How the Natural Burial Company is putting old ideas about death to rest

Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling individuals tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

Cynthia and some of the wicker coffins and acorn-shaped urns which break down easily in the soil.

Cynthia with a selection of her company’s biodegradable woven coffins and urns.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

Two weeks after she registered the Natural Burial Company name, Cynthia Beal was diagnosed with cancer. Worried that she might be her first and last customer, Cynthia walked in the footsteps of future clients by writing out her wishes to be laid to rest under a cherry tree in a biodegradable coffin.

She never made it to the cherry tree, but she did take another journey.

Through the process of planning for her own death, Cynthia says she reached a deeper understanding of how being in the business of natural burials could help customers and families like hers through the somewhat misunderstood process of being buried in this way.

“I realized my friends and family knew what I’d meant about natural burial, but no one—not they or the professionals—really knew exactly what to do,” she says.

Founded in 2004, the Natural Burial Company sells biodegradable and eco-friendly coffins, caskets, and ash burial urns. Constructed mostly from wicker, wood, and recycled newspaper, the coffins are designed to break down quickly in the earth, returning the elements of the body back into the surrounding soil system and the plants and trees that rise above.

These coffins, woven from seagrass and sugar cane, break down easily in the soil.

Seagrass and cane coffins.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

As she slowly worked to build her business, Cynthia was challenged by the public’s general lack of knowledge about end-of-life options and rights, as well as by dominant end-of-life industry monopolies on distribution.

Many existing cemeteries and funeral homes didn’t know how to offer natural services like a vault-free burial with biodegradable coffins. They didn’t believe there was any demand for this, either.

Working as a natural and organic grocer for 14 years, Cynthia knew this wasn’t the case. She planned to use the same strategies employed by the organic food movement to promote natural end-of-life products and services.

“Because of my natural products experience, I knew customers would want to have this kind of option. But I could also tell that the cemetery was the main bottleneck to going forward—sort of like when we needed more organic food choices but didn’t have the farmers to grow them yet.”

Giving new life to old cemeteries

Supplying natural coffins was relatively easy, but providing natural graves for her customers was a lot more complicated.

The newly emerging natural burial movement needed more information about sustainable burial practices to get cemeteries on board for this kind of management practice. Cynthia partnered with the soil sciences department at Oregon State University to build the curriculum for a first-of-its kind online course focused on sustainable cemetery management.

By teaching current and future cemetery business operators as well as policy makers, she hopes to change the dominant narrative of cemeteries today.

Trees mark the graves of the dead at a natural burial site the UK. (Photo credit Cynthia Beal)

Lush, young trees mark graves at a natural burial site the UK. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Beal)

“Without knowledge, we can’t make wise group decisions. Without research, we won’t ever know the potential for cemetery pollution, or be able to compare the post-burial costs of buried materials, or transition them to sustainability.”

And what would a sustainable cemetery look like exactly?

“Not all of us value highly manicured lawns and sterile, wildlife-free ‘zones of vegetation,’ and we don’t have to do cemeteries that way, either,” she says.

So, more like a park with flowering trees and bushes instead of a golf course.

“Cemeteries are the places we go to honor the lives of others we care for, to remember the people who helped build our communities. Cemeteries shouldn’t be just uninteresting parking lots for the dead that get abandoned to the taxpayer someday.”

On death and dying

Ultimately, Cynthia hopes to change the way we think about the bodies of our dead.

“I think one of the main challenges for us is that we don’t really see death in our daily lives the way our grandparents once did. And because we don’t encounter it, we don’t talk about it,” she says.

Changing our somewhat squeamish attitudes about death and dying is also an important step to building safer and more sustainable burial practices.

“When we realize that we’re walking around in bodies that were soil before they turned into us—and that we’re just borrowing the elements while we’re alive, and that we should return them in good condition when we’re done with them—we’ll have come a long way toward understanding the real cycle of life.”

Would you consider a natural burial? Why or why not?

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Comments (14)

  1. woullard lett writes:
    December 3, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Yes. I would consider a natural burial. I have already expressed my wishes to be buried unembalmed in a wooden box. This effort is the first attempt to commercialize the old ways of burial. How you feel about it is connected to how you feel about religion and spirituality. I won’t be in the box or in the ash pot. The dearth of “natural” burial options had me leaning towards cremation as another ‘natural’ alternative to embalming and encasement.

  2. Jennifer writes:
    December 3, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Really happy to have learned about this option. My family and I have spoken quite a bit about burial wishes during the past few months and it’s wonderful to know this is an option. I knew nothing about it! Thanks for enlightening me.

  3. Nancy writes:
    December 3, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story and your business so others might know of their options. I am a member of the National Home Funeral Alliance: supporting families and communities in caring for their own at death through education and advocacy –
    We have the legal right to care for our own dead. Not many people know this. Until the 19th century, funerals were almost exclusively a family and community affair. Natural burial, green cemeteries and home funerals a reviving a family tradition.

  4. Cynthia Beal writes:
    December 3, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Nancy, thanks so much for posting the Home Funeral Alliance link. The work you folks are doing is fantastic. Please don’t forget to check out the Natural End Map – – for a list of service providers that pledge to offer basic natural options. Home funeral guides are also listed. My company sponsors it so that people can learn where to go. BTW – I’ve met a number of funeral directors who are willing to help people do home funeral services, and many home funeral guides are beginning to work with this new generation of funeral directors. Things are changing rapidly!

  5. Cynthia Beal writes:
    December 3, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Jennifer, there’s a free natural funeral planner you can download at Print one out and take it to the familyholiday dinner this year and ask people what THEY want; I guarantee you’ll start some conversation!

  6. Cynthia Beal writes:
    December 3, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Woullard, I’m not sure I can agree with you when you say that “this effort is the first attempt to commercialize the old ways of burial.” I’ve been learning what I know from the folks in the UK, and this is definitely not a ‘first effort’ — we’ve been burying naturally, as a species, in the ground, for thousands and thousands of years.

    What I like best about the UK is that almost 10% of their coffins are made of woven wicker, much of it willow (whether they’re cremated or buried) and a lot of the willow is grown in the UK and the coffins are woven right there by tradespeople, too. This is much more sustainable than a machine-made solid-wood (or worse, a chemical-laden plywood) casket; willow biodegrades really rapidly, it can be harvested annually for 50 years, it bioremediates the soil, and it makes great habitat. All in all, a very good crop to cultivate, especially for use in cemeteries.

    Also, we’re not “attempting to commercialize” – we’re engaging in providing necessary goods and services that respond to peoples’ last wishes and that are currently going unfulfilled. There is no “attempt”. It’s happening. It’s good commerce, between willing parties. There’s nothing hypey or coercive about it. And I happen to think it’s really, really cool.

  7. dvd writes:
    December 4, 2013 at 12:19 am

    Although the concept sounds good, this is probably against the law in many states. There are Board of Health issues that must be taken into consideration — burying someone with a disease (even unknowingly) could cause a chain reaction of events that could effect whole communities (even chemicals broadcasted on the surface of the soil eventually can make its way to the drinking water).

  8. Ken West writes:
    December 4, 2013 at 6:35 am

    Yes, my natural burial grave is ready & waiting. It also intrudes into my recent natural burial novel called ‘R.I.P. Off! or The British Way of Death’. As somebody said of me, ‘he puts his body where his mouth is!’

  9. David writes:
    December 4, 2013 at 10:41 am

    As a minister that has done many funerals I can say that many cemeteries require a vault to avoid subsidence of the soil over time. Of course, this is for cosmetic reasons in maintaining the cemetery. Burials on private property are regulated by laws.

    I have also noticed a trend in funeral services at houses of worship. More and more are memorial services after a cremation done by the faith community and/or family without further services of a funeral director.

    I welcome more “green” options and the move to more family directed services.

  10. Cynthia Beal writes:
    December 4, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Hi David,
    Thanks for thinking about this. I appreciate the sentiment of your comment, however I have to say that there’s no science to support your concerns with respect to natural burial. In fact, Australian Boyd Dent’s seminal hydrogeological research on the impact of cemeteries found that 1) they’re a lot like landfills and 2) natural burials are more likely safer – and maybe much safer – than conventional interments. However, the science just hasn’t been done.

    But think about it — a modern American burial has a body, a casket of plastic, metals, wood adhesives and finishes, and often even medical waste; all of it is in a set of containers that may be under seasonal water tables or subject to flooding.

    These bodies are NOT decomposing – i.e., soil microbes are NOT deconstructing the body’s tissues and turning it to organic matter in the soil, destroying any pathogens in the process. Instead, most of these bodies are either putrefying or in some stage of arrested decomposition. The impact of that situation has not been explored in the US yet.

    Yes, you’re right – it IS illegal to pollute public water ways and groundwaters; whether or not it’s happening when cemeteries are badly located needs to be measured first, and there is no law requiring that be done. Even in States where attention is being paid to that (as in Michigan) the rules only apply to new cemeteries; existing ones are grandfathered in, and if they’re over a sole-source aquifer or under seasonal water tables the problem has yet to measured or addressed.

    I’m pretty aware of the laws regarding all of this and haven’t run across ANY that address either conventional or natural burials with respect to the pollution you mention. Please do post links here if you know of something I’m overlooking! Thanks again for your thoughts.

  11. Cynthia Beal writes:
    December 4, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Oops — I meant “DVD” for the above! David, I wanted to thank YOU for observation that the vault is used for cosmetic reasons. Yes, most cemeteries require them — but I’ve also found that lots of cemeteries eventually admit that 1) they have vault free burials already on their property and 2) if you really want a natural burial there they’ll waive the vault requirement, especially if you pay a little bit extra to take care of the subsidence over the following couple of years.

  12. Ken West writes:
    December 5, 2013 at 5:32 am

    Dvd, there were huge numbers of black death and cholera deaths in the UK over centuries, many placed in pits, but no disease arose. We live far more densely in the UK than in the US and experience proved that only excessive burial in city churchyards created a health threat. This was because the free movement of rainwater carried decomposing human tissue into nearby wells. It is a fact that burial under neat mown lawns allows rainwater to reach the body too quickly, which allows it to transport tissue. Natural burial, because it allows for more surface vegetation, which holds rainwater, ensures that this does not happen. Incidentally, the health threat from cremation is proven, with mercury from dental amalgum found in North Sea fish stocks. In the UK a high percentage of cremations are now abated and the residue is hazardous waste and cannot be recycled. David, British cemeteries never use vaults and topping up graves six or seven times in the first twelve months is normal routine. It has its advantages as in the past, we mounded newly refilled graves to allow for sinkage. These mounds, being drier, became a des res for ants. The voles then moved into them and our cemeteries were full of owls. Tidiness is an anathema to nature.

  13. Cynthia Beal writes:
    December 5, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Ken, thanks so much for these comments. I loved your book, R.I.P. Off, btw – it’s great. I think it may be one of the best ways to learn about natural burial – please feel free to put a link to it here so that people can buy it if they want. (And for you other comment readers, Ken West is known as the founder of natural burial in the UK, and I consider him my leading mentor.)

  14. Ken West writes:
    December 6, 2013 at 4:10 am

    Cynthia, thanks for your comments on R.I.P. Off! It’s an irreverent and challenging read about people and their funerals, with no respect for corporate funeral directing. Spiritually, it puts our body back to trees and nature. See it at:

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