Everyone in the room was crying except for me. I felt bad, but I didn’t really know him. I had only come as support for my friend. I’d been to a funeral service before but never a wake. There were flowers surrounding the large wooden coffin, that sat on an even larger table at the front of the room.
You couldn’t tell that the deceased, a young man, had passed away twelve days earlier. His hair was coiffed, his cheeks a tad waxy but rosy. I’d never thought about how my hair would be parted or what kind of makeup I would want when I died, or if I was going to have a wake, or get cremated, or buried. At nineteen, I didn’t think I’d have to make those decisions any time soon. But all life eventually comes to an end. As morbid as it sounds, most people start to think about their burials way before their appointment with St. Peter.
Elizabeth Foley already knows how she’ll be laid to rest. Her vision is a green burial—one that allows her body to return to the earth in the most natural and elemental way possible. “For me, being placed back into the earth as organic matter—my energy to be taken up by all manner of organisms, and fed back into the cycle of life—is the most comforting idea of death I have ever had.” That’s why last year she formed the Connecticut Green Burial Grounds.
A green burial is defined by the Green Burial Council as a way of “caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact.” That means green burials are done without any toxic fluids or non-biodegradable substances, or caskets and vaults. More times than not, they also use hand-dug graves and have the bodies placed into their grave manually, with their friends and family gently lowering them into the earth with ropes. This practice has been around since the dawn of time. When ole Uncle John gave up the ghost, the family would take his body, bury it in the backyard, and say a little prayer over the grave. Now, these simple “natural” burials are a part of a new and eco-friendly wave.
The mortuary practice of embalming is said to have started in 18th century England, but it wasn’t the norm. The United States starting embalming during the Civil War, when fallen soldiers had to stay preserved long enough to make it back home to their families. Before then, the practice was relatively uncommon in day-to-day burials. Today, however, embalming has become a part of the traditional modern burial offered at almost every funeral home in the country.
Modern embalming is done by pumping the body full of embalming chemicals used for preservation, including formaldehyde. The chemicals are injected into the body via a large artery—usually the carotid or femoral—while the blood is drained from a vein, like the jugular or femoral vein. These chemicals delay the body’s decaying process for a period of time, so the family can have a viewing or wake after the actual death. With the number of people who die every year in the United States, the amount of toxic fluids that go into the earth can reach 4.3 million gallons, which is more than six and a half olympic sized swimming pools. Green burials eliminate those chemicals from the process, and since the decomposition process isn’t prohibited, allows the body to return to the earth naturally. Plus, since there are no chemicals in the ground, that land can be reused. In the future, after the green burial sites are full, they can be turned into gardens or parks.
Green burials also tend to be significantly cheaper than modern burials. Matt Bailey, President of Bailey Family Funeral Homes in Wallingford, calls it “more of a shifting of fees.” The funeral home is spacious, quiet, and completely spotless. I imagine a small cleaning crew coming in at five in the morning, dusting and vacuuming every nook and cranny. Bailey sits across from me at a very large, dark-stained wooden table. His voice is confident yet calm, as it has to be when your job is to console families and arrange funerals. He tells me that a modern burial will cost more at the funeral home for services and facilities, but a green burial will cost more at the cemetery for larger land plots and hand-dug graves.
“It’s obviously all over the spectrum, but I would say probably with a green burial you’re saving $5,000 to $6,000.” And if we had more green burial sites in Connecticut, that price would be even cheaper. Wooster Cemetery in Danbury is the only cemetery in the state that even has a green burial section. It’s called a hybrid cemetery, since it caters to both modern burials and green burials, so technically Connecticut still doesn’t have a completely natural burial ground. The Connecticut Green Burial Grounds wants to change that.
Foley, the founder of Connecticut Green Burial Grounds, wants to start Connecticut’s first completely natural burial ground in Hamden. “We see a forest, alive with nature. Walking paths through trees and fields—no manicured lawns or toxic chemicals,” she says. With this set into place, there will be more access to organic burials free of large caskets, vaults, and unnecessary chemicals.
There are countless rituals and ceremonies that many cultures perform when their loved ones pass on. A viewing of the body, or a wake, is common to have prior to the funeral for most families, so they get the body embalmed to ensure rosy cheeks at the viewing, and delay the natural decomposition for many years afterwards. “Grief therapists tell us that to see someone after they pass away helps us to accept the reality that the death has occurred,” Bailey says, which is why they offer a formaldehyde free embalming for the green burials. “The fluids that are used are organic in nature, they’re designed so that they break down.” And because they’re able to break down, the body is able to be buried in a green cemetery.
The documentary A Will for the Woods follows Clark Wang in the last stages of lymphoma while he prepares his funeral. He wanted a green burial to make sure he was being environmentally conscious about his last mark on earth. “Without this, dying from lymphoma feels so empty and meaningless,” he says, knowing that he wanted his death to serve a greater purpose. He wanted his body to fuel the nature around his burial site, he wanted to not harm the planet, and he wanted his story to convey a message to the public that there are other ways—more eco-friendly and natural ways—of being buried. When I bring up the movie in his office, Bailey said that the movie always gets a few tears. He recently spoke at a screening of the film at the Wallingford Public Library, and to break the ice after such a heart wrenching film, he reminds the crowd that Clark “felt like his journey would be in vain if not for a greater purpose, and here we are tonight having a conversation, talking about Clark and we’re discussing these ideas even though it’s been years since he died.”
There are many different ways to approach death and what to do with your body when you die. Some people are interested in green burials, but not many at this point. Matt Bailey says the percentage of his clients who choose the green burial is only about two percent, but it could change when the Connecticut Green Burial Grounds opens up. At this point, the only thing they need is more land to be able to truly kick start their plans into action. “I don’t think we’re going to get to like 20 percent, but I think it would grow.”
Imagine having your children and grandchildren come to visit your burial site and being welcomed by a large and stately sycamore tree. Blowing in the wind, it draws life from the soil surrounding it—the soil that your body feeds. “It’s a living memorial,” says Glenn Cheney, the Connecticut Green Burial Grounds’ trustee. It’s the idea of being able to live on after you’ve passed on. Green burials are able to let the body’s energy pass through to another life to help it live, and perhaps, bloom.