More people are choosing alternative ways to spend the hereafter — that includes natural burial — which means no embalming or encasement in non-biodegradable packaging. KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert reports on one Eugene woman's mission to resurrect an old practice for dealing with the dead.
Cynthia Beal was looking for a new thing. It was 2004. She’d just sold her successful natural foods grocery store in Eugene and wondered what venture she should embark upon next.
Beal: “I thought to myself, what is gonna happen to our bodies when we die? What do we do? How to we dispose of ourselves? What do we do with us? That was just a fascinating question.”
Beal started writing a business plan. She named her new entity The Natural Burial Company and submitted paperwork. Two weeks later — she received some jarring news.
Beal: “I find out I’ve got a tumor. And so I go into this really interesting mode for about 4 months of possibly being my first and last customer.”
Beal says at the time, the idea of a modern natural burial was virtually unheard of. Her friends said her ideas wouldn’t work. Beal heard from skeptics who told her embalming and concrete vaults were *required for burial. She just said ‘no way.’
Beal wrote her own burial plan.
Beal: “I basically said, When I die I don’t want to be embalmed. I want to be buried in the ground, shallow so I can decompose. I want to be in a biodegradable coffin. I want to have a cherry tree planted on top of me….
But, a successful surgery removed the cancer. What remained was a commitment to make it easier for other people to plan and carry out a natural burial.
Twelve years later, Beal’s Natural Burial Company offers consultation and sells organic coffins, caskets and urns. The materials include willow, bamboo, even paper — all bio-degradable.
There was a time in this country when every burial was natural. During the Civil War, the need to transport dead soldiers home led to the practice of embalming bodies for preservation. To this day, a traditional burial usually includes embalming—and that, says Beal, is a problem.
Beal: “The bodies are not decomposing.”
Beal extended her promotion of natural burial when she purchased two cemeteries, one in Junction City and another just west of Eugene.
Oak Hill Cemetery has a view of Fern Ridge Reservoir. Some of the headstones date back to the late 1800’s.
Conventional thought is that unpreserved buried bodies are detrimental to the environment. Walking between graves, Beal points out patches of dead grass.
Beal: “This is a rocky hillside. That’s where the burials have taken place with the bodies in the metal caskets inside concrete vaults. And so the soil is not absorbing the water any longer, it’s just running off. And when this hillside bakes in the sun, it kills the grass.”
Beal says most cemeteries deal with this problem by using fertilizers and herbicides.
Eckert: “Do you have any idea who established the six feet under?
Beal: “It’s a relatively arbitrary choice. At one point, I think the decision was there to deter grave robbers a long time ago from digging into graves. But the six foot designation has no scientific basis whatsoever.”
For a natural burial at this cemetery Beal says they dig graves a few feet down.
Beal: “We like to have 20-24 inches of soil on top but they are relatively shallow. And we feel that is a good compromise between getting the body down a good solid depth but not so far that it inhibits decomposition.”
(Hear tires on gravel and kids)
On this day, 20 seventh graders arrive at Oak Hill Cemetery. They are part of SPICE, a science camp for girls.
(Cynthia Beal greets kids and asks: “At least half of you have spent time in a cemetery? No all of you have done research in a cemetery.”)
These young scientists are going to excavate to learn about decomposition. They're not digging up bodies! Beal and her staff have buried pieces of sheep kidney. The students will exhume them and examine the soil under a microscope. Cemetery as classroom.
In many parts of Europe, where natural burial is de rigueur, it is customary to re-use a grave many years after the former occupant has decomposed. The United States is just beginning to grapple with overcrowded cemeteries.
Beal: “We may actually be leaving a tremendous challenge for future generations who may have to dis-inter all those boxes and figure out what to do with them.”
The city of New York has almost no burial plots left. Metal coffins and cement vaults don’t break down and Beal says that will have grave impacts.
For more information about natural burial, including upcoming events: