Natural burials grow in popularity - Catholic Courier

Natural burials grow in popularity

As concern for the environment has grown over the past few decades, an increasing number of families have begun asking for "natural burials" when their loved ones die, according to local cemetery directors and the Green Burial Council.

In fact, the number of North American cemeteries and funeral homes and related services certified by the council has risen from a single provider in 2006 to more than 340 today. These providers are located in 41 U.S. states as well as six provinces of Canada, according to the Green Burial Council (

In the United States, bodies of the deceased were returned to the earth in plain, pine boxes up until the Civil War, explained Andrea Vittem, executive director of White Haven Memorial Park in Pittsford.

"There was no embalming, there were no burial vaults," she said.

But once soldiers began dying in battles hundreds of miles away from their homes, the need developed for a preservative that would allow their bodies to be returned to families on trains, she said. Researcher at the time revisited embalming techniques first devised by the Egyptians, Vittem said, and soon, it became the norm to treat bodies of deceased soldiers with formaldehyde before placing them in large containers — the precursor to the modern-day vault for caskets.

"It was a revolutionary change," she said. "When embalming became popular, it became the fashion, and it was helpful to see the deceased looking comfortable … and they (families) started showing the body. That became the trend for a long time."

But as concerns about the environment have grown in recent decades, so has the desire of some families to return to a more natural method of burial, noted Vittem and Lynn Sullivan, chief executive officer of Holy Sepulchre in Rochester and Ascension Garden in Henrietta.

Holy Sepulchre and Ascension Garden are the only natural-burial certified Catholic cemeteries in New York state; the Green Burial Council also certifies White Haven as a "natural burial" site and Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery as a "hybrid" site.

Holy Sepulchre and Ascension Garden became certified through the council in 2013 and have sold about half of the available natural burial plots at both cemeteries, Sullivan said. People in the Rochester area have a great interest in not only returning to nature through a natural burial but also in reducing their carbon footprint, she said.

"Rochester is a very sustainable town," Sullivan said.

White Haven began offering the option in 2006, Vittem said, and already has sold 200 of the 600 plots in the cemetery’s two acres allotted for natural burials.

Because they do not use vaults to protect the coffins, natural burials require additional space to avoid disrupting a grave when an adjacent burial takes place, Sullivan noted. A person can be buried in a shroud, a wooden box or a wicker casket, she added.

"You can be as natural as you want to be," she remarked.

The burial container cannot include any metal or nonbiodegradable adornment, Sullivan explained. No headstones are used; instead, stones that were plowed up from the earth to create the plots are engraved, she said. And for such burials, the cemetery provides mourners with prayer cards made with wildflower seeds that can be thrown on top of graves; the seeds eventually will provide a field of wildflowers, noted Greg Kamp, spokesman for Holy Sepulchre and Ascension Garden.

A whole cottage industry has developed from the growing national interest in natural burials, Kamp added, noting that he is flooded with information from companies offering related products. He noted, for example, that coffins for natural burials cannot be assembled with glue or nails, so some businesses are specializing in tongue-and-groove wooden models.

Viewings also are still an option with natural burials, as certified funeral directors can use natural embalming fluids, Sullivan said.

If a family wants a natural burial for their deceased loved one, it is vital to inform the funeral home as soon as possible, said Rick Harris Jr., funeral director and manager of Paul W. Harris Funeral Home in Irondequoit. Such notice is important in any situation, but especially if a family wants natural embalming fluids to be used for a natural burial, he added.

"Green burial is nothing new," Harris said, noting that area funeral homes have long worked with Jewish and Turkish families who bury their deceased in shrouds and in simple containers within 24 hours of death.

"They want the body to go back to the earth," he said.

Another aspect of this trend is preserving the land in a natural way, which is in keeping with Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Sí, Vittem noted. "It’s nice to have things the way nature made them."


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