By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published June 1, 2017
“Death is going green. A growing number of families are considering other alternatives to traditional end of life rituals for simpler, more eco-friendly, and less expensive natural burials.”
Two years ago our second oldest son passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. He was at the peak of his adult life and career. Our son was like many younger adults who put off planning for potential adversities because they never think it will happen to them. He died without a will and left no instructions about his affairs or desires.
Although my wife and I had taken care of our wills, advanced directives and financial issues, we kept putting off the decision about where we wanted to be buried. Our son’s death triggered the need to accelerate our planning because we had to assume the responsibility for our son’s funeral and burial expenses due to his personal financial situation.
We managed to get through the funeral and legal issues but were very uncertain about where his ashes should be buried. We quickly learned that the funeral home and cemetery expenses can be rather shocking. We needed to find a cemetery that offered reasonably priced family plots to serve as the final resting place for our son, ourselves, our single daughter and two other special needs dependent sons.
When we started our search, I recalled a visit I made with my pastor to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers to learn more about a cemetery the monks had established on their property. They don’t call it a cemetery; rather, it is categorized as a dedicated “natural burial grounds.” We had never seen a natural cemetery before and did not know what to expect. We were in for quite a surprise.
Monastery offers natural burial grounds
The monastery grounds consist of over 2,200 acres with almost 1,000 of the acres under permanent protection with no planned development. Within these protected acres you will find, nestled amongst the pine forests, the rolling hills and streams, the Honey Creek Woodlands (HCW) natural burial grounds.
We learned that “natural” implies exactly what it is. The gravesites are randomly dispersed throughout the woodlands and meadows with no particular pattern. Each gravesite is marked by a simple, flat river stone carved with the deceased person’s name, birthdate and date of death. The burial grounds are intentionally left natural with no organized maintenance or enhancement to nature and are open to people of all faiths in keeping with the monastic tradition of welcoming all.
As my wife and I discussed burial alternatives for our son, I recalled my earlier experience with HCW so I thought we should visit there. I was curious about what my wife would think about this most unusual cemetery.
You can drive your car to the caretaker’s cottage off the highway but you have to walk or take a golf cart to the burial grounds, which are about a mile back into the beautiful, peaceful and serene natural wilderness. Once we were in the burial grounds, we followed the paths and observed the random placement of the gravesites. Our stroll through the woods was interrupted only as we stopped to read the grave markers and wonder about the person buried there.
A family tribute observed
We were fortunate to observe from a distance the burial ceremony of a grandfather. The body was in a plain pine coffin on which the children and grandchildren had written their goodbyes with a felt marker. Then the children lowered the casket into the ground and one by one the family members put a shovel of dirt into the grave. Then they scattered rose petals on top of the grave. It was a moving, intimate family tribute to the elder of the family unlike any burial we had ever witnessed.
Families of the deceased can place flowers and maintain the gravesite, but the concept is that nature prevails. There are now over 800 burials with room for many thousands more.
The natural beauty of the grounds was striking. We got a sense that this is the way that God had intended all of us to be buried: simple, plain and unassuming. Remember that once you are in the ground, you return to dust and it doesn’t matter how much money you may have spent on the funeral and all the nuances. You can’t take your caskets and headstones on your eternal journey.
My wife and I paused after our tour; she reached for my hand and exclaimed, “This is beautiful! This is where I want us to be!” I agreed.
However, I must point out that HCW is not for everyone. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, you might have a difficult time dealing with the sheer natural appearance of a “cemetery in the woods.”
We went back to the HCW office and made arrangements to purchase a family plot with the first space reserved for our son. The caretakers of the burial grounds, Joe Whittaker and Elaine Bishoff, are warm, caring and professional.
An emphasis on eco-friendly
The term “natural” conveys another important concept: namely, anything that is put in the ground at HCW must be degradable and natural. Therefore, no embalming or metal caskets or plastic. A deceased has the option of a body burial or burial of cremains in a plain wooden coffin or a simple cardboard box or wrapped only in a shroud. Some families make their coffins or containers.
The intent is to allow burial to be more eco-friendly and to provide an option to reduce the cost of a traditional funeral, which can be thousands of dollars. Funeral prices can vary considerably between funeral homes and cities, but a typical traditional funeral can include funeral director’s services and required paperwork, casket, embalming or cremation, use of funeral home for viewing, grave site, digging of grave, grave liner, headstone, stipends for church and musicians, obituaries in newspapers, flowers and reception after funeral. The national average cost of a funeral is $7,000 to $10,000.
The cost of the equivalent funeral at HCW is dramatically less. We buried our son for less than $2,500, which included cremation, all legal paperwork, grave site, wooden cremains box, grave marker, burial and church expense.
One of the big expense factors in planning your funeral is whether you want to have a body burial or cremation. Traditional body burials with full funeral home services are the most expensive. The trend is toward more cremations. According to the Cremation Society of America, 10 percent of all deaths were cremated in 1979. It is expected to rise to over 55 percent by 2025.
With a preference for body burial, the Catholic Church accepts cremation as an option, but forbids the scattering of ashes and the growing practice of keeping cremated remains at home. The important point is to make sure you don’t spend a lot of money on things that won’t really matter once you or your loved ones are in the ground.
If you want to consider a natural burial, be aware of certain criteria when choosing a funeral home. Ideally, you should contact HCW in advance because not all funeral homes are familiar with the requirements for a natural burial. Start your planning by visiting the HCW website. Then contact HCW to arrange a visit, presentation and tour. Go to http://honeycreekwoodlands.com or call 770-483-7535.
The ceremony for our son
The day we placed our son’s ashes in his grave at HCW was a very emotional experience. As we stared at the small wooden box with his cremains and the freshly dug hole, the cold, hard reality of our son’s death hit us powerfully. A parent is not supposed to bury a child. Our family and friends gathered around us as our pastor conducted a gravesite ceremony. It was a beautiful spring morning. There was a whisper of wind in the tall pines overhead. When our pastor gave the final blessing, the gentle murmur of wind increased and the pines swayed gently back and forth, a soft whistling sound was heard, and then the pines grew silent as a peaceful calm settled around us. We sensed very strongly the presence of God.
It was then that we knew that we had made the right decision to be buried at Honey Creek Woodlands.
I can’t guarantee that you will have a similar experience, but I can strongly suggest that you explore HCW on your own if you have not as yet decided where you want to be buried. And one additional benefit: the monks of the Monastery visit the burial grounds daily and pray for the repose of all the faithful departed.
If you haven’t decided on all of your life-ending issues, I urge you to consider Honey Creek Woodlands as a beautiful and natural burial alternative.
Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send Bill your thoughts on this and other topics, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.