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The ‘Green’ or Woodland funeral

By Jo Gray

What will archaeologists think years from now when they uncover a 21st Century American cemetery and labor to reconstruct our present-day level of civilization? Most likely they will be more than a little mystified trying to understand our burial practices that include cement vaults and metal caskets lined up in tight fitting rows. Why? Funeral practices of today bear little or no resemblance to those of a century ago. The features of the modern funeral (metal casket and vaults, beautification of the body, mounds of flowers are of recent vintage in America. From the dawn of civilization until the beginning of the 20th Century, the family handled everything, and the dead were often buried in the backyard.


Death Pros

As the country developed, cemeteries were created. Death became a profession, and mortuaries sprang up and started handling all the details. Professional undertakers were almost unheard of in America until the late 1800s. The Civil War brought about embalming so the dead soldier’s body could be preserved long enough for viewing by relatives in the northern states.


Early coffins were lined with muslin and had no padding or handles. The body was carried to the gravesite on planks. Then came the open sleigh or wagon. Receptions were held after the burial in the home of the deceased where a large amount of food and beverages were served. It was not uncommon for the reception to cost more than the funeral.


According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral in the United States is nearly $7,000. This does not include the cemetery costs. And it is impersonal, with the family’s involvement usually limited to selecting the casket. Cremation is a little cheaper, but can set you back anywhere from $1,000 to $2,600 with urn and service. And it isn’t eco-friendly; incinerating a body releases toxins such as mercury from teeth fillings and sulfur dioxide into the air (though scientists say the amount of atmospheric damage so far is quite minimal compared to other major sources like auto emissions.


Going Green

However, there is a trend toward small, even do-it-yourself, in-home funerals with private burial. A typical, small in-home funeral would be one where friends and family members wash, dress and bury their loved ones on their own.


The family member would be buried in a ‘green cemetery’ or even on family property. Green, or woodland burial, is nothing new. Being returned to the earth wrapped in a shroud is what most of humanity has done for centuries. But caring for the dead without the use of embalming, caskets, vaults and conventional markers has been receiving more attention lately with green burial offered in several states.


The details of woodland burial will differ from one location to the next. However, the founding principles are pretty much the same. Eco-cemeteries exist to provide an alternative to the modern cremation of traditional burial. They do not permit casket made of steel or hardwoods. Some allow markers but they are usually flat with the land.


According to the Green Burial Council, there are currently just five green cemeteries in the United States and one, Ethician Family Cemetery, is near Huntsville, Texas 936-295-5767 or http://www.ethicianfamilycemetery.org/. It follows the Biblical philosophy of “dust to dust.” The other four green cemeteries are in South Carolina, New York, California, and Florida.


More information about green burial may be obtained from the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization founded to encourage land conversation along with sustainable end-of-life rituals. Its web site is http://funerals.org/frequently-asked-questions/environment/27-environment/56-green-burial. You might also want to check at www.forestofmemories.org/cemeteries.


Buried At Home

With the green funeral movement, we are also looking back to a time when loved ones were buried at home. The right to a private burial on private land is legal in Texas ─ as long as the burial doesn’t constitute a public health risk. The landowner should check local laws before the interment takes place on private land. Requirements demand that the burial site should be on land with a deep water table and not near gas and electrical services.


Be sure the grave is deep enough to meet with legal requirements. Most sates require a minimum of three feet of soil be left on top of the coffin lid after the burial place.


There is also the requirement to record the burial on the property deed. A location map must be attached to the deed to confirm the position of the grave and details of the deceased, such as name, age, date and place of death, etc. This will make it less likely a police investigation will be necessary should human remains be discovered in the future.


Property Values

Of course, the value of your property will no doubt decrease if you move after the burial has taken place. Many prospective buyers will not even consider purchasing property that has a body buried under the rose garden in the back yard. Before selling, you may want to obtain permission to exhume the body and take it with you to your new location, but this may cause heartache and conflict if all family members are in favor.


It would be a good idea too, to name a designated agent for body disposition. This will allow someone other than a spouse or relative to carry out your wishes. The designated agent law allows you to have the type of funeral you want. The form is available through Texas Legal Services Center http://www.tlsc.org/.

Reprint from LifeTimes, August 2007 page 5.



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