When the first vehicle arrived, I raised my right arm with what I hoped was a blend of authority and empathy. I tried to look serious but not somber as I directed cars to the gravel parking lot of Carolina Memorial Sanctuary in Mills River, N.C., a short drive from the college where I teach environmental education.
As a 55-year-old mother, teacher and now parking attendant, I’d been eager to volunteer at this conservation cemetery, which protects the land from development in perpetuity through easements in partnership with a local land trust. This was part of my one-year journey to revise my final wishes — what my daughters called my “death plan” — with climate change and community in mind.
In my late 30s, I buried my father after he was hit by a teen driver while cycling, two years after my mother died in a similar accident. My dad knew that his neighborhood cemetery didn’t require a vault to line the grave. He’d written his directives in detail: no embalming, a pine casket, my mom’s linens as a shroud, his bluegrass band at the gravesite, and shovels for young and old to close the grave. I’d later learn that this form of disposition was called a green or natural burial.
Years after his death, I decided to align the values of my vocation as an environmental educator with plans for a more climate-friendly version of my own burial. This quest was prompted by my discovery of Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, a 20-minute drive from my home. My request to volunteer there was just one step in a year of research to explore options such as water cremation, home funerals, end-of-life doulas, green burial, human composting and even body farms, where I could donate my body for the study of decomposition. At each stop on my journey, I learned about better ways to calibrate our inevitable deaths with the needs of our planet. But in volunteering at the conservation cemetery that summer, I also saw firsthand how our deaths can help restore the Earth and our connection to the land.
I’d previously explored other conservation cemeteries such as Honey Creek Woodlands near Atlanta and Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Gainesville, Fla. The Green Burial Council certifies conservation burial grounds, which must meet criteria that go beyond green burial, such as establishing conservation easements, conducting an ecological impact assessment and setting aside an endowment for long-term maintenance of the land.
At its simplest, natural or green burial is the interment of an unembalmed body in a biodegradable container without a burial vault (a concrete receptacle that encloses the casket and keeps the ground at the cemetery level for mowing). Green burial can occur in many places — conservation burial grounds, conventional cemeteries that don’t require a vault and even a backyard. Many of the practices associated with green burial are standard for Jewish and Muslim burials, and they can decrease carbon emissions, conserve resources and restore habitats. Conservation burial goes further by protecting the land from development. And besides mitigating the impacts of our climate crisis, green burial redefines our relationship with death, as family and friends engage with end of life in a tangible way.
The night before volunteering, I attended a home vigil for Paula Costello Brown, the mother-in-law of Aditi Sethi-Brown, a revered hospice and palliative-trained physician. At Aditi’s house, I sat in front of Paula’s body, covered with bright-colored fabrics, resting on a massage table. A local funeral director had invited me to the vigil, which gave me a chance to observe this family’s reverence for death as a part of life.
As I directed vehicles the next day, Aditi and her family drove past in a black minivan carrying Paula’s body wrapped in a shroud. Down the road, Cassie Barrett, director of operations and marketing at the cemetery, placed the body in an open woven carrier, covered with an array of flowers. Then she drove a golf cart and trailer with the basket to the parking lot.
Like an exquisite sunset or a horrific natural disaster, the shrouded body was a magnet: I couldn’t look away, even though I was supposed to keep my eyes on the road. The service was scheduled to start at 2 p.m., and Barrett gathered the 50 people, from toddlers to seniors, in the searing sun. An elderly woman asked me in a whisper: “Now are y’all going to be at the gravesite? Is the hole dug?”
“We’ll be with you the entire time,” I said. “The hole is dug, and everyone will have a chance to close the grave together.”
Dressed in a loose white tunic, Barrett directed us to walk behind the golf cart along a gravel path in the woods. It felt completely different from visiting a landscaped cemetery — the graves blended into the woodlands, with trees such as tulip poplars and white pines. A man with a cane asked me to point out burial sites to him, which I did by noting the raised earth, often obscured by grass and trees, each site marked by only GPS rather than a stone monument.
A 10-acre conventional cemetery can contain 20,000 tons of concrete from vaults and enough embalming fluid to fill a swimming pool, turning the land into a landfill underground. In comparison, a 2018 study in the journal Urban Forestry and Urban Greening found that natural burial sites can help ease a range of ecosystem issues such as flooding, loss of biodiversity and poor air quality.
After a 10-minute walk, Paula’s friends and family members arrived at the gravesite, where a hole had been dug three feet deep, which is best for decomposition, rather than six feet. I could see three piles of dirt on top of tarps, a system to ensure the soil returned to its original level in the grave, with the topsoil placed on top.
Barrett picked up a shovel and described the Jewish tradition of closing the grave by turning the shovel face down for the first scoop of dirt, to signify a reluctance to let the person go. For the second and third scoops, the shovel faces up, which shows a willingness to let go. Within 15 minutes, the grave — which had been dug earlier — was sealed with soil and covered with flowers and pine straw. The final touch was to encircle the grave with rocks dug from the earth. Throughout the two hours, people cried, laughed, sang and hugged.
My experiences had immersed me in matters of life, death and earth: Shoveling dirt on my father’s casket, watching family members lift the shrouded body of their mother into the grave, and listening to my students describe death as healing for ourselves and the land on a later tour of the cemetery. I saw that green burial isn’t only about protecting places, it’s also about connecting people to the mystery of death in a grounded way. This volunteer stint felt like a dress rehearsal for the end to me, in much the same way that holding a friend’s newborn was practice for having my own. The most intimate decision we make for the end of our lives connects to everything we want to protect — for now and ever more.