Richard Conniff

This is how I want to be dead. That is, in the woods, with wild things all around.

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    This Is How I Want to Be Dead

    by Richard Conniff

    Years ago, doing some research in England on moles — the burrowing kind — I paid a visit to the grave of Kenneth Grahame. As author of “The Wind in the Willows,” Grahame was the creator of the fictional Mole, a mild-mannered character beloved by children everywhere for messing about in boats, bumbling dimly into the Wild Wood and otherwise misadventuring with Ratty, Badger and Mr. Toad of Toad Hall.

    There were plenty of things poignant about the grave. But what struck me most was that all of Grahame’s characters would have been at home there. Holywell Cemetery, off a busy road in the heart of Oxford, is both a graveyard and a wildlife refuge. Footpaths wind through shrubby undergrowth, and the graves support a natural succession of snowdrops, daffodils and so on through the seasons. Moles no doubt burrow there, and toads do whatever it is that toads do. (But please tell me it involves tootling about in motorcars and flinging coins to urchins.)

    I doubt that I put it in so many words at the time, but the thought has lately come back to me: This is how I want to be dead. That is, in the woods, with wild things all around. No hurry. Happy to wait at the back of the line. But beyond the familiar “green burial” business of escaping the toxic culture of the conventional death industry, what I particularly like is the idea of using the cost of burials to buy and preserve undeveloped land — a relatively new wrinkle in the world of dead things. It just seems so much more appealing than the alternatives.

    The funeral industry has endeavored lately to give cremation a rosy environmental glow. There’s lots of talk about recycling lightly singed titanium implants. In Redditch, England, the heat generated in a local crematory from the fat of the dearly departed now gets piped over — I’m not making this up — to warm the water in a town swimming pool. But the typical cremation still produces a disturbing mix of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. And somebody always gets stuck with the ashes.

    Alkaline hydrolysis, originally devised to dispose of animal carcasses, is a bit better. Rebranded as “bio-cremation,” it entails dissolving the corpse in a stainless steel tank filled with water and potassium hydroxide. That minimizes the carbon footprint, and the resulting fluid “can then be recycled,” according to a study in the journal Mortality, at the local wastewater treatment plant — that is, with the sewage.

    Conventional burial aspires to make death somewhat more antiseptic. But it annually doses the soil in the United States with more than 800,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluids. Manufacturing a steel coffin also produces four times the carbon dioxide released in a typical cremation, and we bury more than 800,000 such coffins every year, plus many, many tons of concrete burial vaults.

    In the United States, inadvertently naturalistic cemeteries are a major reason that a vestige survives of the prairies that once covered the Midwest. And in some parts of the crowded East, cemeteries now make up much of the itinerary for the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. (A yellow-bellied sapsucker turns up almost every year mewing in the maples over the grave of J. P. Morgan in Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery. The nature of this relationship is unknown.)

    But “woodland cemeteries” go well beyond these 19th-century antecedents. The basic idea is that people who love to spend time in the woods pay to be buried there. This means hunters may lie down with tree-huggers. But ideological sparring is unlikely to be an issue. It typically costs $3,000 to $6,000 for a grave and to preserve the land in its natural state in perpetuity. Some of these cemeteries allow unobtrusive grave markers. Others locate graves by GPS coordinates. They tend to look less like cemeteries and more like fields and woods, with walking trails.

    The study in Mortality counts more than 200 such “natural burial grounds” in Britain. Seventy or so now operate in the United States. In Japan, in addition to the somewhat unnatural development of “corpse hotels” recently reported in this newspaper, “tree burials” in “forest cemeteries” have begun to replace traditional burial practices. (Some women reportedly choose tree burial as a form of posthumous divorce, to escape the husband’s ancestral burial ground.)

    A version of the natural burial movement has begun to turn up in some conventional cemeteries. “Ten years ago,” an industry spokesman, Robert M. Fells, said, “if you used the words ‘green cemetery,’ people would say, ‘What’s that?’ Today, everybody knows exactly what you are talking about.”

    Or rather, they don’t, said Kim Campbell, of Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, founded 19 years ago as the first natural burial ground in the United States. “The industry’s reaction has been to use this as a tool,” she said. “If they have an existing cemetery with places that haven’t been developed, they open a ‘green’ section.”

    But natural burial grounds aren’t just about avoiding embalming fluid or requiring biodegradable coffins, she said. They’re about conservation. For instance, Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in Florida (“From Eden we come, to Eden we shall return”) boasts about its longleaf pine restoration project. White Eagle Memorial Preserve Cemetery in Washington is just 20 acres, but it adjoins 1,100 acres of permanently protected oak and ponderosa forests. The Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia is part of an 8,000-acre greenway.

    “This is where it becomes exciting, being able to piece together natural areas,” Ms. Campbell said. “And the greater the area of the landscape you can save, obviously, the better for wildlife corridors, for plants, the whole nine yards.”

    It might be tempting to mock all this as one last baby boomer fantasy, carrying the boutique lifestyle to the grave, or maybe, recalling their better, younger selves, staging a sort of perpetual environmental lie-in protest to protect the land from development. It’s also easy to disparage the one-with-the-earth sentimentality in which the natural burial ground movement tends to cloak itself: “Our bodies do not belong to us, they belong to nature,” one such cemetery admonishes. “We believe they should be gifted back to the earth to further the cycles of life.”

    As with almost everything in the death care trade, skepticism makes sense. The Green Burial Council advises that a natural burial ground should have both an endowment and legal restrictions to prevent it from ever being turned into a conventional cemetery.

    Otherwise, I am not inclined to mock. We have made such a mess of the world in the rest of our lives that preserving a portion of nature with our deaths seems like small recompense. Classical mythology had Charon leading the dead across the River Styx and a three-headed dog named Cerberus guarding the entrance to the underworld. I find comfort instead in the idea of having Mole, Mr. Toad and the rest as companions on our travels into the darkness of the Wildwood.


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