Environmentally friendly ways to leave this world

Tori Uthe

When Mary Woodsen of Ithaca dies, she does not want her body filled with chemicals and put into a concrete vault 6 feet under.

"Being buried in a cemetery with a mowed lawn full of rows of gravestones never appealed" to her, Woodsen said.

Woodsen is opting for a more "green" and environmentally sound burial when her time comes.

"Just lay me in the ground and plant a tree over me," said Woodsen.

Woodsen is not alone. While the traditional American burial has been that casket placed into a concrete vault six feet underground, a new burial trend is emerging that provides alternatives to this type of send-off.

Mark Harris, a freelance journalist, whose roots trace back to the East Rochester area, recently published a book, "Grave Matters," which investigates and highlights the trend.

"I felt like we would be witnessing major changes in the modern funeral practices," said Harris. "(These would be) inexpensive, involved the family more and were more environmentally friendly."

According to Harris, "green" burial can mean many different things, but typically it avoids using chemicals to preserve a body from decomposing and allows the body to return to the earth as naturally as possible.

Woodsen co-founded the only "green" cemetery in New York state just outside of Ithaca last year. The 93-acre Greensprings Natural Cemetery is surrounded by 8,000 acres of woods. Four people are now buried in the cemetery and there are nearly 100 plots reserved.

The cemetery does not allow any embalmed or chemically preserved bodies, traditional caskets or headstones.

In fact, without headstones there is no way to tell exactly where each body is from looking at the cemetery, because it's open space.

In each chapter of the book, Harris investigates these different types of "green" burials by following several families across the country through various types of burials. The burials ranged from a cremation in Philadelphia to the scattering of ashes at sea in San Diego to the New Jersey shore where a memorial reef – a mold of cement mixed with ashes of a body –  was deployed into the ocean.

"Not many families would let you write about an event that is personal and private like this," said Harris. "But these families found such satisfaction and joy in knowing that others would read and learn about these types of burials."

Harris said some families even chose a home funeral where the body is washed and dressed at home, laid on dry ice, and transported to the burial site by the family.

In New York, this would be a little tricky, due to laws that restrict the family from transporting the body.  

According to Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral Ethics Organization's book "Caring for the Dead," a dead body in New York state must be released to a funeral director for transportation.

Although a family may transport the body once it is released to the undertaker, it can cost more than $1,000 for the undertaker's signature.

Harris emphasizes that he just wanted to show people that there are other options to a traditional casket style burial and there is much more involved in the embalming, or chemical preservation of bodies, process than people realize. 

"I wanted to lift the lid on the coffin to show what really happens," said Harris.

When his time comes, Harris said he will probably be cremated, but after all his research and interviews he is much less afraid of his own death.

"These deceased had lived such good lives and had such moving funerals and burials it made me less afraid of my own demise and much more comfortable with death being a natural part of life," he said.

Tori Uthe can be reached at tuthe@mpnewspapers.com.

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