Ten years ago I bought some real estate. Though it wasn’t substantial in terms of size, it was a big step. I was pretty excited about it and still consider it a good investment, even though it’s out in the country and therefore has a low walkability rating. It had taken me awhile to make the decision, and I surprised myself when I did because I hadn’t been in the market to purchase, or really even looking.
A good friend had turned me on to the opportunity. A year or so earlier my friend Rick had invited me to a gathering, an Open House on some property in the gently rolling hills of central New York’s Finger Lakes region. A group of people were there to see and walk the land, enjoying the views and envisioning the possibilities. It was a sunny, mild day, and as we sat in folding chairs in a field, speakers explained the project’s concept and history. Some people had already made purchases; others bought on-site. These folks would become my future neighbors at Greensprings Natural Cemetery.
It was well before I knew anything about natural history, let alone Gaian thought, that I decided to buy a plot in a natural burial ground. Natural burial is conceived as an alternative to “the American way of death” as described by Jessica Mitford in her 1963 book: the worst of the funeral industry with its noxious chemicals, expensive appurtenances, exploitative practices, and denial of the reality—the ecological necessity—of decay. Certainly any good steward of the planet wouldn’t want to further pollute Mother Earth after death. But in my case, concern about the chemicals in embalming fluid or the energy use inherent in cremation were not my primary motivations.
For me, it was the photos that did it. After attending the open house, I went to the Greensprings website to learn more about “green” burial. No actual burials were taking place the day I had visited the site, but the website had pictures of burial ceremonies in progress. Some photos showed family and friends of the deceased processioning with the shrouded body to the burial plot, congregating around the freshly-dug grave, perhaps to sing or pray, and lowering the body into the grave. The images that exerted the strongest pull on me were those that showed mounds of evergreen boughs and fresh, colorful flowers heaped over the body. It looked peaceful, and also honorific, almost celebratory; a proper send-off. I knew then: This is how I want it to be when I die.
Some months later came the day I met with the director at the preserve so I could select my plot. I asked Rick to come with me, in part because he’s a skilled naturalist but mostly because I wanted him to be one of the close friends who will help fulfill my wish to be laid to rest at Greensprings, in a region I love where I’d lived longer than anywhere else in my life. There were meadowlarks and bobolinks in the field that day. I chose a site next to a line of trees, and Rick snapped the above photo of me, smiling, where I’ll eventually be buried.
Yes, I’m smiling, standing there on the gravesite I selected. The decision to return my body to the earth in this way felt good and right, and in any case I’ve never understood the societal taboo against talking about death, or planning for it, or even speaking in euphemisms like “passing away.” I once read that in the Old World, old battle sites have particularly good soil, enriched by the bones of the many buried on battlefields in times before war weapons conferred a stew of toxic chemicals. For my part, I want to be compost! While I’m not in any rush, I want to participate in the nitrogen cycle, as living things are meant to do, part of the natural rhythm of life and death and life again. Or, as architect Bill McDonough wrote in his book Cradle to Cradle, “waste equals food.”
In addition to adding nutrients to the soil, my real estate investment yields additional dividends for Gaia. Greensprings was created by several people also affiliated with the local land trust, and the property’s woods and meadows are managed as habitat for birds and other wildlife. Mowing, planting, and other activities are done in consultation with local plant and bird ecologists. The property will never have the appearance of a cemetery. Once each body is laid to rest and the grave filled in, plants will take root naturally and the burial site will blend with the landscape. Upright headstones are not permitted; grave markers must be flush with the ground and made of local stone. The land, while not exactly “wild,” will be preserved as open, natural land forever.
A decade later, now working for a land trust myself, I appreciate even more the vision of Greensprings’ founders and of the wider natural burial movement in caring for land and having it serve more than one purpose. I look forward to pushing up proverbial daisies—or rather, native plants that in turn are food sources and habitat for insects, birds, and mammals, nourishing a landscape I love and will, one day, become a part of.*
*Even before I bought and selected my natural burial plot, life events—a job, a love—had led me away from my beloved Finger Lakes, and recently I moved farther still from that region. A friend asked me how I felt about the energy that will eventually be necessary to transport my body back to its final resting (decaying, reintegrating) place. I’m not sure about that, yet. It could be that I’ll have to ask Gaia’s forgiveness for one final trip. It could be that I’ll develop a strong connection with a new place where I want to remain. Perhaps one day, as the green burial movement grows, there will even be ways people can arrange to trade their natural burial plots as life changes shift where they live.
Robinne Gray is living in her fourth major watershed. She spent her childhood in the desert southwest (Salt River watershed), then lived in the Finger Lakes region of central New York (St. Lawrence Seaway watershed) and the Washington DC metro region (Chesapeake watershed) before relocating to the central Alleghenies (Ohio River watershed). For fun, Robinne studies natural history and botany and enjoys hiking and paddling explorations. Robinne is a member of the Gaian Leadership Council.