Standing on a windswept ledge on a hillside in Mill Valley facing the peak of Mt. Tam, it’s possible to feel entirely alone. Then you notice that you’re surrounded by three-by-six-foot patches of grass that are the wrong shade of green. And that some of the stones have names etched into them. Turns out you do have company, after all.
This is Fernwood cemetery, where so far about 120 people are helping, even in repose, to pioneer a concept that’s been dubbed “green,” “natural,” or “conservation” burial. The goal is to make interment a less resource-intensive process than traditional burial by returning one’s body gently to the Earth. As the Fernwood staff like to say, it’s using “what remains of a life to generate new life.”
It’s a striking contrast to the prevailing emphasis of the $20-billion-a-year American funeral industry, which over the last century has profited greatly from the illusion that its particular form of artistry can stand indefinitely between the human body and decay. Staples of the modern American funeral now include metal caskets billed as airtight and waterproof, which are further sealed inside concrete sarcophagi called “grave liners” or “vaults.” To restore the deceased to a semblance of lifelikeness and good health, chemical embalming is typically used, as well as a heavy application of cosmetics. While the American use of embalming has its roots in Civil War, when it helped preserve the bodies of soldiers shipped home from the battlefield, today the funeral industry’s emphasis on lifelike tableaux and decay-resistant entombment serves a different purpose: it enables bodies to withstand lengthy periods of public viewing, and gives grieving family members a certain—false—hope that their loved one will not be doing much mouldering in the grave.
Green burial’s modus operandi, on the other hand, is to help dust become dust again as seamlessly as possible. Instead of copper, bronze, or stainless steel caskets, green burial favors anything designed to fade away: That can run the gamut from ancient wrappings like fabric shrouds to very modern innovations like the Ecopod, a shell made of recycled paper that biodegrades in about six months. Fernwood offers options including a $1,200 plain pine wood box with rope handles, made without nails or toxic adhesives, an $800 wicker basket, or just bringing an old sheet from home. Embalming, which is not required by state law, is optional, and green burial grounds use dry ice or refrigeration for preservation. (Fernwood customers who request embalming are referred off-site; its funeral home does not perform the procedure.)
What is preserved instead is the land itself. Fernwood has been a green burial ground for three years; for the previous 114, it was a conventional, if somewhat run-down, cemetery and crematory. Fernwood’s current owners poured $3 million into restoring the property, including using hand tools to clear the grounds of non-native plants, and building a strikingly beautiful memorial hall that seems composed of equal parts concrete, air, and waterfall.
Because of its hybrid history, Fernwood still allows conventional burials in the older part of the graveyard, but interments on the other twenty acres play by new, eco-friendly rules. Graves are dug by hand, to minimize the chance that healthy topsoil and the nutrient-poor clay six feet under will switch places. (Conventional cemeteries, which have accidentally buried their best soil, often chemically treat their lawns.) There are no grave liners or upright headstones made of granite or other imported stone. Fernwood favors a mixture of high- and low-tech to mark graves, with an emphasis on extreme subtlety. Families may indicate gravesites by planting a tree or laser-etching a small locally sourced rock; a signaling device is buried at each site so that it can be located with a GPS receiver. Next year, Fernwood’s staff hopes to replace its current GPS locator—a monstrosity as tall as a fishing pole—with handheld devices that can play a memorial montage of music and photos as visitors approach a grave site.
It’s hard, though, to discourage the human urge to proclaim that we were here. A walk through Fernwood reveals that several families have ringed recent burial sites with purplish stones; others have scattered brightly colored pebbles over the top of graves. One family used dry flower stalks to spell out “Mom.” But despite these temporary tributes, Fernwood family services counselor Eliot Vander Lugt says he’s noticing an interesting psychological shift among the families who visit the cemetery. “A lot of them have started to express this identification of the entire habitat, this preserved park area, being the memorial,” he says. “There’s not the same focus on this spot for my loved one, it’s more about participating in this with other like-minded people.”
And there are plenty of those people. In addition to the 120 occupied green gravesites, Fernwood has booked another 240 spots for natural burials. Fernwood is one of nine green cemeteries in the United States, with another half dozen on the way. The modern eco-funeral is actually a British concept, brought to the states in 1998 when physician Billy Campbell opened the Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina. The phenomenon has received a good deal of media attention, much delivered under punny headlines about “greener pastures” and “thinking outside of the box.” But the effort is serious: Natural burial is a legal and financial tool to conserve open space, and a stopper against the huge drain on natural resources associated with conventional funerals.
There are about 2.5 million deaths a year in the United States, creating an enormous demand for the flowers, hardwoods, metals, and chemicals that make open-casket wakes possible, even though most of these materials will be permanently sequestered underground within a few days. Fernwood funeral director Tom Cromie puts it this way: “First you mine the Earth to get the gravel to make the cement to make the grave liner that you put back in the ground. Then you cut down the forest to make the coffin.”
“We bury more metal each year in caskets than what was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and bury enough reinforced concrete each year that we could build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit,” says Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Britain’s Centre for Natural Burial estimates that nearly a million gallons of embalming fluid, which contains the carcinogen formaldehyde, is buried in North America every year.
Why not just cremate? It’s a fast, simple process that’s easier on the environment and the pocketbook than conventional burial, and it has become increasingly popular over the last century. California performs the most cremations in the nation; more than half of Californians choose it over burial. But cremation, too, has an environmental impact, albeit much smaller: burning vaporizes the mercury in tooth fillings, produces dioxins, and consumes fuel. The Centre for Natural Burial claims on its Web site that “the amount of non-renewable fossil fuel needed to cremate bodies in North America is equivalent to a car making 84 trips to the Moon and back&each year.” Even though no laws require a casket or embalming for cremation, service providers may urge families to choose them, racking up additional tolls, financial and environmental.
But cremation’s real drawback, some critics say, is that while many people choose it with the romantic notion that their ashes will be scattered outdoors to nourish a beloved landscape, in fact, cremated ashes are sterile. They won’t do any harm, but they’re not fertilizer.
Speaking of fertilizer, here are some things about green burial you no doubt are dying to know: Do wild animals ever dig up bodies, or do teeth and bones make their way to the surface? (So far, no.) Do the cemeteries smell? (Nope.) Without embalming, will decomposing bodies cause disease? (No; green burial’s proponents say there are no public health consequences to skipping embalming.) Will buried people be literally pushing up daisies? (Probably not—Fernwood’s graves are five and a half feet deep, too far for most roots to reach.)
If the idea of commingling bodies with the Earth makes you feel a little squeamish, some of the methods used by conventional cemeteries to keep bodies boxed forever aren’t much nicer. One of the reasons most cemeteries insist on concrete grave liners is because industrial-sized mowers and backhoes can otherwise crush the caskets beneath; easier lawn mowing is also behind modern cemeteries’ switch from upright headstones to flat-lying memorial plaques. Conventional cemeteries usually squeeze about 1,000 bodies into an acre, so chockablock that the grave liners touch. (Fernwood won’t put more than two in the same twelve-foot by twelve-foot space.) Some funeral homes require grieving relatives who resist buying a waterproof vault to sign waivers indicating it’s okay for the deceased to be submerged in water and subjected to decay.
And if spending money is the sort of thing that gives you the heebie-jeebies, traditional funerals are terrifying. They’re expensive, something well-known since 1963, when muckraking Oakland journalist Jessica Mitford blew the crypt doors off the funeral industry with The American Way of Death, her exposé of how unscrupulous operators can take advantage of people faced with the perfect storm of circumstances: bereavement, a time crunch, a pocketful of insurance money, their own inexperience organizing a funeral, and a fear of looking cheap. Back then, the average cost of a funeral was $1,450; today, it’s $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, and that doesn’t include cemetery fees. Neither does it include flowers, transportation, obituary notices, nor vaults, all of which, as the AARP warns its members, can bring the bill closer to $10,000.
Sehee estimates that even though buying a plot in a natural burial ground may be more expensive than buying one elsewhere—places like Fernwood exist on some pricey real estate—a green burial typically costs one-half to two-thirds as much as a conventional one because it excludes some of the costlier accessories: a grave liner, embalming, a fancy headstone or casket. “There is no economic motivation for a cemetery to do it this way. It would strip away all their profit, all their add-ons,” muses Vander Lugt. “It’s like a dealership not having a service department where they sell you the car, and then they make money on service.”
He considers green burial a middle ground between too much memorializing and not enough. “The natural burial approach gets rid of the excesses of conventional funeral practices and the excessive expense, without going way to the other extreme either philosophically or financially,” says Vander Lugt. “It seems a little more holistic.”
But how holistic, exactly, is holistic enough? Even in its short lifetime Fernwood has already been the source of a rift in the eco-burial community. Sehee, a former Jesuit lay minister, was one of Fernwood’s first advocates; now, through the Green Burial Council, he runs a certification program that has granted approval to several green burial sites in the US, but not Fernwood.
First a word about Fernwood’s owner, Tyler Cassity: Cassity is a funeral industry icon and provocateur; he pioneered the idea of a hip, rock n’ roll cemetery that could be a hangout for the living as well as the dead. The son of a Missouri-based family that operates six cemeteries under the name Forever Enterprises, Cassity made his own mark on the trade by reviving the once moribund Los Angeles cemetery Hollywood Forever, screening classic films against the mausoleum walls and setting up touch-screen kiosks that would play back professionally produced “Life Stories” videos of the deceased. Cassity conferred a certain glamour on the undertaking business, consulting for the TV show Six Feet Under, and becoming the subject of the HBO documentary The Young and the Dead as well as a stream of articles in publications like the New Yorker.
Sehee claims to have brought the idea for green burial to Cassity while doing communications work for Hollywood Forever and running an eco-retreat in Joshua Tree, and says he was part of the initial team that designed and developed the Fernwood site. Billy Campbell, the founder of the Ramsey Creek Preserve, also served as a consultant. But the relationship between Sehee and Cassity soured quickly, and in 2005 Sehee split off to form his own organization. Among Sehee’s bones of contention: he alleges that Fernwood was making misrepresentations about banning embalming on the premises and having a conservation easement when it did not.
Fernwood’s general manager, Nickolas Careone, says Fernwood never claimed to have such a ban. Although it no longer performs embalming, because of its hybrid status Fernwood does allow embalmed bodies in the older part of the graveyard, where some people have pre-purchased plots with conventional burials in mind. “If Mom’s there, we can’t say, ‘Sorry, Dad, you can’t be,'” says Careone, noting that they only do two or three such burials a year.
A conservation easement, which Fernwood currently does not have, would turn the land’s long-term care over to a nonprofit organization or government agency like the National Parks Service, ensuring that it could not be used for another purpose in the future. Sehee hopes to use this mechanisim to fundamentally change the industry by making cemetery owners concessionaires, rather than the actual guardians of land. “What you want is the cemetery operator to focus on what they’re good at—opening and closing graves—and the parks service to focus on what they’re good at. A cemetery shouldn’t do stewardship of a natural area,” says Sehee.
Without an easement, Sehee asks, “How do you make promises to families today that in ten years it won’t be a field of weeds, or it won’t be sold to another concern that says ‘There isn’t money in this?'” His worries about Fernwood were exacerbated this May when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that three of the Cassity family’s holdings have been taken over by government regulators who are trying to determine if one of the businesses, National Prearranged Services, which sells prepaid funeral packages, has enough money in its coffers to make good on as many as 100,000 prepaid funerals. For Sehee, Fernwood’s lack of an easement, combined with the Cassity empire’s ongoing problems, raises concerns that if there is a sale of the property, nothing would prevent a future owner from turning it into a more conventional cemetery.
But Careone says that can’t happen. He points out that Fernwood plans to apply for an easement once the property is fully restored, most likely turning over control to the federal government, since the cemetery abuts the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. In the meantime, it has a dedication on record with Marin County stating that the land can only be used as a green cemetery. “Either way,” says Careone, “it can never be anything other than what it is now.” In addition, Fernwood, like most cemeteries, has an endowment fund—people who purchase plots pay an extra ten percent, which goes into a state-controlled trust. The interest from this account must be used to care for the cemetery in perpetuity.
Furthermore, says Careone, he believes Fernwood is insulated from National Prearranged Services’ money problems because Tyler Cassity runs the two California cemeteries separately from his family’s businesses. (Indeed, the media relations team at Forever Enterprises’ St. Louis office referred interview requests back to California; Hollywood Forever staffers did not return phone calls.)
While there may be some bad blood in this fledgling industry, it’s clear that everyone involved wants the same thing: a burial process that respects the dead and the planet. “I feel like this is the kind of place where somebody might go if maybe Dad was an outdoorsman or something, and they would never think of putting him in a confined box-in-a-box and then have a mowed lawn on it,” says Cromie, as he picks his way down Fernwood’s slope. “They can come here and have a good feeling, like this is where Dad would belong. A lot of people would never visit a regular cemetery, the more recent generations. I don’t think it resonates for them.”
Sehee puts it this way: “Americans are starting to understand their end of life ritual options, and I think they are very much drawn to this idea that provides a great deal of solace, and allows them to get into sync with this cycle we see all around us of birth, life, death, and rebirth.”
Maybe Mitford had it right 45 years ago, when she observed that just as ostentatiously large cars were going out of style, so might the voluptuous funeral. “Could it be,” she wrote back then, “that the same cycle is working itself out in the attitude towards the final return of dust to dust, that the American public is becoming sickened by ever more ornate and costly funerals, and that a status symbol of the future may indeed be the simplest kind of ‘funeral without fins?'”
If so, then the funeral industry may have just met its Prius.