Last week Central Baptist lost one of it’s most beautiful and gentle souls. She’d been in declining health for a while, but her passing was unexpected and heartbreaking–made worse by the limitations this pandemic has put on all of us for the last seven months.
When her daughter contacted me about presiding over the funeral she said something which made my ears perk up, “Mom decided that she wanted a green funeral, so we’ll do everything at the cemetery which is about an hour from here.” I actually had a small bit of understand on the concept of a “green,” or “natural,” burial because a friend of mine had researched it for himself a few years back. It means committing our bodies to the soil the way people did for centuries before the advent of the modern industry. Nowadays the combination of embalming, elaborate caskets, and deep graves place bodies outside the natural decaying process. From what I understand, we’re often placed below the level of anaerobic bacteria, and the preservative function of embalming process doesn’t cease the moment our loved one is out of sight. In modern funerals the natural processes which begin after death are masked–which ends up distancing grieving friends an family from the process.
A natural burial is different. There is no embalming, so natural processes aren’t halted. Graves are shallower, so bacteria is given a chance to work. And caskets are simple, designed to decay in the soil. In a natural burial the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” means something–because we are returned to the soil in the way our ancestors were. And, in many ways, a green funeral feels like stepping back in time.
The cemetery my friend selected for herself had been around since the 1700’s but, like many old cemeteries, it had fallen in to serious disrepair. In 2007, however, a new owner took over the site and converted it to a green burial location. The grounds are maintained, the small chapel is kept up, and new burials are taking place. But it hasn’t been updated to feel like a modern cemetery. In fact, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d drive right by it, assuming it was just woods. A iron gate, with the cemetery’s name on it, marks the entrance to the site. It opened to a short, sandy road which leads to a little grove with stone benches and a small chapel. There is no power on the site, and the only facilities is a literal outhouse. There are no paved roads, only moss-covered footpaths, and caskets are placed on a hand drawn cart to be transported–first to the grove or chapel, and then to the hand-dug grave 1.
Pallbearers took the casket, which was made of woven bamboo, and placed it on the cart, after which the family processed the thirty yards or so down the sandy path as the cart led the way. We arrived in the grove, and went through the short service my friend had planned in advance. Stories were shared, tears were shed, and I offered what hope and encouragement I could. We then processed behind the cart again, down a narrow moss-covered path into the woods, until we came to the fresh-dug grave. The pallbearers again took the woken casket and placed it in position over the grave, after which the boards were removed and they used natural-fiber ropes to lower the casket into the grave 2. I was struck by the nearness of the process through this entire journey. My friend wasn’t artificially preserved, she wasn’t locked in a varnished vault 3, and the family lowered their loved one into the earth. I looked out to the trailing crowd, wrapped down the narrow path, and thought, “This is a holy moment.”
After my brief prayers over the grave, the family was offered the opportunity to place some soil on the grave, and a good number insisted on taking a turn. We then processed back up the moss-covered path, and we felt light. The grief was there, a dear friend has been lost to us in this life 4, but it had been mixed with love and peace. And, as I departed, it dawned on me that my friend had planned her entire funeral as a gift to her family–helping them embrace the first steps of grief and new life. As much as any funeral can be, it was a marvelous experience, and I’m honored she wanted me to guide part of the journey.