August 24, 2021, Jefferson Public Radio | By Sophia Prince
Mary Ann Perry, the sexton for The Forest Conservation Burial Ground, talks with JPR’s Sophia Prince about green burial.
A cemetery often evokes images of mahogany coffins, ornate headstones and embalmed bodies. That’s not the case for The Forest Conservation Burial Ground, the first burial ground in Oregon that is completely dedicated to green burials. JPR’s Sophia Prince recently took a tour …
When I arrived at the burial site, located 30 minutes outside of Ashland, Oregon, I met my tour guide, Mary Ann Perry. She is the sexton (the caretaker) at the Forest. As I look around, I don’t see any indication that this is a cemetery. There are no headstones, no manicured lawns, no imposing tombs. In fact, it looks like a normal forest, complete with a bark chip trail through the sparse trees. But, eight people are buried here on the 18 acres of cemetery land and 40 more have prepaid for their plots.
We begin walking down the trail and as we come upon the first grave, which looks like a large mound of dirt and evergreen branches, Mary Ann explains that the entire process of green burial is different than at conventional cemeteries.
“In green burial we are looking for everything that is buried to be biodegradable,” says Mary Ann. “And a shallower grave, it’s definitely not six feet under. And here at The Forest we hand-dig the grave so there’s no way we’re going to dig six feet with some shovels and pickaxes.
While some people in the Forest choose to be buried in a biodegradable casket, others choose a simple shroud, or cloth to be buried in. Families are encouraged to carry the body to the grave and help to bury it. While this may be uncomfortable to some, Mary Ann says a connection with the death process can be beneficial to those who are grieving.
“There’s no denying what’s happening here,” says Mary Ann. “Especially if it’s a shrouded body, like you can see the outline of the form of the body that is being lowered into the earth. Whereas in conventional burials, in a lot of cases, a lot of what’s really happening has been removed from our view.”
The Forest works hard to ensure that there is still a ceremony and ritual to the burying of loved ones. Even without a large marble headstone, the uniqueness of the individual is celebrated in different ways. Nancy Lime recently buried her brother at The Forest. She says her brother had talked about wanting a green burial, but there were other reasons for choosing this method, as well.
“Culturally, with our family, our Chinese culture is that we bury people in a more natural state. So it was consistent with how our heritage has been.”
Nancy says she appreciated the experience of burial in The Forest because it allowed her family to do the traditional funeral rituals, such as lighting incense. She says they are still looking for the perfect stone on the property to become the grave marker. All the grave markers at The Forest must come from the property.
As Mary Ann and I walk on the shaded path, we come across a grave that is covered in cut wildflowers. She tells me that the location of the grave in this case was particularly important.
“This person happened to be a big nature person and had done a lot of work in our community to help create pollinator gardens and so the area right behind this grave has quite a few wildflowers and when we visited this section, there was just butterflies everywhere and the family saw that and thought, yes that’s the right spot,” she says.
Green burial is all about minimizing the environmental impact of the burial process. The first way they do that is that Mary Ann and her team are careful to remove the soil in specific layers so that it can be returned to the earth in the order in which it came out. This allows for less general environmental disturbance. The bodies also provide organic material to the earth, which enriches the soil, fertilizing the plants and eventually, feeding animals.
When looking at conventional cemeteries, this alternative also saves on the water that’s needed to irrigate the massive lawns that cover most burial grounds.
Many people have chosen cremation as an alternative to full body burial, but Mary Ann explains that’s not a perfect solution.
“Cremation has its own environmental impact of air pollution,” she says. “To cremate one body is the equivalent of a road trip in a standard car of about 450/500 miles.”
Mary Ann explains that alternative burial methods are becoming more popular.
“The last 100 years of what we have called funerals is not really fitting for people anymore for lots of reasons,” she says. “Either it’s just not matching how they’ve lived most of their life or its not how their friends and family want to carry out their death care process.”
Green burial is not the only alternative death care option. Another alternative is aquamation, which is the process of dissolving a body in highly alkaline water. This leaves the bones, which are converted into ashes. The water is nutrient rich. One service in Colorado, called Be A Tree Cremation, uses the water to irrigate a flower farm.
Another option for families is called human composting. A body is added to a metal tube with straw, wood chips and alfalfa and within a few weeks it’s turned into garden soil.At a cemetery in Washington called Recompose, they are fertilizing a restoration forest with this compost.
As I finish up the tour, Mary Ann explains that the property we are on is actively managed to prevent wildfires and keep the forest healthy. With every burial on the property, more money can go into long-term land management of the forest that surrounds the cemetery.
The ultimate mission of The Forest is to connect the human experience of death with land conservation.