When Anne Weston and her husband Barry attended a seminar on estate planning, she did not expect the presenting attorney to lead out with the question, “When all is said and done, who gets the body?” Anne had never considered estate planning from that angle...of repose. Then the attorney went on to ask how many people in the room anticipated cremation, prompting a sea of hands. Rather than congratulating their excellent planning, she explained that it takes 28 gallons of fossil fuel to consume an average body, with heavy metals as residue.
Considering that Anne and Barry had gone to great lengths to build their home in Hillsborough with sustainability top of mind, this realization that they had failed to put the same values towards their end of life planning caught them up short. If cremation and its byproducts did not meet earth-friendly standards, what would?
Fast forward to 2021. Since its inception in 2015, Anne has directed The Green Burial Project, a 501c3 dedicated to educating people that they have power to make decisions around their final wishes and deposition. Visiting with and presenting to civic groups all over the region, she works to make people aware that they are not tied to conventional burial as their only option. She also builds alliances with others interested in the same mission. You can often find her at the Orange County Department on Aging offering a seminar; or walking a forest in Durham to help determine the suitability for a green burial site; or you might run across her at a Hillsborough or Mebane Death Café meeting, offering a listening ear and some gentle support to the grieving.
Death Cafés occur all over the globe — including groups run by Neidra Clark in Hillsborough and another organized by Sara Miller in Mebane. A brainchild of Swiss Sociologist Bernard Crettaz, he imagined his “café mortel” as a venue where people could explore their mortality over tea and cake. As Anne sees it, talking candidly about the process of death and dying in a supportive environment allows people to “look straight down the dark hole of death without flinching.” She remembers a visit from a 4th grader who attended with her parents who found they were unable to answer her questions. “What she came away with was an understanding that there are lots of grown-ups walking around with the same questions and concerns. We get to ponder on these issues our whole lives.” When local groups went virtual with the pandemic, they welcomed a man from Toronto with terminal lung cancer who joined them for several months. He said it was such a relief to be with people who were open and comfortable talking straight with him and not reverting to the clichés and platitudes that can be so painful: “Everything happens for a reason,” or “You have done good work here.” When he passed away, it was very much the passing of a friend.
Anne claims a lifelong interest in death and dying. As she explains it, “Growing up Catholic, you are trained well in the art of dying. You get a lot of help preparing and thinking about it!”
At times, her work has taken a very personal turn. She had a friend who she had not seen in some time. When she heard he was terminally ill, she reached out and asked to come and visit, to thank him for his friendship. When she arrived, they talked at length about his hopes and concerns. Then he asked her what she was up to. As she shared The Green Burial Project, he got very excited by the concept. He expressed a desire to be buried on the land where his family had lived for over 100 years, but he could not imagine that would be a possibility. Anne said, “Let me check on that,” and talked with the city planning department. The man in charge who’d been there 17 years said, “I have no idea. No one has ever asked before.” It turns out that there was no statute on the books. After a few weeks of back and forth, the city attorney finally said that they could go ahead with the burial.
Anne has a photo from that burial that she includes in her current PowerPoint presentation. Following her friend’s desires, the family gathered in a very private and intimate way on her friend’s property. He was buried in a simple, cloth shroud and lowered into the grave by those in attendance. At the end of the service, Anne picked up a shovel and there, in her skirt and hose, she began filling the grave. Some of the men saw her actions and were drawn to the task, grabbing a tool from a pile of shovels stationed nearby. Many of them were crying as they moved earth, sweating, stomping, singing, and tamping the ground, doing the hard work of burying someone dear to them. They participated in a meaningful way not available to them in the formality of a funeral home or as a spectator at a professional burial. She feels that the group apprehended that they were honorably completing the work of death for their friend.
As she sees it, taking back the ritual of funeral and humanizing the process of burial can be empowering for those left behind. In another instance, a family turned to a local coffin maker in Hillsborough, John Jull, who constructs untreated pine boxes containing no metals or glues. The family wanted to be able to open the coffin at the graveside to put in love offerings. Because the coffin pegs shut, John created a “mail slot” on the coffin’s side large enough to receive messages and objects, small enough to seal before burial.
So what are the tenets of Green Burial and how do they counter conventional burial practices?
First, there is no embalming of the body. Although it preserves the body for viewings, embalming accounts for approximately 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde buried annually, besides the manufacture, waste, and exposure of workers to toxic chemicals.
Second, there is no vault. In modern lawn cemeteries, the landscapers do not want the trouble of backfilling graves that settle. Mowing the lawn and maintaining a smooth surface are a high priority, and vaults keep things tidy. Many older cemeteries show the divots and sinkholes associated with non-vaulted coffins and biodegradable materials, but can be filled as needed. However, in cemeteries where the water table is high and flooding a possibility, vaults keep coffins from floating away. Unfortunately, 1.6 million tons of concrete get buried each year in the interest of lawn maintenance.
Last, Green Burial means that you are encased in a biodegradable shroud or coffin. If you have a favorite quilt or a special color of cloth that you love, these can be meaningful enclosures. Anne suggests that the outline of a body in a shroud can be a powerful way to help loved ones grasp the finality of the burial ritual, but simple coffins of untreated wood should be readily available from a local carpenter. This approach avoids adding to the 30 million board feet of oak, maple, and cherry that are buried annually, not to mention 2,700 tons of bronze / copper and 90,000 tons of steel.
Many of the choices that people make around burial occur simply because of tradition or ignorance. They might think that the local cemetery requires embalming. They might assume that bodies can only be transported in hearses and that death should “be left to the professionals.” This approach misses the opportunity to engage with death and dying in a more healthy and cathartic way. It can also put enormous economic pressure on families that may not have the resources to pay for even an $8,000 basic conventional funeral. When Jessica Mitford published her widely read book “The American Way of Death” in 1963, readers were shocked at her exposure of the American funeral home industry and its practices of bundling services for profit. Since that time, federal regulation has pushed the industry to develop a la carte versions of their offerings in a way that allows clients to pick and choose where they want their money to go. There is no “one way” or “one size fits all” funeral. People do not have to accept all of the bells and whistles offered by the funeral home; their choices should reflect what feels important and meaningful to themselves and their loved ones.
Ultimately, Anne hopes to see The Green Burial Project lead to a dedicated Green Burial Cemetery in Orange County. At this point in time, the closest options are hybrid cemeteries in Raleigh and Carrboro. If she has her way, the hybrid approach will continue to spring up in area church graveyards and municipal cemeteries. However, she would love to see the local community step forward and embrace this more human-centered and environmentally aware approach to death.
On a practical note, when considering your choices, Anne suggests that you first decide what you want to have happen. Write it down, hopefully in the back of your bound Estate Plan. After writing down your specific instructions about disposition of your remains, make sure to take time to discuss your wishes with your loved ones. Your thoughtful planning and reflection will pave the way for a far more meaningful and peaceful transition for those who “get the body!”
Jill Hemming Austin is a freelance writer who contributes to the News of Orange County. She lives in Chapel Hill.