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Natural burial advocates seeking sustainable cemeteries

You know that part of the funeral service where the minister says “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”?

Cynthia Beal thinks you should take that literally.

“We’re really just dirt,” Beal said.

All of us, she argues, are composed of elements derived from the soil, nurtured by plants grown in the soil and animals that feed on those plants. When we shuffle off this mortal coil, we’ll be buried in the ground, where eventually our constituent parts will break down and return to the earth from which we came.

“I call it the animated soil cycle,” she added. “We’re just the dirt when it’s walking around.”

What Beal wants to do is speed up the recycling process.

Toward that end, she runs a business called the Natural Burial Co. Operating out of a storefront at 1136 Main St. in Philomath, the business offers an extensive array of biodegradable coffins, caskets, shrouds and urns designed to give your final remains a dignified burial, followed by a rapid transition to worm food.

Available interment options include a $99 cardboard box, a do-it-yourself plywood Caskit, a hand-sewn organic cotton shroud with recycled pine shrouding board, a variety of wicker caskets woven from willow, seagrass or bamboo, and the Ecopod, handmade in the United Kingdom from recycled newspaper.

(Beal’s personal Ecopod, which she has customized herself, is on display in her storefront window. “It’s really pretty profound,” she said, “to make your own coffin.”)

For cremated remains, Natural Burial stocks a selection of urns made from clay, paper, cork — even rock salt. The business also sells organic cotton bags to hold the cremains of customers who have a favorite container all picked out.

“A lot of people already have their own baskets,” Beal said. “I’m more interested in getting people to use something that’s biodegradable and can go into the ground rather than just selling them something.”

Beal launched her business in Eugene 10 years ago after having a revelation about what she calls the unsustainable nature of conventional burial practices in this country, where the deceased are typically laid to rest in caskets made of hardwood or metal and many cemeteries require a concrete vault or grave liner. Not only does it take a very long time for the body to decompose and return to the soil, but the real estate it occupies may be tied up indefinitely.

“We’re not going to be doing that in 50 years — the resources are too precious,” she said.

Depending on coffin type and soil conditions, Beal estimates, a person interred in a woven wicker coffin can be fully decomposed in 10 to 15 years. The notion of natural burial and grave reuse is already catching on in Europe, and now Beal is trying to spread the gospel in the United States in several ways.

For one, she contracts as a consultant to conventional cemeteries that want to transition to natural burial.

Two years ago, she started teaching an online course called Introduction to Sustainable Cemetery Management through Oregon State University’s Crop and Soil Science Department — as far as she knows, it’s the first course of its kind in the world.

Last year she helped launch OSU’s Sustainable Cemetery Studies Lab, which aims to establish best practices for the emerging natural burial industry based on rigorous scientific testing and research.

And now she’s going into the cemetery business for herself. In May Beal closed on two Lane County cemeteries — Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Junction City and Oak Hill Cemetery in Eugene — that she plans to convert to natural burial sites.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no laws against natural burial in this country, Beal said, and surveys show an increasing number of Americans are coming around to the idea.

“This isn’t a Birkenstock thing,” she said. “I’m just a business person that wants to see environmentally sound practices go mainstream.”


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