Cremation consumes large amounts of fossil fuel and gives off greenhouse gases. And until now, cemeteries have meant fluids, buried heavy metals, interred toxic fluids and large lawns that get mowed, sprayed, fertilized and watered.
Mount Calvary Cemetery in the hills above Portland has a new answer: green burial. Cemetery staff have created a quiet wooded section with 120 graves and special rules meant to be respectful to the body and kind to creation.
The section overlooking the Tualatin Valley is named for St. Francis of Assisi, who understood creation as a way to meet God.
There are no concrete forms in the ground here. Required are caskets built of wood or shrouds made from cotton or other natural fibers. Bodies cannot be embalmed, a process that uses poisonous chemicals. Grave decorations can be cut flowers (no containers) but even better, families can choose from a list of native plants that will be rooted in the ground. Natural stones inscribed with names and dates can be placed on the grave; the names of those buried in the section also will be engraved on a large marker at the entry point.
The area won't include grass and paths, but will be left as natural as possible. As families plant memorial vegetation, nature will reclaim the parcel, which will become a special permanent forest preserve.
Green burial can be "completely consistent with Catholic beliefs," says Tim Corbett, superintendent of Catholic cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Portland. There may be challenges in timing for visitation and funerals, but Corbett says that can be overcome if families plan carefully with the mortuary director.
Corbett began hearing about the option about five years ago. Mount Calvary is the second Catholic cemetery in the nation to offer green burial. He knows the idea might sound a bit "left coast," but thinks younger Catholics may find it deeply meaningful.
"If everybody chose this, we'd have 500 acres of endowed forest," Corbett says. "I view it as a way for people to leave a legacy when they die."
At the start, the St. Francis section won't allow interment of cremated remains. Also, people can't choose an exact gravesite because the graves must be used in a specific order lest the special plantings of previous graves be disturbed. That also means that husbands and wives can't guarantee they'd be buried side by side, but could both be in the area.
So far, only one person has paid to buried in the area. If the idea becomes popular, Corbett may expand it.
It's possible to pay ahead in a trust that's fully refundable. Green burial may cost a bit more than the standard process because grave sites need to be larger and access for staff is much more difficult.
The first modern Catholic burial ground to offer the green option was Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wyandotte, Mich., near Lake Erie.
“There is no more appropriate way to honor our Catholic Christian tradition of Resurrection faith than by fitting into a natural cycle of death and rebirth where we honor both our loved ones and God’s good earth,” Father Charles Morris, administrator of the Michigan cemetery, told the National Catholic Reporter in 2009.
“While some may regard this form of burial as odd, remember that Jesus was laid to rest in a shroud without embalming or a burial vault. This has been the way Christians have honored their loved ones throughout most of the church’s 2,000 years.”
But the idea has not taken off in Wyandotte, where only five people have purchased plots. Cemetery officials there have reduced the green burial acreage by half.