bury 73,000 kilometers of hardwood boards, 58,500 tons of steel, 1.5 million tons of concrete and 3.1 million liters of formaldehyde along with their loved ones. As the world's population grows, these burial practices will likely become unsustainable.

Cremation, often considered the more eco-friendly option, is actually taxing on the environment too. Cremating one body requires over 1,800 degrees of heat over two to three hours, which is enough energy to release 573 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air.

With green burials, bodies are usually placed bare in the ground, or wrapped in a biodegradable shroud. There's no wood, steel, concrete or formaldehyde involved, and the whole process requires minimal energy. Over the course of several months, the body decomposes until all that's left is a skeleton.

Fitting with the decomposition of the body, Tiura left me with some final thoughts about how much she hates the phrase "passing away." "You die. Let's have some finality to it."

"Being comfortable with death liberates us and allows us to take our life seriously," Barrett says. And natural burials just might be the best way to do so.

This is the final story in CNET's The Future of Funerals series.