To help Earth’s future, people are getting buried like it’s 1860
March 29, 2023 Updated Thu., March 30, 2023 at 5:08 p.m.
Mia Zinn was a member of her middle school ecology club, had planted a reflection garden and had implored public officials to preserve a local woods.
When she became terminally ill, she wanted to become a tree. The day after she died, her father, Chris Zinn, visited Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum in Baltimore County, a 45-minute drive from the family’s home in Abingdon, Maryland. He was drawn to a wooded area that opened up to a wedge of western sky.
“That was the perfect spot,” he said. “It reminded me a lot of an area that we hiked many, many times near here.”
Mia died last month at 17 of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, and became the third person interred at Serenity Ridge. The site is one of a growing number of cemeteries in the United States offering natural, or green, burials in response to demand from the environmentally conscious.
Such burials eschew the embalming, expensive caskets and concrete vaults or metal grave liners standard in U.S. cemeteries, replacing them with simple materials that decompose along with the body. Mia was laid to rest in a bamboo casket with a cotton sheath, a burial her parents said was simple and elegant and surprised some of the attendees.
“A lot of people said, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know this was even a thing,’ ” said her mother, Aubrey Zinn.
Simpler, greener burials were the American standard until the Civil War, when many soldiers were embalmed so their bodies could be returned home. President Abraham Lincoln’s embalming then made the procedure fashionable, and over the next century, embalming, luxurious caskets and vault liners became standard.
Today, 57% of people in the United States choose cremation, followed by 37% who opt for a traditional burial, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). But these have environmental drawbacks.
Cremation, which involves running a furnace at nearly 2,000 degrees for up to two hours, produces emissions comparable to driving a car 500 miles, according to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates for environmentally sustainable death care. Traditional burials, meanwhile, plow 1.6 million tons of concrete into the ground each year, along with 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid and 64,500 tons of steel, the council said. A traditional burial emits 250 pounds of carbon, while a green burial sequesters 25 pounds.
The environmental impact was one reason Jane Pennington decided against cremation for her 96-year-old husband, Ken Pennington, a voice teacher and World War II veteran who died last month. “Crematoria are usually located in the most disadvantaged places where people live,” she said. “They [release] the smoke and the odor, and I don’t want to add to that.” She buried her husband at Serenity Ridge in a woven willow casket and reserved a plot beside him for herself.
According to an NFDA report last year, about 60% of people expressed interest in exploring green burials.
“Ten years ago, I don’t even think we were a blip on the radar,” said Ed Bixby, the council’s president. Now the council has certified dozens of green cemeteries in more than 30 states, including some “hybrid” ones that offer both green and traditional burials. Bixby estimated that about 8% of people opt for a green burial, and he expects that number to “jump.”
Although Bixby said no state laws prohibit green burials, not all cemeteries offer them. Some local jurisdictions require cemeteries to have paved roads to gravesites or to use leakproof containers. With green burials, the earth settles during decomposition, causing the land to undulate; some cemeteries mandate vault liners to maintain a flat landscape.
Howard Berg, a retired colorectal surgeon and the owner and general manager of Serenity Ridge, came upon the idea when he and his brothers were mulling what do with 177 acres of farmland they had inherited. They contacted Bixby, who owns 12 green cemeteries around the country, and toured one of his in New Jersey.
The concept “just called to me,” Berg said. “I mean, what else could you possibly want as your last act on earth – enhancing the environment rather than impacting it in a negative way?”
Someone coming upon the property’s rolling hills and wooded copses might not realize bodies are buried there. Rather than upright tombstones, grave markers at Serenity Ridge will be flat fieldstones. The grounds will be planted with wildflowers and native trees and shrubs and mowed only occasionally, with goats perhaps brought in to help. It is open to hikers, birdwatchers and equestrians, with a horse farm next door.
“The whole idea is not to think of it as a cemetery,” Berg said. “It’s a nature preserve where people happen to be buried.”
Nina Cardin, a rabbi in Pikesville, Md., recently joined Berg on a group tour of what may become a Jewish section. Some religious traditions, such as Judaism and Islam, have rules that align with green burials, like burying the body as soon as possible, in a simple shroud, preferably without embalming.
The Talmud, Cardin said, talks about the inequity and disparity between wealthy and poor, with lavish burial rites being seen as inequitable. “Several people mentioned to me they were very interested, and my husband and I are very interested,” she said.
Green burials are gaining traction in other parts of the Washington area, too. Another new cemetery with a similar philosophy as Serenity Ridge, to be called Reflection Park, was recently approved in Silver Spring.
Its co-founder, Basil Eldadah, also a physician, said he got the idea after his father died in 2012. “He strongly believed that our bodies are our jackets and when our work’s done in the world, our bodies should return naturally to the earth from whence they came,” he said.
But at the time of his father’s death, Eldadah thought cemeteries required a concrete vault and liner.
“The closest we came to it was a grave that had some dirt in the concrete liner,” he said. “I remember thinking vividly at the time of the burial, ‘There might be a time when I can be involved in offering a natural burial to people.’”
Eldadah plans to open the cemetery early next year. It will cover about one-third of a 40-acre tract.
Congressional Cemetery, which opened on Capitol Hill in 1807 and interred some early members of Congress, never stopped allowing green burials. But it has recently has become more intentional about them, and this month it hosted the dedication of a 60-foot circle that highlights them.
Green burials are allowed anywhere in the cemetery, but the idea of proposing a special section came to Sharon Metcalf, 73, a Bethesda resident, in 2019 as she and some friends were discussing end-of-life plans.
Administrators liked the idea. “We’re a very quirky, interesting place. We rarely say no,” said Jackie Spainhour, the cemetery’s president. Congressional is run by a nonprofit organization with a mission of environmental stewardship, education, community engagement, she said, “so this fits most of our brackets.”
The cemetery has seen interest in green burials increase in the past five to 10 years. “It’s right on par with our cremation rates,” Spainhour said. “We’re seeing less and less of the full casket with the liner.”
The cemetery also has an in-house end-of-life doula and hosts “death cafe” discussions in a chapel on-site. On a recent Saturday, Metcalf stood beside the pews, where a dozen or so attendees sipped tea and nibbled on homemade bread as she told them about green burials.
“You are not embalmed. You are not infused with chemistry,” she explained. “Insects naturally break down the body, and it’s really the cycle of life, that the insects are helping to nourish the soil and the birds.”
She led the group outside, past the historic gravestones and down to a sloped area beside the beehives. There, the new “Circle of Life” section was marked by a ring of linden saplings and flat granite stones carved with images of spring, summer, fall and winter.
Geese honked above the rushing sound of a highway. Metcalf pointed to a mounded grave covered in small stones and liriope.
“This, sadly, is my friend Nancy Brennan, who passed away last September,” she said, her voice wavering. Brennan, a renowned museum curator and founding executive director of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, had helped Metcalf design the Circle of Life. When she died, at 73, she was buried in a shroud. Her friends planted the liriope and placed the stones around it, and plan to put in grass seed in the spring.
Metcalf took a step downhill. There, she pointed out another site: the one she purchased for herself. “I will be here in the years to come,” she said. “I will be in the shade of this tree.”
Not only that, she told the group, but she had purchased the patch of ground next to it for her 34-year-old son. “His friends laughed at him, that this was the present that his mom gave him for Christmas,” she said.
But the idea made sense to many of the attendees.
“I want to be friends with the worms,” said Courtney Mazza, 44, of Silver Spring. “I love the idea of nourishing the earth. I mean, that’s the way it was always supposed to be. Dust to dust.”
For Pope Barrow, 80, of Capitol Hill, the presentation opened up possibilities he hadn’t known about. “How do you sign me up? I’m ready,” he said.
Barrow had long wanted a green burial, but “I thought they were going to have to ship my body out to Oregon,” he said. “I’m really excited to learn I don’t have to do that. They can throw me in the ground in a sheet, which people have done for centuries. I don’t really want to be preserved, no point in that.”
Mia Zinn’s burial also caused some to rethink their own plans, including her 91-year-old grandfather. “He just thought it was amazing, that you could be buried in nature and not in a ‘cemetery,’ with row after row of headstones,” Chris Zinn said. “A cemetery represents death and dying. What we did with Mia was more of a rebirth.”
And, for her family, it felt like the truest way to honor her.
“Burying your child is overwhelming,” Aubrey Zinn said. “But this felt peaceful.”
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