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.
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.
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.
“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?