One with the Earth

Bury a body in the backyard? It might sound shocking, but it’s well within the bounds of acceptable practice for advocates of green burial. Both locally and nationally, the movement’s ranks are growing, despite resistance from the mainstream funeral industry.

Rev. Marcus Knausenberger, residing priest at the Christian Community of Devon and a green burial advocate. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Today, it seems everyone wants in on death. Even Costco sells caskets.

As for Devon’s Jenny Bingham, she wanted to know what happens with dead bodies. In her hospice-care experience, she was appalled when family members quickly abandoned their loved ones after they had passed. Most closed the door and called the funeral director, who typically arrived in a speedy 30 minutes. Back then, Bingham didn’t know how to intervene or facilitate.

Later on, while working on a master’s thesis on death and dying at Widener University, Bingham figured she’d be knee-deep in laws. But she soon learned that when it comes to this often taboo subject, there are as many alternative practices as there are laws.

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Today, Bingham is one of the local forces behind the burgeoning green—or natural—burial movement. Bingham is associated with A Natural Undertaking, a Pennsylvania resource center for home funeral care. Another member, Donna Larsen of Marshallton, is also the education coordinator for the Green Burial Council, a national organization dedicated to preserving land through green burials.

Proponents of the practice avoid formaldehyde, discourage caskets and balk at burying concrete. Economic, environmental, religious and spiritual in origin, their actions spook some—in particular, a mainstream funeral industry regulated by state codes. Slowly, though, the skeptics are coming around. Some are even offering services to help families care for and bury their own. Bala Cynwyd’s Bringhurst Funeral Home, for one, has a new section devoted solely to green burial.

The growing trend reflects the interests of the Christian Community of Devon and Camphill Village Kimberton Hills. Many in Camphill Village subscribe to anthroposophy, a spiritual and social philosophy that suggests a non-mandatory but oft-practiced three-day vigil in which an un-embalmed body is refrigerated with dry ice. For that, they rely on Campbell-Ennis-Klotzbach Funeral Home in Phoenixville.

In this state, the section of the death certificate typically signed by the funeral director reads, “funeral service licensee or person acting as such”—making Pennsylvania one of 44 states that do not restrict the right of families to care for their dead. Whatever legal uncertainty exists mostly centers around the state’s refrigeration clause and the role dry ice plays in extended vigils or wakes.

“The [refrigeration] law is the law,” says Damian Petaccio, a supervisor at Campbell-Ennis-Klotzbach. “We feel we’re interpreting it correctly.”

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Green burial comes in various shades. To be totally “green,” a deceased body isn’t embalmed, which spares it from chemicals. It’s often wrapped in a shroud or a favorite blanket, rather than placed in a coffin. The body can even be buried in a backyard—if it’s in line with local ordinances and zoning restrictions.

Like many of its kind springing up across the nation, A Natural Undertaking educates and empowers families to remain present during—and after—the passing of a loved one. Bingham and other “death midwives” helped coordinate a 2008 awareness and training conference at Camphill Village’s sprawling rural Chester County property. A Natural Undertaking exhibited at the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy Festival in Kempton last September. A month later, members attended the annual conference for the North American Home Funeral Alliance.

Home-funeral adherents see death as a rite of passage—one in which the spirit doesn’t immediately leave the body. In their view, sitting with a person as they die and thereafter—and serving as a “burying witness”—heals sadness and eases transition.

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Bethlehem’s Mark Harris is the author of what’s considered the definitive book on green burial, Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. For him, the practice represents a return to an early American custom—to beauty, ecology and a sense of renewal.

Pre-Civil War families always washed and dressed their dead at home, contacted a furniture or cabinet company to build a coffin, and buried the deceased on their acreage or in a community church’s graveyard—consigning the body, once again, to the earth.

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The Civil War posed new challenges. Rather than bury fallen soldiers near or on the battlefield, Northerners wanted their war heroes back. An emissary would be sent to collect the remains and return by railcar. In the summer, however, active decay and putrid gases often caused the bodies to explode inside the coffins.

In response, Americans explored the Egyptian practice of draining bodily fluids from veins and pumping an artificial substitute into arteries. Embalmers began working at the edges of battlefields. Some banned the practice, considering it pagan or a desecration of the human body.

Even so, Abraham Lincoln’s embalming became the trade’s greatest testimonial. His body traveled some 1,600 miles by train to Springfield, Ill. Over a two-week stretch, the train stopped for public viewings in 12 cities. No one could believe how lifelike he appeared. “It’s what sold the popularity [of embalming],” Harris says.

Soon, undertakers handled what was once the family’s obligation to care for the deceased—and it continues today. Last year, revenue in the American funeral industry hit $20.7 billion. Each day, 2,700 bodies are embalmed, according to Harris. Two million caskets are sold annually, consuming enough metal to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, he says. A typical 10-acre cemetery contains enough embalming fluid to fill a small backyard swimming pool.

“Today, we’re greening up the death practice,” Harris says.

And not just through cremation—though, at present, 38 percent of this country’s dead are cremated, a figure that was 26 percent in 2000, according to the Cremation Association of North America. By 2050, Harris says the number should top 50 percent.

As for coffins, some are now decorated cardboard or a plain pine box that was once a bookshelf or coffee table. Others are made of seagrass, wicker, bamboo or papier-mâché from recycled newsprint.

The number of natural cemeteries—the natural burial movement’s greatest need—is slowly increasing. EcoEternity in White Stone, Va., sells plots for cremains under trees in old wood forests. It has a 2 1/2-acre site at Pocono Plateau Camp & Retreat Center, the first of three United Methodist Church sites in Pennsylvania.

A recent AARP survey reported that 21 percent of those 50 and older expressed an interest in green burial. “Essentially, I wrote a book about a trend before it became one,” says Harris. “We’re just beginning to embrace the fundamental fact of biology: We can’t prevent decay. Why not have our last, best act be fertilizing the soil and pushing up a tree to benefit the cycle of nature and help those we’ve left behind?”

Harris is convinced that green burial is going mainstream, and those in the funeral industry who sign on will have a leg up and benefit from great press.

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“No one is trying to write the [funeral industry] out of the picture,” Harris says. “We’re saying [green burials] are better for your health. We’re asking them to step out of the embalming room, with its toxic fumes and gruesome work, and offer refrigeration. Plus, that handsome plain wooden casket is handsome enough.”

Industry fears, he says, are much like those that emerged when cremation crept into the picture—and they’re largely economic. “Funeral directors need not feel ostracized,” Harris says. “But I have been yelled at and screamed at. They’re doing themselves a disservice. More and more families are turning to this.”

Bringhurst Funeral Home offers a sure sign that the industry has never been more customer-centric. Based at West Laurel Hill, it boasts a setup that’s rare in Lower Merion Township, with two funeral homes, a chapel and a crematory. The cemetery is also opening a Jewish section, plainly capitalizing on its demographics.

“It’s all about convenience,” says Deborah Cassidy, Bringhurst’s director of family services, sales and marketing. “We want to offer every possible variety of funeral and burial. We don’t want to turn anyone away.”

Other funeral directors, she says, resist change and don’t always understand the industry’s service aspect, though Cassidy recognizes that it’s more difficult for the smaller ones to do what Bringhurst does. “They feel like they’re being targeted for eradication,” Cassidy says. “But when they sit you down and say that you can do this and do that, and it’s going to cost $10,000. Then you learn you didn’t need to do any of that, so you’re going to be upset. You should have choices.”

Opened in 2008, West Laurel Hill’s 3 1/2-acre green burial site—on the northeast fringe of the 187-acre cemetery and arboretum above the Schuylkill River—has room for 2,000 burials. Dubbed Nature’s Sanctuary, it’s considered a hybrid cemetery, since its access road is across from traditional graves. Thus far, six bodies and two sets of cremains have been interred there. Families have chosen wicker and wood caskets, and burial shrouds only. Three opted for green funeral services, including visitations.

In keeping with enviro-friendly practice, mechanized equipment is used only if there’s frozen ground. The untreated deceased is hand-lowered into a hand-dug grave on a strapped board. Families may participate in the opening and closing of the grave.

Nature’s Sanctuary began as a more manicured site. Today, it’s covered with wildflowers, native plantings and meadow grass. “We want people to know this is natural, green burial,” she says. “That’s why we’ve stopped mowing.”

To purchase green property at West Laurel Hill, the cost is approximately $4,000. Choosing a green funeral service is about $3,600. A family can save on embalming, a casket and an outer burial container or vault. There’s also a $1,500 interment fee.

“[Green burial] is still very expensive,” says A Natural Undertaking’s Bingham. “This is not for people who are doing it for price. That’s a total misconception. It’s simply a choice to be buried straight into the earth.”

As director of the Catholic Cemeteries Office for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Bob Whomsley oversees 11 cemeteries. He recently sat in on a Mark Harris talk at the Woodlands Cemetery in Center City. And though he does get phone calls and e-mail inquiries about green burials, Whomsley says the archdiocese has no immediate plans to incorporate such plots.

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Rev. Marcus Knausenberger will celebrate his third year as the residing priest at the 180-member Christian Community of Devon this July. “You won’t find a cathedral, so some say we’re not a church,” he says. “We’re not based on authoritative dogma, but rather on human spirit and inquiry. We don’t ask you to believe anything. We’re a congregation of seekers.”

A worldwide movement that began in Germany in the 1920s, the Christian Community has since spread to the United States, where there are 14 outposts. Each one has a resident priest and affiliates, and is supported entirely by gifts. Members determine their own beliefs based on their personal experiences.

The Christian Community is a sister movement of anthroposophy, which was founded by Rudolf Steiner, a pioneering practical German philosopher at the turn of the 20th century. Steiner maintained that his spiritual and social philosophy was independent of any religion, denomination or external authority.
Applicants to the community fill out a questionnaire that, in essence, provides instructions for death care. They can forego embalming or the use of deodorants or chemicals, and choose between burial or cremation. There are options for a vigil, at least a three-day repose for the body, and Gospel readings.

Nearly everyone in Knausenberger’s congregation has declared that they will not be embalmed. Funerals include a liturgy and a radically honest eulogy.

Bingham is a member of the congregation. Together, she and Knausenberger have offered workshops and study groups that examine attitudes toward death and approaches to facing the dying process honestly and without fear.

“The cynics say death and taxes are both guaranteed, but we all talk about taxes,” says Knausenberger. “Death has been a taboo topic—like cancer. We do all we can to steer out of its path.”

In Knausenberger’s experience, refusing to acknowledge death as a reality leaves lasting trauma. He shares Steiner’s contention that if we befriend death, it can lead to a healthier way of living.

Steiner’s ideology and practice also loom large at Camphill Village, a special-needs community (another of Steiner’s interests). Meanwhile, branches of the Anthroposophical Society can be found in at least 50 countries. They also have a presence in 10,000 institutions, including the Kimberton Waldorf School.

“One way or another, [death] has to happen,” says Knausenberger. “If we don’t deal with it, then a funeral director is just as happy to take the problem off our hands. But it’s clear [to me] that no one really wants that.”

Many in the Christian Community believe in dying at home surrounded by loved ones, and not in prolonging life with medications and machines. The value of the three-day vigil lies in the lingering presence of the body’s spirit. After three days, once the body begins to collapse into itself, only then does decay begin.

Knausenberger has presided over five funerals with three-day vigils, all of them overseen by Campbell-Ennis-Klotzbach Funeral Home.

While honest about its involvement, Campbell-Ennis-Klotzbach doesn’t want to become a figurehead of the green burial movement. “We’re not actively trying to take this out to the rest of the world,” says Damian Petaccio.

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Round-the-clock vigils with un-embalmed bodies are commonplace at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills. They’re followed by a memorial service or funeral, almost always a cremation, and sometimes a second memorial. Compassion drives pre- and post-death protocol.

Of the 100 Camphill Village or communities in 22 countries, 12 are in North America. Three of them are in our region. Camphill Special School and Camphill Soltane—both in Glenmoore—are the other two.

At Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, 120 residents live on 432 rural acres. In co-worker Sherry Wildfeuer’s 36 years in the village, there have been 12 to 15 deaths, including five colleagues.

Wildfeuer’s father was not a villager. He was living in a Phoenixville nursing home when he died in December 2008. Nonetheless, Wildfeuer was comforted by a three-day vigil in an empty room in Camphill’s Serena House. His cremains were the second set added to a new
memorial garden behind Rose Hall, a community center and art venue. Creatively and inexpensively, Wildfeuer has marked his plot with the marble base to a pen set she hasn’t yet engraved.

When there’s a death at Camphill, Petaccio invariably gets a call. Once he’s sure the newly deceased was under a doctor’s care and a death certificate will be signed, he buys dry ice from a local source he won’t name and collects the casket—made in the village workshop from a downed ash tree on the property—a cardboard insert and other materials for the vigil. Petaccio also prepares the legal paperwork and oversees the cremation of the body.

Typically, Camphill washes and dresses the deceased before the funeral home arrives. With dry ice, the body is fully refrigerated within two or three hours of death and remains that way. During the vigil, the funeral home arrives twice a day to check the ice and the body’s temperature, which, by law, must stay between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. “We don’t pretend to know everything about Camphill or the Christian Community,” says Petaccio. “We just know what they ask us to do.”

Camphill conducts its vigils under the umbrella of the Christian Community. The legal right to do so may fall under the protective guise of religious exclusion in the state funeral code. Even so, a Coatesville funeral director has been in hot water because he wants to serve a certain church population—and do it green.

An attorney for the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, Kathy Ryan hasn’t researched anthroposophy or the Christian Community. But recognized religions do warrant leniency within the state’s 24-hour rule, which requires human remains held beyond that length of time to be embalmed, sealed or kept refrigerated. Ryan prosecuted disreputable Pennsylvania funeral homes for nine years before joining the trade association. She admits that when a religious component is involved—like with Orthodox Jews and the Amish—the state generally looks the other way.

Assuming dry ice keeps the body properly refrigerated and that it’s cremated or entombed within five hours after removal from the ice, then the practice is acceptable, Ryan says. A major exception is death from an infectious disease, which requires embalming and precludes a public viewing.

For its part, Camphill says it’s simply “reclaiming” death.

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Jenny Bingham has attended workshops all over the country, including three days of training in Seattle with Char Barrett of A Sacred Moment. She’s even completed an online certification course called Celebrant USA, which provides the know-how and authority to preside over ceremonies like weddings and funerals. Many participants are disenchanted with conventional church ceremonies, so they learn how to create, structure and organize their own.

So far, Bingham has helped with her brother-in-law’s funeral in Connecticut, and also with the ceremony of a local friend who belonged to her congregation. An anthroposophist and a prominent businessman, her brother-in-law was buried in a plain wooden box that “he wouldn’t have packed his china in,”

Bingham says. “The funeral home asked if we had anything else—something near the $3,000 mark with brass handles and stuffing? Some funeral directors are curious; others want nothing to do with it. I’ve heard one say that the dead bodies become black and ooze—a scare tactic. Really, what’s the worst thing that can happen after someone is already dead?” Bingham worked for 10 years in two different Camphill settings in New York, and she doesn’t see green burial as a movement so much as a collaborative network of those united by concern, care and compassion. “We’re not creating a methodology or any dogma, or saying you have to do this or do that,” she says. “All that would kill the spirit.”

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