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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Leaving the earth a better place

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 4/26/23

Three young men work in silence excavating the place where their grandmother’s body will be buried — free of harsh embalming chemicals or the effects of a fiery furnace. No concrete vault …

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Leaving the earth a better place


Three young men work in silence excavating the place where their grandmother’s body will be buried — free of harsh embalming chemicals or the effects of a fiery furnace. No concrete vault or steel casket. Her remains are “dressed” in her favorite pajamas and wrapped in a simple white cotton shroud, ready to be placed in a designated plot of ground at what is called a “conservation burial site”. A hand-made wicker basket housed her body for the length of time it took to decompose. The lid was covered with dried ferns, rose petals, and her favorite wildflowers. Although the men have agreed to silence, nothing stops a steady flow of memories, some of which will be shared for the lowering of her body into this hallowed ground. With explicit details on how to prepare the site, they are fulfilling their role in what will be remembered as their family’s ritual of final good-byes.
As I read this story, I recalled the burial rite for my mother who died five years ago. My brothers and I agreed to dispense of a formal funeral because most of our extended family were scattered across the country and all of my mother’s closest friends had predeceased her. Not aware of alternatives, we decided on a simple cremation and planned to disperse Mom’s ashes at a place we’d named “Karen’s Rock”.
Located up a hill and across an abandoned pasture left fallow for at least thirty years, a massive granite boulder rises out of the willow brush and wild plum. My guess is that it was deposited there by an advancing glacier scraping its way across the landscape some ten thousand years ago. When my sister died in 1997, this was where I sprinkled her ashes with my family in full agreement that this unique rock monument would act as a suitable headstone. On the day we sprinkled our mother’s ashes, I and my siblings shared a warm and comforting thought. Our mother was finally reunited with her daughter.
The opening to this story was inspired by an article entitled “Down to Earth” by Kathy Jesse that appears in the Spring issue of the National Wildlife Federation magazine. It examines “eco-friendly alternatives” to the conventional funeral practices of embalming and cremation. I’d heard of “green burials” but never “natural organic reduction” or NOR, a process that places human remains in a specialized vessel with a mixture of organic materials that hasten decomposition. After six weeks, the body is fully transformed into compostable soil that is, in most cases, returned to the family for final disposition. There are twenty NOR facilities in seven states with accompanying tracts of land called “conservation burial sites” where composted remains can be buried and the land eventually available for reclamation and reforestation. Minnesota is not among them.
Interest in alternative burial practices is increasing, partly because of growing environmental concerns with embalming and cremation, and also due to increased use of services provided by hospice professionals and death doulas dedicated to educating and supporting families’ direct involvement in end-of-life decision-making and caregiving. Americans, as a whole, are becoming more at ease with issues surrounding the final stages of life. More of us are completing Advanced Directives that clarify our preferences regarding medical interventions as death draws near. Books and podcasts abound that focus on death as an inevitable and natural part of life to be discussed openly rather than denied, avoided and feared.
Since the mid-1800s, Americans have adopted embalming, burials in vaults and caskets, and more recently, cremation as our conventional methods for disposing of our bodies after death. These practices have become increasingly expensive, creating enormous financial burdens on grieving families. According to Jesse’s article, a study conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association in 2021 states “the average cost of a casket burial in the United States is $7,848, with cremation averaging $6,970.” And these figures don’t include the cost of a burial plot.
Green burials and NOR are significantly less expensive. They also inflict far less harm on the environment. As earth’s human population approaches 8 billion, how we handle our physical remains becomes an ever-increasing concern. Most of us are clustered in urban areas. The land available for burials is rapidly declining. When we take a look at the volume of natural resources consumed each year for burials — an estimated 20 million board feet of hardwoods and 64,500 tons of steel used for caskets, and 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults; the toxins that leak into the soil from an estimated 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid made of formaldehyde and other carcinogens; and atmospheric pollution from crematorium emissions estimated conservatively at 140 to 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per person — the need for less polluting alternatives becomes ever clearer!
Dr. Sara Kerr PhD., a Canadian educator, certified death doula, and founder of The Centre for Sacred DeathCare in Calgary, Alberta states on her website that NOR uses 1/8th the energy of cremation (furnaces must reach 1900 degrees F. and maintain that temperature for two hours), and NOR sequesters its carbon (about one pound per person) back into the soil. She describes human composting as “a collaborative vision in service to ecological restoration, regenerative agriculture, grief-tending, and land-based healing.”
Just imagine… our bodies giving back to Nature … a final gesture of good will in return for the life it gave us. As this method gains greater acceptance, our death rituals will evolve, bringing us together to mourn and celebrate the lives of our deceased and with a deeper understanding that death is less an “ending” and more a “returning”. For those of us standing by, we can be comforted knowing that this final act did not degrade the earthly home left behind, but instead helped to restore it.
For more information: Search “natural organic reduction in Minnesota”. HF 2669 seeks to make NOR legal in MN. It was introduced in the MN House of Representatives on March 15, 2023.