Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Green burial

The word of the day is "green" and that extends to burial. Many companies cater to environmentally-friendly, green, or eco-burial. Organizations like the Green Burial Council, Natural End, and the Centre for Natural Burial have been formed to push the idea and put the public in touch with service providers. But natural burial is not a new trend. Green Funerals Vermont points out that until 150 years ago, almost all funerals were green. It was with the introduction of embalming, non-biodegradable caskets, and grave liners that burial became unnatural. And when that began to happen, there was soon a movement afoot to promote earth-to-burial by English artist and surgeon Sir Francis Seymour Hayden (1818-1910) and others, who decried the use of embalming chemicals and advocated the use of permeable caskets, like the Victorian wicker one pictured above.

Consider the logo of Green Burials (3rd image) and its message of recycling the remains into vegetation. Without it being trendy - or even intended - just such a thing happened to the body of English theologian Roger Williams (1603-1683). When he died, he was buried in the yard of his home in the town of Providence, Rhode Island, which he had founded. When a descendant decided to memorialize him 100 years later, Williams' grave was opened, but there wasn't much to exhume. The spot where his skull once rested had been penetrated by the root of an apple tree, which then entered the chest cavity, grew down the spine, forked at the legs, and turned up at the feet! Only a few bone fragments were left, so it is unclear if they had really found the remains of Williams, but the shape of the root at the head was said to resemble his profile, and the crook at the knee bore a strong resemblance. Scrapings from the grave were transferred to the base of a 14' statue erected in his honor, but the root (4th image) made its way to the John Brown House Museum. They call it "the tree that ate Roger Williams" and it remains above-ground.


  1. What do you suppose people were hoping for when they began to embalm bodies and encase them in metal/etc. Generally speaking, I can see no reason why one would want to be able to exhume the body. Enough centuries and probably the some of the more durable coffins would be degraded and certainly the body inside would be.

    Somebody once asked me what I thought of burial versus cremation. I said, "Rapid oxidation or slow oxidation, who cares".

    If anyone remembers me after I am dead, I hope it won't be by looking at my decayed remains!

  2. Brilliant. Many acres have been written about so-called natural burial in the last few years, but how typical of you to come up with something so wry and unique. Thank you!


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