No-Frills ‘Green Burials’ Offer New Way to Go to the Great Hereafter
By Molly Smith
Ellen Macdonald got the idea to open the first green cemetery in Central Texas while watching an episode of “Six Feet Under,” an HBO series about a family that owned a funeral home, in 2007.
“It was the first time I saw a burial portrayed as really beautiful and natural,” said the Austin resident, 56, of the main character’s green burial. “This person was wrapped in a shroud and family members lowered the body into the ground themselves. That was how I wanted my burial to be, but there were no other options at that point where I lived.”
The only green cemetery in Texas at the time, Ethician Family Cemetery, was in Huntsville.
Macdonald, who left a career as a research neuroscientist at Stanford University before becoming a stay-at-home mom and “backyard artist,” purchased a little under 10 wooded acres in Cedar Creek, 10 miles east of Austin. The first burial at Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park — named for her grandmother, Eloise Brown Sutin — was in 2011.
Today, the green burial movement in Central Texas is growing, and it is largely led by women who are looking to change the conversation surrounding death and death care.
“We call it a movement now, but at one time all burials were what we now think of as green or natural,” Macdonald said.
Green burials allow bodies to decompose naturally and don’t inhibit or delay the decomposition process, she said. Her cemetery follows the standards set forth by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that certifies green burial grounds, funeral homes and product manufacturers. Bodies are not embalmed, there are no cement grave-liners, and caskets and shrouds must be made of biodegradable materials.
Families have the option to dig the grave and even lower the body into the grave themselves.
Texas law does not require the use of a licensed funeral director when burying the dead, and bodies must be embalmed or refrigerated only if they will be held for more than 24 hours.
Since it opened, 123 people and 154 animals have been buried at Eloise Woods.
Green burial “started as a fringe movement, and it’s just really taking off. More and more people are liking the idea, but right now it’s still unfamiliar,” Macdonald said. Her park caters to a range of people from environmentalists and people of all faiths to those who want a “no fuss, no frills” burial.
When Maria’s godmother first mentioned wanting to be buried as naturally as possible, Maria, who preferred not to give her last name, had never heard of green burial and was surprised to learn that it was an option in Texas. Her godmother was buried at Eloise Woods on Dec. 10.
“It was absolutely perfect for her. I can’t say that it would be perfect for a lot of people, and a lot of families might not be comfortable with it, but it was what she wanted,” Maria said. She describes her late godmother as a hippie who practiced earth religions and was environmentally conscious.
The burial was easier than Maria imagined because her family did need to worry about arranging a viewing. “It did not feel like we were under obligation to meet what everybody else expected.”
Kate Kalanick, executive director of the Green Burial Council, said operators of green cemeteries “don’t have to sell people on [green burial]. They hear about it and it makes sense to them.”
The council estimates that more than 60,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and 4.8 million gallons of embalming fluid are buried annually. More than 70,000 trees are cut down each year for wood caskets.
Green burials are also significantly less expensive than traditional funerals, which cost between $7,000 and $10,000. An adult plot at Eloise Woods is $2,250.
A 2015 study by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council found that 64 percent of people aged 40 and older said they would consider a green burial. In 2010, the number was only 43 percent.
Robert Boetticher, the CEO of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, expects acceptance to increase as more people become aware of the ecology of the world around them. “[Green burial] is a trend now that as time goes on won’t be a trend,” he said.
Death care is a $1 billion industry, but Boetticher said green burials present no more of a challenge to the industry than cremation did when it began gaining popularity in the 1990s. Green burial is still more expensive than cremation, and memorial services and celebrations of life remain a major source of revenue.
Boetticher has been a funeral director for 51 years. The modern-day funeral director is motivated more by service to families than by revenue, he said. “You’re in a profession of service, and you’re there to provide whatever the family needs.”
Green burial also reflects the larger industry trend for more personalized funerals, he said. “It’s a lot more exciting, because families are personalizing [funerals] and you have to be more creative.”
When Macdonald became interested in green burials, there were few resources to turn to, and an internet search yielded only 11 green cemeteries. “I had to learn how to do everything on my own,” she said.
In the past two years, she has been contacted by dozens of people across the country who are looking to start their own natural burial parks.
One was Sunny Markham, 62, who along with her cousin, manages Countryside Memorial Park in La Vernia, east of San Antonio, which previously was owned by Markham’s late former husband. Eight people and six cremated remains have been buried there since 1981, and the first natural burial took place in 2009. Most have been close friends and family, and Markham hopes to expand the cemetery’s reach.
She is also a proponent of home funerals, having first experienced them in 2009 when she helped bury her friend Andrea Burden, an Austin artist, at Countryside Memorial. “The experience was as if she was right there guiding us,” she said of the process of washing, anointing and dressing Burden’s body before laying her in the cardboard casket they decorated.
“The beauty of a home funeral is that you are actually hands-on with your beloved’s body. It’s all about the natural grief process, and in our culture that part of the process is taken away by the mortuary services industry,” said Markham.
Close to 300 cemeteries are certified by the Green Burial Council. Many, such as Our Lady of the Rosary Cemetery and Prayer Gardens in Georgetown, are hybrid burial grounds – traditional cemeteries that offer a green burial section.
Eloise Woods also brought Melissa Unfred, 37, to Austin. Unfred is a licensed funeral director and embalmer and a self-described “modern mortician” who has worked in the industry since she was 17, when she took a summer job at a funeral home in Lubbock.
She helps families arrange home vigils and educates them about green burial options, including Eloise Woods. She also is training her eight-month-old border collie to become the state’s first grief therapy dog.
“We’ve been led to believe that bodies are dangerous. Unless someone died from Ebola or something like that, there’s no emergency when you’ve died,” Unfred said of the misconception surrounding leaving a body in the home for a short period after death. For her, green burials are part of a larger “death positive” movement.
“Austin is really where the home funeral movement can take off, because we have a green burial park here, which we don’t have in other places,” she said. The city’s open-minded nature also helps. “Families that do home births also want to do home funerals.”
Macdonald didn’t set out to become a leader in green burials. Eloise Woods simply combined her interests in being outside, being creative and helping people deal with death.
“There’s not many ladies my age who spend their days wheelbarrowing mulch around the woods or digging graves for babies and pets,” she said.