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Collin PriceOctober 13, 2022

My grandmother died in the fall of 2021. She had lived 96 good years. I was lucky enough to see her the day before she died. She was weak, tired and in pain, but her spark was still there. She still wanted to tell stories about skipping school and riding horses when she was a farm kid in rural Oklahoma. Her nail polish—red like the soil of her Oklahoma homeland—still stood on her bedside table.

She loved the color red. When it was time to pick out a casket, the family knew that it had to be the bright red one, just like the giant red hats she wore and the giant red Lincoln she drove. The eulogy I gave at her graveside service centered around her bright red casket. It fit her, a bold symbol for her bold life. But as I watched the funeral director lower her red casket at the end of the service, something felt off. I felt something was missing, as if her presence was missing from the very place we should have been most likely to remember it.

Though the service was beautiful and honored her life and gave us a chance to mourn together as a family, our conventional burial practice left me feeling we were not ready to accept her death. The red casket surely honored her life, but it left me wondering: Did it honor her death? Like so many families, we did our best to bury my grandmother with reverence and respect. Despite that effort, the giant red casket, although it represented her in a way, also seemed to replace her.

A great deal of thought and work (and often money) goes into conventional burial practices. When a body is buried, it is first embalmed with a formaldehyde solution. Then the body is sealed in a polished wood or metal casket and the casket is placed in a reinforced concrete vault. The casket is then buried six feet below ground and the grave is covered again by sod. All of these steps—the embalming, the casket, the vault, even the cemetery itself—do everything possible to gloss over a central fact of our death and its natural consequences: the decomposition of the body.

It is natural not to want to think of this. We want the bodies of our loved ones preserved with chemicals and air-tight containers because we want to remember them as they were, to recall how their bodies looked and felt in life, not the details of what happens to them when that life ends. We make a mental separation between our loved ones and these natural processes. And in many ways, our daily lives encourage this separation. So many of us live our lives separated from nature in climate-controlled wood and concrete structures, where we regularly fill our bodies with products and chemicals capable of turning our minds away from the chasm of finitude. Why would we do anything differently when dealing with death?

In life, little terrifies us more than the thought of maggots excavating our teeth and rove beetles devouring our soft tissues. So in death our mouths are sewn shut and we are packed with chemical-laden cotton balls, all to delay the inevitable reality: We are soil, and to the soil we will return.

We want the bodies of our loved ones preserved because we want to remember them as they were.

Sadly, our spiritual denial has all-too-practical consequences. Conventional burial is hard on the environment. According to data compiled by the Glendale Nature Preserve from the Casket and Funeral Association of America, the Rainforest Action Network and the Pre-Posthumous Society, every year conventional burials in the United States require over 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 100,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, primarily formaldehyde. Producing all those materials generates pollution in the air, water and soil. The burial of those materials results in the leaching of embalming fluids, wood stains and heavy metals into the surrounding soil and groundwater.

Our denial of death, in other words, desecrates the earth. It results not only in polluted soil, water and air but also sustains a $16 billion industry that perpetuates a consumerist cycle of extraction and waste with our very bodies. How did this happen?

A Growing Movement

The practices of embalming and casket-burial among Catholics in the United States today may seem normal to us, but they are cultural and historical anomalies when viewed globally. Indigenous Americans have been burying their dead directly in the ground for thousands of years. For many cultures in the United States today, embalming is uncommon or even explicitly forbidden. Burial practices in Judaism and Islam, for instance, prohibit both chemical embalming and cremation, opting instead for natural burial.

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The natural cemetery of the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in central Kentucky. The community has performed 10 burials there since the first in 2018. (Credit: Collin Price, S.J.)

The movement for natural burial is growing and is slowly becoming more mainstream in the United States, but the practice is as old and widespread as our species. Here is what happens: The body is wrapped in a cotton shroud and placed directly into the soil. That’s it. Some natural burials might use linen, wool or silk shrouds; some even use cardboard, wicker or untreated wood caskets. But in all natural burials there is no chemical embalming, no cherry red casket, no concrete vault. Instead, the body is simply returned to the soil, and the natural biological processes proceed. Natural burial eliminates the waste and pollution that can come with conventional burial and circulates the biological material of the body back into the ecosystem. It returns us to the soil and in so doing frees us from our pattern of consumption and destruction to become a life-giving constituent of the ecosystem. Natural burial reminds us, in the tender moments of mourning, that our bodies are part of the generative circular process of life, death and regrowth.

Burial practices as we know them in the United States today began during the Civil War. Dead soldiers’ bodies needed to be shipped home to their families, so the army commissioned Dr. Thomas Holmes to come up with a way to delay the decaying process. Dr. Holmes invented an embalming fluid that used arsenic to kill the microorganisms in the body, which slowed decomposition long enough for the bodies to reach home intact. Holmes’s concoction became the first commercially available embalming fluid in the United States.

Any burial practice must honor the body as part of the human person.

Open-casket funerals with embalmed bodies became popular soon after the war’s end, when the U.S. government embalmed the body of Abraham Lincoln and took it on tour by train from Washington, D.C., to his home in Springfield, Ill., stopping in cities and towns along the way. After the public viewing of Lincoln’s body, similar treatment for deceased loved ones became popular among people who could afford to give them such presidential treatment. Over the years embalming became less expensive and more and more common. Soon it became the default practice, and most of us cannot imagine simply covering our loved ones with soil. We now seem stuck in a system that monetizes our denial of death’s reality at the moment when what we most need is acceptance of it. But we need not remain stuck. We can relearn what was once natural.

New Kinds of Burial

Reimagining our burials necessitates reimagining our cemeteries as well. Respecting the memories of our loved ones and honoring their bodies does not automatically require us also to create cemeteries with neatly manicured, heavily fertilized grass and non-native decorative plants.

As with burial, there is an alternative to conventional cemeteries: conservation cemeteries. These intentionally support biological flourishing by conserving and restoring native flora and fauna. In the words of the Conservation Burial Alliance, conservation cemeteries are “multidimensional social and ecological spaces that sustain us as they sustain the planet and all who dwell on it.” When maintained with respect for the local ecosystem, conservation cemeteries can provide a refuge for local species that have lost their habitat to urban and suburban development. The bodies buried there provide nutrients that support the flourishing of native plants and wildlife, and the space becomes both a place of rest for the dead and a place of sustenance for the living.

Many nontraditional burial practices are on the rise. The Catholic Church does not accept or condone all of them, but the church has shown a willingness to adapt in the past. The church forbade cremation for Catholics until the 1980s. Today, according to the Cremation Association of North America, 57.5 percent of the deceased are cremated in 2021 and that figure is expected to rise.

We now seem stuck in a system that monetizes our denial of death’s reality.

According to Brian Pham, S.J., professor of law and canon law at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., the church considered anything besides a “regular” Catholic burial to be a pagan ritual until the early 20th century. Cremation was a practice most commonly used in religious traditions that believe in reincarnation. These religions often see the body as merely a vessel; once the soul leaves the body, the body no longer serves a purpose. For them, cremation hastens the process of the soul entering a new body because it gets the old one out of the way. Such beliefs go against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The church teaches that the body is an integral part of the human person and that the glorified body will someday be rejoined with the soul in the resurrection. Cremation was forbidden for most of the last two millennia because its association with reincarnation and the negation of the body seemed in opposition to Catholic beliefs. But by the mid-20th century, cremation was being paired with traditional Christian funeral and burial practices. So the church updated its teachings in the 1983 Code of Canon Law to allow for cremation “unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (Canon 1176.3).

In an effort to clarify what that means in practical terms, in 2016 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published instructions for handling cremation in a Catholic context. The document clarifies the church’s theological teachings about the body after death and applies them to acceptable burial practices. The church prefers whole-body burial but allows cremation as long as it is done in the context of church teaching about the body after death. “By burying the bodies of the faithful,” the document states, the church affirms the “great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person.” Any burial practice must honor the body as part of the human person and cannot consider death to be “the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body.” In other words, the intent of the practice may not be to destroy the body after death and must show the body honor and respect.

Scattering ashes, for instance, is unacceptable in the Catholic Church because the body is dispersed across the water or land where it is scattered. Human composting, which turns the body into fertilizer that is then scattered over a garden or around a tree, is also unacceptable. In California, a recently passed bill legalized human composting in the state, beginning in 2027. The California Catholic Conference expressed strong opposition to the bill. And the New York Catholic conference has expressed opposition to a similar bill in New York. The church forbids human composting because the body is treated as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Natural burial and conservation burial occupy a gray area in the church’s teachings about burial practices.

Father Pham summarized the theology underlying the church’s canon law about burial practices: “The primary focus has to be honoring and continuing to honor the person, which includes the body.” For the church, honoring means keeping the body together, putting it in a sacred place and marking the sacred place with the person’s name. “Canon law does not say a whole lot, other than that cremation is allowed but burial is preferred. Can you plant a tree over it? Sure, but there needs to be a plaque to remember the person.”

Natural burial and conservation burial occupy a gray area in the church’s teachings about burial practices. Some people practice conservation burial as a way to merge the person with the earth, putting the body in an unmarked grave in a remote part of a forest. Such a burial would go against the church’s teaching about public reverence for the place of burial and the sacredness of the body itself.

So is there a way for Catholics to honor the sacredness of the body in a conservation burial that also honors the sacredness of the land? The answer lies in a 200-plus-year-old community of women religious and co-members in the heart of bourbon country.

Following New Paths

The Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in central Kentucky is just over the hill from the Maker’s Mark distillery. The sisters might not have a copper still in their basement, but they do have an 800-acre working farm as their backyard. While their neighbors imbibe barrel-aged corn mash, the Loretto community members lead retreats, raise beef cattle with regenerative agriculture practices and even organized toblock pipeline construction that would support fracking in the area.

Susan Classen has been a co-member of the Loretto Community since 1996. She is not a sister, but she lives in a house on the property and manages the retreat center. Ms. Classen said it was the organizing sessions for planning opposition to the pipeline that led the order to reimagine their burial practices. “People were asking the question: ‘Pipelines can’t go through cemeteries, so what if we made our woods a cemetery?’ It isn’t that easy,” she told me, “but it started the conversation.”

The conversation about transforming their woods into a cemetery gained further traction after the community watched “A Will for the Woods,” a documentary about natural burial. With the idea of a cemetery already in mind, the Loretto community members realized that conservation burial would be a way for them to live out their charism even after death. So they did what religious communities so often do: They got to work.

The Loretto community members realized that conservation burial would be a way for them to live out their charism even after death.

Opening a conventional cemetery involves cutting down trees and shaping the earth, making way for concrete, sod, crypts and sarcophagi. Starting a conservation cemetery starts with pointing to a place and saying, “That’s the cemetery.” The Loretto sisters chose a six-acre site amid the 300 acres of woods on their land. The site is about 200 yards from the edge of the woods, so they created a gravel path to make the site accessible for the less mobile community members.

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The gravesite of Kay Carlew, S.L., at the natural cemetery at the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in central Kentucky. (Credit: Collin Price)

The dense growth of cedar, ash, and maple trees rise to the sky and create a canopy that shades all that lies below. Entering the woods on the gravel path feels transformative. The woods embrace us and offer a reminder of the moment between the known and the unknown. We see limbs and leaves climb high to the sky, but we can only wonder how deep the roots burrow down in the ground. The widths of trunks hint at their age, but only the fallen trees with rings exposed reveal just how long they have lived and grown. When the Loretto Community buries one of their members in these woods, they enter a space of mystery and transition that provides a natural home for the feelings of grief and gratitude that accompany loss. The burial itself embraces the gifts the land offers in a ceremony that places the body within the woods.

Ms. Classen told me that some community members were initially hesitant about the practice but were deeply moved after participating in one of the natural burials. The community has performed 10 burials there since the first in 2018. The first step is to place the shrouded body on a cart along with cedar branches, flowers and other plants, “whatever is in season.” They process with the body to the burial plot, where the grave already has been dug. As Ms. Classen describes the burial itself, her voice conveys a sense of comfort and peace. She said they “place cedar like a nest to receive the body” in the grave. And after the body is laid on its bed of branches they “shower it with flowers and greenery.” Finally, they take turns shoveling the dirt, filling the hole with old soil and new grief.

“After our first burials, people described it as such a ‘tender’ experience,” Ms. Classen said. To some it may seem cold or painful to physically bury the body of a deceased loved one. But according to Ms. Classen, the result is usually the opposite. “People who thought it would be stark and uninviting have been moved by how embracing it is,” she said. “After they experienced it, they were really, really grateful.”

Some community members were initially hesitant about the practice but were deeply moved after participating in one of the natural burials.

Tender. Embracing. Grateful. How different are the words the Loretto Community uses to describe their experience of natural burial from those we usually use. But they are healing words that should be more commonly used to describe the way we mourn our beloved dead. These are the feelings I experienced when interacting with my grandmother during her life and longed for in her death. The red casket helped us mourn in some ways. But it fell short of the tender embrace of gratitude that Susan described to me, the one that resulted from the natural burials.

Given this result, it is no wonder that natural burial is catching on. As Ms. Classen said, “From the very beginning, I’ve been astounded by both the awareness and the interest in natural burial…. Across the board, people have been like, ‘That’s the way to do it. Can I be buried there?’” As of now, the Loretto cemetery is limited to the women religious and their co-members and close friends of the community, but they see potential to someday expand their burial ground into a ministry for the public.

I think my grandmother would have appreciated a natural burial. She was not afraid of dirt. She loved her cars shined and nails polished, but she was a farm girl through and through. She was born dirt poor in the middle of Oklahoma, and she and my grandfather made a life from the generous soil on the banks of the Columbia River. We buried her in that same soil, but with a barrier that kept her separate from it. Maybe when it is time to lay the next generation to rest we will think back to the lessons she taught us and ahead to the example we want to set for those to come. In returning our bodies to the soil, we can embrace the reality of the earth below as we trust in the mystery of the life of the world to come.

Correction Oct. 17, 2022: This article has been updated to fix the spelling of Maker's Mark, the distillery near Loretto.

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