Spring is the time to celebrate approaching intimacy, and what is more intimate than sharing a loved one’s passing? The first ‘green burial’ took place at the cemetery at Circle Sanctuary in Mount Horeb, WI. this past weekend. Selena Fox presided over the ceremony. Many Pagans claim to want a green burial, but what is it like? I talked with Robert Paxton, a Circle Sanctuary minister, who participated in funeral, as part of a community weekend at Circle Sanctuary.
Describe what the funeral experience was like?
It was very much different from any funeral I had attended. The person who had died was a long-term member of the Madison folk music and dancing scene. The funeral was a genuinely beautiful and touching event. Family and friends, about a dozen, helped with every element from carrying the casket to the gravesite. They sang song and read poetry. They spoke as they were individually moved to about the life of the person who had passed. Typically, the funeral director said, they would lower the casket into the grave, there would be just a few words and the family would step away and head down the hill. Community members were there to help fill in the grave. It didn’t go like that. We placed the casket in the grave, and the family looked over at the pile of dirt and the half-dozen shovels. They picked them up and got to work. The grave was nearly filled when they tired and the community members took over. They were very engaged in the whole process. Once the mound had risen, they took flowers from the earlier memorial service and placed them lovingly on the grave. One of the funeral party, in one of those ‘ah-ha’, deep truth moments, took a night crawler from one of the last shovelfuls of dirt. He laid it on top of the mound and said, “Here is the first one, get to work!” It was a very loving experience. It was done very clear-eyed, we are committing these remains back to the earth. We will honor her with this last loving and personal act. At the same time they were completely realistic and open about the nature of what had happened. It was the most truthful funeral I had ever experienced.
How long has Circle maintained their cemetery?
There has been a cemetery at Circle, since 1995, acting purely with burying cremains. Last year in the spring the Iowa County board approved it as permitted for full body green burials. This was after some years of work by Selena Fox and members of the Circle community. This past weekends burial was the first full body burial there.
What is a green burial?
A green burial is one that takes place with full bodies, not cremains. It does not have the conventional concrete vault that is used in most burials these days. It is done using a burial container such as a cardboard container, wicker basket, or shroud that can decompose. As the body decays, it can go directly back into the soil. It is done without any sort of embalming. There is no effort made to preserve the body.
Is green burial a legal term?
The state is agnostic on the regulation of burial, they leave that up to the counties in Wisconsin. Green burial is the phrase that was used before the board, and is the term they used to describe this type of burial. There are other cemeteries in Wisconsin that are hybrid cemeteries, they do conventional burials and then have a section where green burials are permitted. In general to be designated a cemetery, that is a county function. With a cemetery the main governmental controlling interest is that it be maintained in perpetuity, by a viable organization. Should they fail to maintain it, as which sometimes happens with church or other group sponsored cemeteries, it then becomes the responsibility of the county to then maintain it. It is their judgement as to whether it is appropriate for a cemetery to be approved, for any organization.
Were there any problems or issues in getting the cemetery approved for green burials?
There weren’t any major problems in attaining this permit for the circle cemetery. The groundwork had been laid for many years by Selena fox, and Circle’s attorney. When they approached the county board for the permit, they did that after several years of interfacing with local township and county government officials in many capacities. They had established Circle Sanctuary as a viable and long-term organization, and impressed that they had a compelling interest as a church, in having a cemetery on the premises, and to qualify for this type of burial. I’m not sure how, or if, a permit for a green burial would be considered, outside of a church or cemetery context.
How does one request internment at Circle Sanctuary?
The next of kin can request it, or the person can do that in advance directives, or in their will. Given the lead time involved in opening a grave, and contracting excavation, there is advance notice that is helpful. It is done through contacting the Circle office, or the funeral home in Mount Horeb, who we have worked with in this process. State law requires a three-foot excavation, however the funeral home requires a five foot depth to be below the frost line. Since we filled the grave by hand, this was of concern, given the volume of dirt. The concern is that below the frost line the remains cannot churn back up to the surface in freeze thaw cycles. There is a movement nationally to enable green burials, even a national association. It appears to be more advanced in Canada, but there are green burials taking place in states all over the country.
Thanks to Robert Paxton for the photos, and the family and friends of Nancy Yugo for allowing a glimpse into this intimate experience.