Green burials can feel raw, cathartic and are easier on the environment
A few weeks ago, my colleague, KIRO Radio’s traffic reporter Chris Sullivan went to a funeral.
“One of my oldest and dearest friends I’ve known since I was six years old, his mother passed away and this is a person who was like another mom to me,” said Sullivan. “She was really important to my life so my buddy asked me to be a pallbearer at her funeral.”
Sullivan has been a pallbearer before, but this experience was much different.
“Midway through my buddy said, ‘Yeah, my mom is doing a green burial.’ A green burial? Okay. I joked with my wife, like, what are we going to do, just throw her in a hole and call it good? And that’s really kind of what it was!”
As the funeral started, his friend filled him in on how it would work.
“He goes, ‘Yeah, we’re taking her out of the casket and we’re going to place her in a really rustic hole in the ground.’ I was like, what? Yeah, that’s what this green burial was. We finished with the little ceremony at the grave site, we then opened the casket and there Jean was, wrapped in barely a cloth, tied to this wooden pine backboard like you’d see with an EMT. We picked her up out of the casket and walked her down through the woods a little bit, about 50 yards, and there was this open grave. We finished up the ceremony and then they invited us to throw dirt on her. With shovels. I was like, okay? Waited for a few people to do it first, her kids, and then I did it.”
In Washington state there are now several cemeteries that offer green burials. On a rainy day, earlier this week, I found myself in Snohomish, under an umbrella, walking through Woodlawn Cemetery with co-owner Melissa Chapman. Woodlawn’s oldest burial is from 1876, but Chapman’s husband’s family has owned it since 1963. Now just the two of them run it. Nine years ago they started doing green burials in the oldest part of the cemetery, alongside graves from the late 1800s.
“We were doing the same exact burial in 1876 that we’re doing today. Exactly the same,” Chapman said.
She describes the difference between a traditional and a green burial.
“Traditional we’re going to put a cement box or a vault or a liner into the ground and then we’re going to put a casket with a lid on top and then the dirt and everything. Our green burial it is all biodegradable, you’re literally going back to the earth,” Chapman said. “We’re planting a tree with every burial that we do. We really want that section to become a forest again. There’s no chemicals, there’s no formaldehyde. In general, people who are truly into green burial aren’t interested in being preserved. Embalming is preserving the body.”
Unlike the traditional side of their cemetery, they don’t treat the weeds with chemicals or mow the lawn as much. From the green section, you can see Mount Rainier on a clear day and the Snohomish Valley. Chapman says bodies can be buried in a shroud, like Sully experienced, or prepared in multiple ways.
“You can be in a simple pine casket,” she said. “We have a lot of people that will do a wicker basket. It really makes having the deceased in a shroud a little more palatable. Depending on what you’re getting into, sometimes families show up and they don’t realize they’re coming to a green burial and how really raw it is.”
As you’d expect, environmentally conscious people are the ones choosing this method. Chapman says they have people of all religions, and a lot of women.
“It was perfect for her because this woman lived her life as one of the original greenies,” Sullivan said, describing Jean. “Reduce, reuse, recycle she’d been talking about it since the 70s and now she did it with herself! It was classic! It was perfect her.”
Sullivan said the experience was very powerful.
“Seeing her gave me more of a sense of connection with her as we laid her to rest. When we laid my parents to rest there was a concrete vault in the ground inside the hole and we lowered the casket down and it felt almost standoffish, yet acceptable because if you’re not comfortable with seeing the body…that’s not what we’re in tune to these days But when we buried Jean it was like, okay, we’re putting her to rest and there was more of a connection to the body or to her spirit at that time. But I didn’t feel weird about it because this is the way we’ve been burying people for thousands of years up until 120 years ago, anyway. I felt more connected to her than if we just put a box in the ground.”
As for the cost of a green burial, Chapman says it can be just as costly as a traditional burial depending on the choices that people make.