The Rebirth of Death: Natural Burial (and Build Your Own Coffin Plans)

01 November 2011: In honor of Dia de los Muertos, I offer this post, one of my favorites, from the archives (originally posted 27 July 2010).

Hello, dear readers.  Natural burial is a subject that has been on my mind for years, and I have been pondering how best to introduce the theme on The Tangled Nest, so I was thrilled to meet “death midwife” Nora Cedarwind Young at a recent speaking engagement, and even more thrilled when she agreed to write this guest post.  There’s something for everyone here:  personal philosophy, care for the earth, and even a DIY coffin plan.  I hope you’ll share this post with your friends and dear ones as a way of inviting discussion on this essential theme–finding our way gracefully through the turning of life.  Here’s Nora…

Greetings friends! Recently I had the pleasure to meet Lyanda when she was the keynote speaker for People’s Memorial Association. I have been a fan of hers, so imagine how deeply touched  I was she asked me to be a guest author for The Tangled Nest!  I am Nora Cedarwind Young ~ Death Midwife, Green Burial Educator, Hospice Chaplain and Ceremonialist. I live and work on the Olympic Peninsula, teach nationwide and assist families remotely; but I am especially devoted to the area in which I live, Western Washington. I create and facilitate ceremonies for all of life’s passages, from birth through the grave; however, my heart truly lies in end-of-life work. My belief system, deeply grounded in the seasons and cycles of nature, has taught me that death is as certain and sacred as birth. I envision individuals and families fearlessly facing death, feeling free to extend this “time out of time” with a loved one, and knowing who to call for support. I believe in educating families that at-home-after-death-care is their legal right, and I help empower individuals and families to make educated choices around their final act–especially how small choices can create amazing change when it comes to greening our final act in this world. My dictum is “proudly reclaiming family directed choice at end-of-life.”

Procession to burial at White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Goldendale, WA

Today, the United Kingdom and Australia together host over 200 natural burial locations; in the US we have sadly, only twenty. Even more shocking is the reality that every year in the United States 22,500 cemeteries bury:

  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (including formaldehyde)
  • 104,272 tons of steel for caskets & vaults (enough to build another Golden Gate Bridge!)
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze for more caskets
  • 30 plus million board feet of hardwoods
  • 1,636,000 tons of concrete

(Statistics compiled by Mary Woodsen, VP Pre-Posthumous Society of Ithaca, New York, and a science writer at Cornell University).

Natural grave at White Eagle Preserve

More than ever it is time for each of us on the planet to awaken our mortality and our deepest nature. We can live with heightened awareness of how we affect others and the interconnectedness of all. As we embrace the idea that we are the stewards of this beautiful earth, we welcome “womb to womb” awareness.   May we have the wisdom to return from the toxic environment

Burial with shroud at White Eagle

of institutions, consumerism and sterile buildings to the safety and sacred space of home.

Until the modern era, our formaldehyde-free bodies were laid in the ground, serving as nutrition to the earth. Embalming is often unnecessary and not required in any state under most circumstances. Metal or hardwood caskets and steel reinforced concrete grave liners are options people can choose to go without. Ask yourself; is it necessary to place your casket into a concrete and steel reinforced lined grave, simply for easy maintenance of the cemetery grounds?

We are learning it does not have to be all or nothing, simple changes will create great change. For a Natural Burial you can choose all or any part of the following:

  • A clean, unembalmed body
  • A biodegradable container such as a plain pine box or natural fiber shroud. You can go to my website and find directions of how to build your own wooden casket that serves as bookshelves until you are ready to repurpose it to be a casket!
  • A vault free grave

Some natural graveyard providers have restrictions such as no synthetic materials, jewelry or buttons. Some allow headstones; others reveal no trace that a burial site exists. Global positioning satellites can allow us to have marker free graves, while precisely locating and visiting our loved ones. Even if you are buried in a conventional cemetery and choose any part of natural burial, you lessen the ecological footprint for the planet.  You can:  avoid synthetic and non-natural materials in your container and clothing;  choose biodegradable or recycled materials, wicker, sea grass and woods like pine for caskets; choose non-virgin, organic materials and sustainable production, supporting local family business, handcrafting, and artisans; support burial goods with organic, fair trade, and eco-certifications; talk to your local cemetery provider–tell them you want Green and Natural Burial options.

In Washington State, we are fortunate to have two options for Green Burial. Other community resources are considering this change, so you need to let your local providers know you want Green Burial available in your community.  Moles Funeral Home in Ferndale has dedicated four acres for Natural Burial called The Meadow,  and White Eagle Preserve in Goldendale is a perfect model for Conservation Burial.

About Biodegradable Coffins

Biodegradable coffins, also known as green caskets, come in a multitude of styles and materials. They were designed to satisfy the growing number of individuals who prefer to have a “natural burial” instead of a traditional funeral. Cremation was long thought to be an eco-friendly option, but many people have been raising concerns about its excessive use of fossil fuels.

Biodegradable caskets can be made to bury someone in the ground or at sea. They will not harm the environment and budget-wise, they are a very cost-efficient burial option. These coffins do not use a vault — cement or otherwise — and everything, including the hardware and lining, is completely natural.

Biodegradable coffins can be made from:

  • Cardboard
  • Biodegradable plastic
  • Fair-trade-certified bamboo
  • Wood
  • Recycled paper
  • Formaldehyde-free plywood
  • Hand-woven willow or wicker

You can always consider building your own casket, or a plain pine box–have a look at these simple plans from Last Things.  You can even build a coffin that doubles as a bookshelf or an entertainment center until you are ready to repurpose it! My website has several resources and pictures for you to consider.

Simple pine casket, from Last Things

Thank you for taking into account some of the simple choices you can make that will add up to great change. When I imagine eight Olympic-sized swimming pools full of embalming fluid being buried every year in this nation it inspires me to be a change maker; I hope it will inspire you also! Join me in committing to change and to the stewardship of our planet. Join with me and choose to green your final act! All or some, the choice is yours!  Together, we are creating change we can live with! Blessed Be!

From Lyanda: Thank you, Nora, for your wise words! And thanks to the good folks at White Eagle Preserve for the beautiful photos.

For more information, and links to many many more resources, explore:

–Nora’s lovely Thresholds of Life website, and sign up for her Newsletter

–White Eagle Memorial Preserve website

People’s Memorial Association

–I also highly recommend the documentary, A Family Undertaking

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.
~ Walt Whitman, Song to Myself

"Last View," courtesy of White Eagle


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