Exactly one month after Lily Griffin’s third birthday, she was laid to rest. Nothing could take away from the tragedy of that moment, but Lily’s mother, Elizabeth Scheffler, 26, knew how she wanted it to go. Just four days after Lily was killed in a car crash, she was buried in a humble, handmade wooden casket — without an autopsy or embalming — in the woods surrounding South Carolina’s Ramsey Creek Preserve.
Scheffler says she was nervous the first time she went to the preserve, but those nerves quickly disappeared when she found the perfect quiet, wooded burial site. “Of course I’m sad, but I don’t feel any uncomfortableness there,” she says. “Your heart and soul just feel completely at peace.”
On top of that, Scheffler knew she didn’t want Lily’s body to have to undergo anything else. “Cutting her and embalming her — it’s not going to change anything; it’s not going to bring her back,” Scheffler says. “There was no need to fake anything, cover up bruises, or put makeup on her. She was going back to the earth the way she came in.”
To some, this may seem like a radical choice, but Scheffler is far from the only one to choose this type of funeral for a lost loved one. Referred to as “natural” or “green” burials, these types of burials do away with traditional caskets and cremation in favor of putting bodies directly in the ground (in artisan shrouds, cardboard caskets, or one of many biodegradable casket options.) There’s no embalming, and there are also environmentally-friendly burial urns if cremation is still preferable.
It’s not a new idea at all — instead, it’s an effort to return to our ancient and simple approach to burial. But many millennials like Scheffler (plus their baby-boomer parents) are becoming more interested in the simple but meaningful services non-traditional burials can provide. And, having seen how moving simple burials like these can be, more funeral directors are advocating for them, too.
A "green" burial comes with some obvious environmental benefits, but those who have chosen natural burials find the services provide emotional closure unlike that of traditional services.
In a traditional burial, the body is embalmed with toxic formaldehyde (which is primarily a health concern for the embalmer), the casket is constructed of hardwoods and metals, and all of that is buried within steel vaults and reinforced concrete (erroneously thought to slow the decaying process). Every year in the U.S., all of that amounts to millions of feet of hardwood, over 100,000 tons of steel, and more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid heading straight into the ground.
Although cremation is somewhat more environmentally friendly, it’s still not exactly green. For a body to be incinerated down to ash and bone, it has to get incredibly hot (between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least 45 minutes. That requires natural gas, which means the release of greenhouse gas. There is also some concern about whether or not bodies release mercury into the atmosphere during the cremation process (although it’s unclear exactly how much of a risk this poses to the general population).
“But it’s not just about saving trees,” explains Ed Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council’s board of directors and owner of Steelmantown Green Burial Preserve in New Jersey. “It’s about empowering people to embrace the death of their loved ones.” Indeed, many are finding that green burials provide a level of complex emotional satisfaction that traditional funeral services usually can’t.
Part of that means personalizing the service for your loved one by incorporating certain songs or giving guests the chance to tell their own stories, for instance, which is a trend that has been on the rise for a while now, says Amy Cunningham, a funeral director in New York City who specializes in green services. But green burials take it even further. At these services, funeral-goers are encouraged to take an active role, including helping to fill the grave by hand. The services usually take place outside at a cemetery that allows elements of natural burial (such as not having a vault) or on conservation grounds (such as those surrounding Ramsey Creek).
When it came time for Cindy Keese, 35, to plan the service for her husband Matthew, that personalization took a central role. Matthew's father built his son a simple pine coffin, and Cindy and her sister lined the inside with cardboard and little notes. She and her family and friends also filled the burial hole completely by themselves, which turned out to be a surprisingly moving experience. "I was able to keep it together and not break down into tears until that part," she says. "I think it helped with closure in a way that I didn't anticipate."
“This changes bereavement,” Cunningham adds. “When people make the effort to have this service, they leave the cemetery skipping because they’re so delighted by what they just experienced. And, at least for the moment, their grief is lessened and they’re uplifted in a very powerful, beautiful way.”
And, without the embalming process, there’s no effort to hide just how dead the dead really are. “This idea of preserving the body and making it look like it’s alive — that really is a denial of death,” says Billy Campbell, MD, who, along with his wife Kimberley, founded Memorial Ecosystems in South Carolina, the company that operates the Ramsey Creek Preserve.
Although this may have made previous generations squeamish, millennials seem particularly receptive to the concept of confronting death in this way. Baby boomers, the largest generation aside from millennials, are aging and dying in large numbers at a time when environmental concerns are top of mind, causing many of us to consider how death affects the environment. So, as baby boomers continue to die in larger numbers than our death industry has ever seen before, Dr. Campbell, Cunningham, and Bixby believe green funerals will become more common. And because it's often those who are left behind who are making the funeral decisions, it's boomers' kids, the Gen X-ers and millennials, who are primed to be the real drivers of the acceptance of green burials as we continue to look for more authentic, meaningful, and conscientious ways to grieve.
We’re already seeing that millennials feel more willing to engage in death-related conversations and even plan ahead for their own services. A recent Refinery29 survey of over 300 (mainly) millennial women revealed that 71% of them had imagined their own deaths. “[Millennials] don’t have the anxieties about decomposing the way other people do,” Cunningham says. “They seem to be more realistic about what happens when you die and how pointless it is to fight mother nature. They don’t seem as fearful of the inevitable.”
That acceptance of the inevitable may seem morbid, but it allows us to push through our funeral traditions and make something more out of our deaths. “When you surround death with light,” Bixby explains, “[you realize] the final statement of your life can make a big difference.”
For Scheffler, that comes from knowing her daughter is buried under ferns native to the South Carolina wilderness, and that her body will go on to help preserve the land she’s now a part of.
Still, Scheffler was initially worried about how she was going to feel when the time came to leave Lily. “But I felt like she was in a good place," she says. "I felt like, on a spiritual level, she was really well taken care of. My heart was broken, but being there, it didn’t feel so much like death.”
Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.