Are Individual Graves and Conservation Burial Projects Even Practical?
In recent weeks I have heard back from a couple of readers who had the same concern: individual graves might be ideal, but physically and economically impractical, so first a quick word about land use and the economics of conservation burials compared to free-standing composting facilities, crematories, Resommation, and freeze-drying/pulverizing bodies. One widespread criticism of conservation burial is that conservation burial “wastes land”, and that even if it doesn’t, land near major metro areas is in short supply and will be prohibitively expensive. Consequently, we should look to hybrid cemeteries (existing cemeteries with a small green section), or go with ideas like Recompose (the former Urban Death Care Project) and create body-composting facilities, or other methods not so land dependent.
Wasting precious land
I get a little tired of reminding people that the whole point of conservation burial is to SAVE and ecologically restore land, while helping to create durable bonds between people and wild landscapes. No, we do not think that burying people standing up would be a better idea, nor would reusing graves, stacking people 3 deep, etc. Please do not suggest it. And yes, there is still a lot of land that needs saving. If anyone is unfamiliar with this point, please see my 14 minute TEDx Greenville talk from a few years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyA0VLzOPPA .
First of all, composting facilities are likely to very expensive in and of themselves; a project that could handle a couple of hundred bodies per year is going to be a multi-million dollar proposition. For this idea to make a dent in death care, it will take quite a few of them in every metro area in the country. Metro Atlanta, for example, has around 6.1 million people, and given a death rate of 8.15/1000/year, almost 50,000 people will die there next year. How much would it cost to develop and operate the facilities to take care of 10% of Atlanta’s dead?
Secondly, having spent a lot of time looking into possible conservation burial properties near Nashville, Charleston, Tampa/Orlando, Austin, Chicago and other metro areas, I found that all of these areas have active landscape-level land protection initiatives, either public, private or both.
As far as cost, we found many very attractive and ecologically valuable properties within a 45-60 minute drive time from downtowns that were less than 1 million dollars (without any participation from other entities), and no shortage at all if we moved to 2-3 million dollars for land acquisition.
As far as startup, conservation burial has a few advantages vs. an architecturally attractive, client-friendly composting facility.
With conservation burial, the land is the main “infrastructure” cost, although we recommend getting guest facilities up and running as soon as possible. Long term operations and maintenance costs are a fraction of contemporary cemeteries and would probably cost less to operate than high end composting facility (it should be noted that at least one other entrepreneur is working on lower cost composting venues).
And because conservation burial is about creating a living nature preserve, people are much more likely to do pre-need purchases, improving cash flow.
Conservation burial can also take advantage of buy in by state and regional government programs to protect land (this is not theoretical and helped launch projects in Atlanta and Gainesville, Fla.), or help deflect some of the costs of land that local conservancies wanted to protect anyway (as happened in Ohio). The Atlanta project was also able to use part of the project area for mitigation banking, and was able to harvest a loblolly pine plantation for income and also as a part of ecological restoration (we are doing the same at Ramsey Creek in our new section).
All things considered, an investment of $2 million to be paid off in 15 years at 5% would be around $16,000 per month, or about 5 sales per month (this could include some of the start-up capital, and actual sales could include both spaces for cremated remains and whole body; obviously long term sales would need to be significantly higher).
As far as hybrids go, unless the green section of a contemporary cemetery is big enough to function as a nature preserve, I believe most people would prefer a conservation burial project: something we have seen in informal polls. Pushing for smaller green burial sections in existing cemeteries would also fragment the market, making start-up and messaging more difficult for projects doing the hard work of landscape level conservation. I will address the issue more thoroughly in a future post.
Now on the actual post.
Green Grave Management Technology—Is it a Thing?
A few years ago, I had a meltdown when the Green Burial Council formed a committee to review and revise the standards for green burial. I had written most of the original ones that had to do with actual interments and grounds.
In the originals, I had spoken of techniques and technologies needed to ensure that our burial activities resulted in a net ecological good for the site.
The committee wanted to remove the language and made these comments:
“The committee was not sure how excavation and burial techniques would protect plant diversity. Protection of plants is covered in another standard……What is an example of burial technology? Excavation technology?…..Burial itself disturbs the soil profile and removes vegetation so there aren’t really any areas where burial would not degrade the land.”
Of course, restoration ecology is developing techniques and technologies to restore degraded land (one reason we advise against selecting properties that are sensitive or pristine); wind driven tree tip-ups regularly disturb soil horizons on a similar scale and more intensely than our excavations (which endeavor to leave the soil layers “in order”).
Over the years, we have developed a number of techniques to ensure that our projects have a very positive effect on the local landscape. These techniques MUST be site specific, although many of the basic concepts are general. For example, as the dimensions of a grave increase linearly, the volume of dirt increases exponentially…the more dirt, the more disturbance …so graves should be relatively shallow, and the width and length no more than needed. We avoid areas within our sites that are too sensitive for excavation and graveside services; re-vegetation uses native plants and local genotypes to the extent possible-often regionally rare species (also see final recommendations below).
Graves as Composting Machines
In addition to using good restoration science and conservation biology in site selection, infrastructure development and visitor management, we also worried about returning the nutrients of the body to the living layer. We ultimately came up with two techniques that probably help in this regard: one regarding depth and another involving aeration, promoting roots and mycorrhizza.
I must admit that our efforts have been less than rigorous, and I should thank Lee and her mushroom suit for pushing me to think a little harder about what more we can do and what sort of research is possible and helpful.
Again, this sort of research should be done in various sites. I suspect that we do not have much of an adipocere issue at Ramsey Creek despite our heavy clay soils. Lakes in our part of the world inundated 10s of thousands of acres, and a large number of graves were moved-in many cases, what was actually moved was a layer of dark, organic earth.
What We Have Been Doing Until Now
In the late 90s, when we were contemplating how to make conservation burial as green as possible, we considered items like depth of the graves, maintaining soil horizons, placement in the landscape, and mycorhhiza.
If the idea is for the nutrients of the body to return to the living plant layer, I reasoned that mycorhrizza would play an important role. I saw an article in an ecological restoration journal that emphasized the importance of pioneer tree species in restoring mining sites. These trees, including locusts, would enrich the soil, but their roots would also create macropores for better water and nutrient flow, and would introduce mycorrhiza that are key players in nutrient and water transport for future generations of trees.
When we dug graves (deeper at that point than now), it seemed that it would take quite a while for roots to reach the level of the body, and were concerned that the longer it took the more nutrients might filter downwards. I came up with the idea of burial sticks. Not all that sexy, but free (maybe if I had called them Grave Stix, and sold them for 10 dollars each, it would have made headlines). The idea is to collect downed limbs from the forest floor-ideally those that had been down a couple of years and were beginning to rot. Presumably, these limbs were pretty heavily impregnated with spores from the fruiting bodies of mycorrhiza (mushrooms), and would be likely to decompose faster-providing rapid access to new roots.
Some of the fungi spores would presumably be the same fungi that were already working with the trees and bushes in the forest (although we honestly do not know whether viable spores are there—it could be mostly saprophytic fungi). The sticks are placed vertically at various angles as we cover the grave., in contact with the wooden casket, shroud, etc. We have never tested the proposition, but imagined it would be possible to devise an experiment to test the hypothesis using a test animal, but it made sense and we believe it does help the nutrient flow go in the right direction.
We also hypothesized that in projects that involved abandoned plowed land or mining sites, it would be wise to collect sticks from a variety of locations in the region (and inoculate the roots of grave plantings in a “tea” made with a small amount of duff from a healthy location).
As we started to hand dig more graves, I noticed that while some tree roots extended down very deep, they were rare below 4 feet in our woodland areas. I was aware that some prairie plant roots went considerably deeper. Later I found research showing depth of roots is both species and site specific.
And, as mentioned, a deep, wide and long grave means moving a lot of dirt, which costs more in labor and creates a crush problem (unless the dirt is raised on cement block piers, plywood and tarps). After my first excavation (6 feet deep, 8 feet long and 4 feet wide), I proudly showed Kimberley—who told me it looked “like Verdun in bloody WWI”.
Consequently, we began to dig shallower, narrower and shorter graves. We were also introducing organic material in the form of pine straw and flowers-more for decoration, but the pine straw also was likely to contain fungi spores, bacteria, etc.
As it turns out, macro-pores like the ones we were creating with Burial Stix do have a major ecological role in most forested environments. A US Forest Service white paper from 1971 notes that in Ohio forests, an acre of forest would have some 4,000 dead-root macropores, and that these channels play an important role in water and nutrient transport, new root and importantly for our concerns, aeration.
More recently, In Trees, Crops and Soil Fertility (2003) Grimaldi, et. al. wrote:
“The relatively large macropores resulting from root growth can play an important role in soil aeration and rapid macropore flow of water though the soil. In addition, old root channels are often used by new roots which thereby avoid the mechanical resistance of the soil matrix and may profit from the more favorable chemical environment provided by the root debris.”
So the bottom line is that Grave Stix probably work- by aerating the soil, and promoting new root growth and consequent mycorrhizzal associations to utilize the nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients in the body.
We know from forensic taphonomy research that depth also matters, as does the decorative vegetative matter we placed in the grave. The vegetative matter helps by providing some carbon to balance the high nitrogen during body decay, by providing some extra air-space, by insulating the body in colder conditions, by wicking some of the liquid away from the body and by providing additional organisms to assist in composting the body.
How Can We Improve and Verify Improvements for Green Burial: Recommendations and Some Crazy Ideas of My Own
Depth. At RCP, we go down only about 3-3.5 feet. Since we do not haul any dirt away, the mound provides additional depth at least in the center of the grave. Less depth than that, and we could run into odor issues and animal disturbance. We have never had an issue in the last 18 years, and have wild hogs, coyotes and the occasional bear passing through the property.
One idea to avoid animal problems would be to include a biodegradable barrier of some sort (particularly for shroud burials) such as netting made from hemp rope, etc. Perhaps some sort of accelerant (see below) could narrow the window when odors could be an issue.
Preparing the Grave
We recommend lining the bottom of the grave with pine-straw, old leaves, or other material. This not only softens the appearance, it provides air space under the body/casket. We also leave wooden “chocks” to keep the casket above the actual ground level.
We no longer cut all of the roots from the side of the grave (some guests seem to be freaked out by lots of dangly roots). Larger roots can be unsightly and could interfere with lowering, but medium and small roots can be pinned down with “U” shaped pins readily available from Forestry Suppliers and other on-line providers. During closing, these can be released.
Burial vessels: design, accelerants, oxygen enhancers
In general, caskets should be readily biodegradable, and should not have sealed joints. We now recommend that some sort of vegetative material be inside the casket as well (based on findings in German dis-interments).
One idea (certainly not ready for prime time) would be to investigate if certain materials can retain oxygen to help accelerate decomposition, particularly for very obese individuals (prone to adiopocere) and in areas or at times of year when adiopocere is a concern. Carbonized chicken feathers form nanotubes that are being investigated for hydrogen and oxygen storage (https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2009/june/feather-fibers-fluff-up-hydrogen-storage-capacity.html). This process does require energy input, but might be created using green energy. If we could double or triple the amount of oxygen in a casket, it would probably be enough even in adipocere prone situations. Avoiding adipocere might require only a small amount of carbonized feathers, but it might be that other more pedestrian materials could suffice.
I contacted a professor of materials science at Clemson University to ask whether we might use recycled clothing, mulch or other materials to hold onto oxygen. He never got back to me, even though I admitted in my email that my question might seem bizarre. Maybe he thought someone was playing a prank, or that I was a mass murderer trying to dispose of bodies quickly.
Despite the lack of help from material scientists, medical literature supports the idea that the clothing fabric of those using supplemental oxygen accumulates the gas, and that consequently the risk of fire persists for a good while even after the oxygen is turned off (it is recommended that oxygen be used only in well ventilated areas). It would be interesting to see which materials (organic of course) are best: tightly woven or loose, fuzzy. Intuitively, loose fuzzy seems more likely, but maybe the tight weave has more cotton-fiber/oxygen interface. All would be cut into strips to create a fluffy effect. It might not be a good idea to cover the body in cloth, since this could actually impair gas exchange, but if the material is oxygen charged, who knows.
Dried pine-straw is also known to absorb gasses (and fluids), and as we mentioned above, could be a source for organisms to speed the reduction of the dead.
While not air-tight, the casket could have a port on the side, and near the bottom to “charge” the casket with oxygen from a portable tank (oxygen generators are not terribly expensive), after the lid is closed and immediately prior to burial.
Apparently lime does not speed decay, and in some cases could slow it: http://archlab.uindy.edu/documents/theses/ThewHAAbstract.pdf.
The addition of some sort of organism mix could be helpful, but it would need a fair amount of research, and could also be site specific. I am pretty sure this will not include wood fungus, not to beat a dead mushroom suit.
In addition to the “oxygen casket” above, another (and perhaps simpler) way to aerate the casket is to follow the example mentioned in the German paper on adipocere. In that example, caskets that were accidentally perforated by tombstone anchors did not have adipocere.
It would be easy enough to make a casket with several predrilled holes-perhaps 10 cm in diameter, the holes could be covered with decorative paper; burial sticks would perforate them during grave closing.
One of the more surprising things in the forensic taphonomy literature was the fact that bodies buried directly into the ground can actually decompose at a slower rate than bodies interred in a casket, probably related to oxygen availability.
We would suggest a couple of modifications including elevation of the shrouded body at least several inches off the bottom of the grave using chocks and a narrow back-board (this can be recycled wood, or even a recycled corrugated cardboard “plank”, with built in piers (this would be cheap to manufacture). Vegetation such as straw or other materials would be under and around this structure, which could also be used to facilitate lowering. We already use the recycled wood/chock method, having tried a disposable lowering sling earlier.
Bulky material such as green pine bows could cover the shrouded body (that is lying in a bed of vegetative material), providing some extra air-space, along with the burial sticks.
An inexpensive cardboard covering engineered to hold off the dirt for a very limited time (dome shaped, maybe providing 25 cm of air space) would also add very little to the cost.
Need for Experiments
I know at least one provider is experimenting with road kills and pigs to test his ideas. One problem for burials is that bodies (animal or human) that have been killed traumatically generally decompose quicker, as open wounds admit oxygen and allow fluid flux. Also, the longer a body has been exposed to the elements (especially in warmer months), the faster subsequent in-grave decomposition. Road killed animals are also generally very lean, and unlikely to get adipocere anyway. So road-kill experiments might not give translatable results.
I think we need more trials, perhaps in concert with universities, particularly in areas and in situations that we can expect adipocere (cold, wet climates, and heavy clay soils, and given obese subjects in particular). One size will not fit all, though. I do not think we can develop a magic potion that ensures prompt recycling everywhere.
Grave Closing Techniques.
Sorry if this is out of order—forgot it until last second. In our heavy clay, we have often “stomped down” the fill on the sides of a casket to avoid identifiable “sink-lines” (the soil over the casket does not sink as much as does soil on the sides). I now believe this to be a mistake, especially with adipocere prone heavy clay soils. The unpacked soil is very likely to host more oxygen, and serve as a sink for purging liquid.
Incorporating grave sticks is probably a good idea in most soils. It is something that client families should be aware of, since it looks a bit bizarre to the uninitiated. We also recommend that the sticks be held in some type of decorative/ceremonial carrier-perhaps a made out of woven rope, rather than creating a disorderly pile of old half-rotten limbs and sticks. While we have always kept layers strictly in order (sub-soil, top soil, “duff”/organic layer), including some organic material (leaves, straw, etc.) while closing the subsoil material to create a “17 layer cake” effect could help with oxygen and with beneficial organisms.
Selecting the right cover vegetation is also important. While some shallow rooted vegetation might be ecologically good, if we want to mobilize nutrients, be important to have some species that could be expected to develop roots down to the level of the body.
OK, Sorry if that was a bit technical. You can take out the toothpicks that are propping your eyes open.
Dr. Billy Campbell is the co-founder of Ramsey Creek Preserve, with his wife, Kimberley. His informed perspective is deeply valued in the conservation burial community.