Some choosing natural burial to help environment

AKRON, Ohio - Laura Buzzelli lived her life with a respect for the environment. So she wanted to show that same respect in death, too.

Buzzelli, who died of complications from cancer in March 2009, was buried in a nature preserve with no embalming, no elaborate casket and no burial vault.

It was her wish, which she expressed to her husband, Ken, about six weeks before she died.

"My first thought . was, wow. This is really different. I don't know," recalled Ken Buzzelli, who lives in Brecksville.

Now he embraces his wife's decision to be buried at Foxfield Preserve, a natural burial ground adjacent to the Wilderness Center in southwestern Stark County. He takes comfort in knowing the choice suited Laura, who loved nature, made her own garden compost and recycled long before others were doing it.

The Buzzellis are among a small but growing group who are eschewing conventional burial in favor of greener alternatives.

No statistics are available on natural burials, but "there's definitely a move afoot," said Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council. He points to a 2007 study by AARP, in which 21 percent of people 50 and older expressed a preference for green burial.

Baby boomers are likely to increase the demand, said Sara Starr, who works with families and promotes Foxfield Preserve as its steward.

Boomers are "very comfortable with breaking with convention," she said. "I think the baby boom generation will want to die in the same way they lived."

Sehee said green burial and natural burial are interchangeable terms for what his organization defines as a way of caring for the dead that furthers one or more environmental aims, such as reducing energy use or avoiding toxic chemicals. Advocates of natural burial generally reject the use of traditional embalming, metal caskets and burial vaults, but the concept embraces a wide range of options, he said.

Some consider it green to be buried in a grave with a liner -- a concrete box used instead of a vault to enclose a casket -- because the ingredients in concrete come from the Earth, he said. Some insist on burial only in a biodegradable enclosure, such as a natural-fiber shroud or a simple cardboard or wood casket with only natural finishes and no metal parts. A small number, like Laura Buzzelli, choose their burial to be part of a larger plan to return a tract of land to its natural state.

No matter the method, the common goal is to de-industrialize death, Sehee said.

"We're trying to find a way to honor the dead, heal the living and invite in the divine," he said.

While natural burial is a somewhat unusual choice in the United States, it's hardly a new concept. Until the mid-19th century, most people were buried in plain wood coffins, and embalming was rare. That changed with the Civil War, when the bodies of soldiers who died far from home needed to be preserved for transport and viewing.

Natural burial methods remain common in some cultures, including the Jewish and Islamic religions.

Many people think cremation is the only option to conventional burial, but they don't realize embalming and caskets aren't required by Ohio law, said Rick Bissler, a funeral director with Bissler & Sons in Kent. Neither are metal burial vaults or concrete grave liners, although most cemeteries require one or the other to prevent the earth from settling and perhaps giving way under the heavy equipment used for grave digging and maintenance, he said.

Bissler said his funeral home can use refrigeration in lieu of embalming to preserve a body for up to about 10 days until burial. A viewing is still possible, but Bissler's will hold one only on the day of the funeral. That's because the casket can't be refrigerated, and the body can't reasonably be removed from it and then returned, he explained.

Dry ice can be used to ship an unembalmed body, but Bissler said the logistics can be complicated because airlines require an unembalmed body to reach its final destination in one day.

He said it's possible to bury in an earth-friendly way, even in a conventional cemetery. A shrouded body or biodegradable casket can be placed inside a bottomless grave liner, and then the liner can be filled with earth and topped with a concrete cover. That method exposes the body to the earth but also provides the structure the cemetery requires, he explained.

Bissler & Sons offers as an option the natural wood caskets built by Down to Earth Custom Woodworks in Kent. Its owner, Brek Paton Jacobson, builds mainly furniture and cabinetry but added caskets to his portfolio a couple of years ago after getting the idea from a fellow woodworker.

Paton Jacobson creates his caskets from untreated pine, joining the boards with engineered wood dowels, adding handles made of hemp rope and leaving the wood unfinished.

The design is plain, but the craftsmanship is elegant. He spends about a day building each casket, crafting the joints carefully and sanding the surfaces to a velvety smoothness.

"I thought there was a need to have a certain amount of refinement to it," Paton Jacobson said. Taking care to build his caskets correctly and carefully, he said, is a way of honoring those who will rest in them.

Paton Jacobson said plain pine caskets can be purchased online, but he saw a need for one made locally that didn't require the expenditure of a great deal of energy to ship it a long distance.

He wants his caskets to be an affordable option as well as a green one. He charges $850 for a standard size and can build custom sizes, too.

Natural burial saves on the cost of a metal casket and embalming fees, which Foxfield notes can total $5,000 or more. But the burial itself may not be cheaper, Bissler noted.

Foxfield Preserve's burial prices, for example, start at $4,200, including opening and closing of the grave. That price includes a $1,600 donation to The Wilderness Center to support its conservation efforts.

By comparison, burial at Kent's public Standing Rock Cemetery costs $1,800 -- $500 for the grave, $500 to open and close it and $800 for a liner, Bissler said. Burial in private cemeteries is usually more expensive.

Foxfield, however, is different from a cemetery in that part of its mission is conservation and land preservation. It comprises 43 acres of former farmland, which are reverting to a forested area and two prairies.

Other than the gentle mounds of newer graves and some flat markers made from unpolished natural stone, there's little evidence that Foxfield Preserve is a burial site. Young trees dot the section that will eventually grow into a forest, and grasses and wildflowers sprout from the two prairies.

Foxfield generally prohibits embalming with toxic chemicals and requires burial in something biodegradable, such as a plain wood casket, a reinforced cardboard container or a shroud. It asks that the body be dressed in natural-fiber clothing, but Starr said Foxfield doesn't quibble about small nondegradable items such as buttons and zippers on clothing or nails and metal hinges on caskets.

Starr believes the benefits of natural burial extend beyond the environmental aspects, however. Natural funerals also tend to involve the families in a personal, intimate way, she said. Often family members will participate in closing the grave, a process she says helps them emotionally.

Initially Foxfield's focus was on the environment, but "I think we have all been surprised by how much more we're giving to the community than we had ever expected," she said.

That extends beyond the families of the deceased. Starr said visitors often come to read, write in their journals, watch birds or butterflies or walk the gravel trails that meander through the preserve.

"You're not going to run into this much life in a traditional cemetery," she said, "and that's really beautiful."

Those reminders of life are comforting to Ken Buzzelli. Whenever he visits, he said, he takes joy in the beauty of the natural surroundings and experiences awe at the cycle of life unfolding around him.

"It's just a wonderful place to be," he said. "I don't think morbid thoughts. I thank Laura for bringing me there."

Information from the Akron Beacon Journal:

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