What’s on the Menu?

As we said in our last blog post, Causing a Stink, we recognize that there are a handful of questions that seem to come up regularly when we talk about natural burial. These questions can be a bit difficult to discuss, and hard for people to even bring up. To make it easier for everyone, we’ve been preparing a series of blogs to address these questions, in hopes that by openly addressing these concerns we can all eliminate some of our fears and anxieties surrounding death. So, as promised, we’re going to address concerns about animals disturbing remains at natural/green burial sites.

Through our research, there just isn’t any evidence that such a thing has occurred at any natural cemetery out there! In a recent poll of green cemeteries, 100% of respondents said that they had never experienced any animal disturbances, even in areas where there are large mammals like bears!

In fact, we were only able to find two verifiable examples of animals exhuming and ‘eating’ human remains in any cemetery of any sort anywhere in the world!  (A brief recounting of those two events follows, so if you’re at all squeamish please skip the paragraphs in italics.)

The first was back in 2010 in the arctic circle of Northern Russia. The local brown bears’ traditional food – berries, fungi and the occasional frog – had disappeared after a scorching summer and severe drought.  We found a number of sensational references in the world press to the event – “Hungry Russian Bears Feasting on Human Remains” etc. – but upon further research the evidence showed that it was only a single large, emaciated male bear seen digging up a grave.

The second instance was reported in 2016 from a neglected cemetery in Argentina. In this instance the above ground tombs were so poorly maintained that many had started to fall apart and local feral dogs were helping themselves to the exposed human remains.

Any desecration of a burial site is a terrible thing and can cause untold distress to the bereaved. While these two examples (neither of which is in the United States and neither of which has anything to do with natural burial grounds) are shocking and must have been traumatic for the families of the deceased, they do serve as salutary and humbling reminders of the fact that human beings are a part of nature, not separate from it.

It is also worth remembering that in some societies being eaten by wildlife is the goal. For instance, in so-called ‘sky burials’ bodies are left in sacred places to be picked clean by vultures, who, it is believed, transport the dead to Heaven. Most of us though are far more comfortable with the idea of the nutrients in our remains being more discretely recycled through burial in the earth.

Another point that has to be considered is that, with the number of vehicles traveling our extensive roadway system, scavengers in this part of the world have a tremendous buffet of roadkill options available to them – all available on a nice plate of asphalt! So, put bluntly, it’s just not worth the effort and energy for animals to dig up a gravesite to eat the remains. There are far easier pickings out there!

 

Causing a Stink

I’ve dealt with a lot of human remains in my career, but they have mostly been old… often very old, and largely skeletal. Studying anatomy with medical students along with old bones and mummies at University I have been exposed to some of the science of the recently deceased, but since I started working at Foxfield in August I’ve learned a lot more about the processes that occur after we depart this mortal coil.

Here at Foxfield an important priority is to make sure we can answer your questions using the most up-to-date research possible, as our science lead that’s part of my responsibility here, and one I take very seriously.

One of the questions we get asked – and one that many people struggle to find the words to ask – is ‘what about the smell’? So if you’ve ever wanted to know but didn’t want to ask here goes:

Decomposition is a complex process, exactly what happens and how fast is affected by a wide number of things, for instance heat, soil type and moisture can dramatically alter the rate of at which a buried body returns to the earth.

A huge range of volatile organic compounds (over 400), are produced during the process of decomposition. Organic compounds are chemicals are present in all living things. Those that can easily become vapors or gases are known as volatile compounds, and contain many different chemical elements including things like chlorine and sulfur.  Different combinations of these make up different smells and will react differently with their environment.

Since decay starts almost immediately after death the truth is that when we pass away we will all smell to some degree or other – even embalming or freezing only slows the process down.  But this very process is what gives the compounds locked up in our bodies back to the earth so that they can be used to support new life.

Many people worry that if they are buried without embalming, perhaps with a shroud rather than a casket or without a giant concrete grave liner then their burial site will smell. However, research undertaken to aid in forensic investigations and by environmental scientists working to ensure clean air and water have shown that soil – that often disregarded and literally trodden underfoot substance – is an excellent filter.

In fact, a smell ‘barrier’ of 18 inches of soil is more than enough to stop any nasty scents from escaping while you make your deposit into the earth bank. Humans have a notoriously poor sense of smell in comparison with other mammals. For instance, that humble companion dog that many share their lives with have a sense of smell that is about 40 times greater than ours – we have just six million odor receptors in our noses while they have a highly impressive 300 million.

That brings us to another question I’ll be blogging about another time … won’t animals dig me up?

The Beauty of a Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail resting on Joe Pye Weed

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail resting on Joe Pye Weed

Last week I had a very nice stroll through the Preserve with two friends who were both interested in learning a little more about green burial. I enjoyed chatting with them and answering their questions about natural burial and Foxfield. It was a lovely day (although HOT!).

Following the meeting I received an email from one of the women, Mary Benton, thanking me for my time. Attached was a beautiful photo of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail resting on Joe Pye Weed. She said “I’m sure you’ve seen the beauty (of the Preserve) many times over – but we can never see too much of it, can we?”

It was the perfect message – a reminder to soak in and savor the beauty around me each day. The reality is that it would be so easy to become so engrossed in daily activities that I miss the small moments around me. Even though I’m constantly surrounded by the reality of how precious each moment can be, I still need reminders like this to pull back from mundane concerns and soak in these oh-so-fleeting glimpses of breathtaking beauty.

Let this also be your reminder – we are surrounded by magnificence each and everyday. Revel in it. Feel your part and place in it, with a grateful and humble heart.

Thank you, Mary, for the beautiful photo. I agree, I will never be able to see too much.

 

Welcome Rhiannon

Awareness of the natural burial alternative continues to increase in our community, as has interest in the Foxfield Preserve. To meet growing demands for our services and continue our efforts as a leader in the green burial movement, we are happy to announce an addition to our staff!
Rhiannon-Harte_0001
Rhiannon Harte-Chance will be assisting family members in purchasing plots, offering public presentations to community groups and providing ecological research moving forward. Her first duty with us, however, was to introduce herself to our community here.


I was born to a military family in the U.K. and grew up in what was the era of ‘flower power’.  My Dad was a keen amateur entomologist and had a huge reference collection from British India where he spent his childhood. My maternal Grandfather on the other hand was a keen historian and took me on walks around the many pre-historic sites to be found near his home.  So I suppose you might say that my fate was inevitable!

I certainly enjoyed playing in the mud and collecting bugs and fossils when I was a little girl, and was once caught gleefully collecting dirty rocks and owl droppings in a tuck in my dress, telling a startled neighbor ‘it’s alright, Mummy can wash it’!

At school I volunteered on my first proper archaeological ‘dig’ and learned that it’s definitely not a career for those looking for the high-life!  After college I followed a family tradition and went into a career in the military, but continued my interest in the natural world and archaeology through clubs and volunteer groups.

While serving with NATO in Germany I was involved in the excavation of a mass-burial that was discovered in the woods not far from the site of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; a salutary experience but one I feel privileged to have been involved with.

After returning to university to study for a post-graduate qualification and then a PhD I worked for a variety of different organizations undertaking research or managing multi-disciplinary projects. I was happiest when working at the interface between my two loves and studying the effects of humans on past environments; and soon started to extend my interest through volunteering with organizations like Earthwatch and collaborating with colleagues in UNESCO.

I’m really excited to be able to extend that passion into the present through my work at Foxfield Preserve, where I hope my expertise and experiences can be used to help people maximize their return to the natural cycle, joining all of those past generations.


 

Please join us in extending a warm welcome to Rhiannon as she becomes a part of the Foxfield Preserve family.

Shelves for life

As you may or may not know, here at Foxfield Preserve we only allow the use of biodegradable burial containers. These can be woven sea grass or bamboo caskets, cardboard caskets, fabric burial shrouds, or plain wooden caskets.

The families that we work with are often seeking out an alternative that is simpler and more appropriate for how they’ve lived, with more opportunities for family involvement and personalization. I am often asked by the families that we serve if they might be able to build a casket themselves. The answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

To me, the bittersweet thought of building your own casket, or the casket of someone you love is a fairly romantic notion. It seems a real act of love and care. Then each sanding stroke would seem a caress, and each nail hammered in would be filled with meaning.

So when someone sent me a link to the description of these Shelves for Life created by designer William Warren, I was thrilled! This takes that beautiful notion of building your own casket one step further. Create a bookshelf that you will use everyday, which can then be transitioned to become your casket.shelvesforlife_WilliamWarren

I just love the idea of making my casket a useful piece of furniture. A piece of furniture that I would use and look at everyday. Bookshelves that would be full of the mementos of my life – favorite novels, family photos, heirloom china, special keepsakes. A piece of furniture that could hold my past and my future. It would be such a powerful reminder to embrace every beautiful fleeting moment. What do you think?

 

 

Inspiring “My Wish”

Today I received an email from a woman who had recently visited the Foxfield Preserve. She had been considering green burial for several years, and had finally come to visit the location to determine if this option suited her. Following her visit, she felt inspired to write down her reflections on her decision:

My Wish

Lay me under
The forest floor
Let lost leaves cover me
And chipmunks be my guardians
Let summer trees whisper lullabies
And wild violets be my memorial
In this place
Let me rest
Let the rain percolate
And release my flesh
To return to that which nourished my soul
Allow me to repay
All that was taken
Do not encumber me with chemicals, concrete, or coffin
Let my organic self restore
And my spiritual self rejoice
For Nature
Inspired me
To reside in its Glory
My wish

Barbara L. Acker
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us, Barbara! We are so very pleased to know that we have inspired such lovely thoughts, and we endeavor to fulfill your wish.

A Simple Thank You

I recently presided over my 50th burial since I joined the Foxfield Preserve. That wouldn’t seem like much to someone who runs a conventional cemetery – they could probably see that many services in a couple of months. But since our cemetery is so new, the majority of our sales are to people who are making their arrangements in advance.

Short_openHonestly, I prefer it this way. I have worked here for 4 years and have only just completed my 50th burial. Because of this I have clear memories of moments from every single one of those services. I am still able to remember the stories that people share with me as they make their arrangements – they paint me pictures of those they’ve lost. Because of this I can look through the prairie grasses and know that she was an avid gardener and chose that spot so she could be near the prairie cone flowers, or that the couple buried beneath that tree split the sandstone stoop of the farmhouse they lived in to make their stone markers.

It is hard to describe what it means to me to be able to carry these small details with me as I walk among the prairie grasses. How deeply it touches me to remember the heart-breaking, uplifting, funny and melancholy moments that I have been permitted to stand witness to at those 50 burials.

Without fail, at each of those Short_closedservices,someone has approached to thank me. And in spite  of standing quietly by for 50 burials, I have not been able to find a response that seems to communicate how that makes me feel. It humbles me. I wish I could clearly state how honored I am to serve them. I don’t know how to put my gratitude into words – for their gesture in giving the body of this person they loved back to the earth, and giving generously back to the community at the same time. Gratitude for sharing their beautiful, intimate moment of farewell with me; poignant lessons and reminders that I hope to carry with me through my life. Each of these moments, these 50 simple thank yous, overflow my heart. All I can give in response is my own simple, heartfelt thanks.

Scattered water

One of our recent burials at the Foxfield Preserve took place on a particularly lovely day – an especially spring-like mid-February day with a bright blue sky and balmy temperatures. As I prepared the site in the early morning hours I was treated to an eastern bluebird singing and enjoyed the flash of a mockingbird flitting along the edge of the wood.

Standing on the hillside looking out over the Sugarcreek valley as the stark stalks of last year’s prairie grasses waved gently in the breeze, the family gathered to say their goodbyes. With such a beautiful setting for a farewell, the passage they read seemed particularly apropos:


Life-and-Death

Water isn’t created by being ladled into a bucket.
Simply put, the water of the whole Universe
has been ladled into a bucket.

The water does not disappear
because it has been scattered over the ground.

It is only that the water of the whole Universe
has been emptied into the whole Universe.

Life is not born because a person is born.
The life of the whole Universe has been ladled
into the concrete being called “I.”

Life does not disappear because a person dies.
Simply, the life of the whole Universe has been poured
out of this concrete “I” back into the Universe


– Kosho Uchiyama, 1912 – 1998

 

With such a lovely message, so meaningful in regards to their choice of a natural burial, this service left me filled with warmth.

Stillness of a Snowy Wood

Whenever we have a burial at Foxfield Preserve, we line the bottom of the grave with pine boughs. It creates a beautiful, soft place to lay your loved one to rest.

This means that each time I am preparing for a service, I head out for a walk along our trails to cut pine boughs. These solitary walks tend to be full of reflection for me. Inevitably, my thoughts linger with the families that I am assisting with arrangements. My mind wanders through the stories and memories they’ve shared with me of the loved one they’ve lost.

My mind was full of such bittersweet thoughts as I walked to the stand of pines this week. The blanket of snow underfoot created a soft muffled sensation within the wood, and a gentle crunch with each step. There was an incredible peace and calm that fell, with very few noises of birdsong or rustling. As I rounded the corner to my favorite location to cut boughs, I came upon two young deer. They seemed surprised by my appearance, but not terribly concerned. One stood a few feet away and held my gaze for a few seconds before turning and leaping off.

Walking deeper into the forest, ruminating on the task at hand and soaking in the peaceful stillness surrounding me, I thought of a quote by John Burroughs:

burroughs

The Giving Tree

About two months ago I received a package in the mail from a family with which I had recently worked. I had helped this couple to make arrangements to inter the ashes of their son at the foot of a young oak tree on the Preserve. Though he had passed a few years before, the depth of their grief for their child (grown or not, he was still their child) was still heavy within their hearts.

In their message, they shared that their son had “loved to climb trees and would be happy that he now lies under a beautiful oak tree.” Along with this message they also enclosed a gift – “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, which was a favorite among their family.

The_Giving_TreeI read this story many times as a child. As a little girl, it always made me a tad uncomfortable. I never liked the progression of the little boy taking so much from the tree – perhaps feeling guilty for my own selfish, childish demands. Maybe this was why my mother would occasionally insist that this story make its way into the bedtime rotation…?

The little boy and the tree have made an appearance a few times as I am now reading to my own son. When I became a parent, the story took on a whole new flavor. My focus shifted to the tree, who gave without regard for herself. The love of the tree was so like the love of a parent; giving with no expectations. But the tree gives so much that by the end she is left a lonely stump.

Morethanherself As the book has sat upon my shelf for a few weeks, though, I have begun to consider the story differently. As many have before me, I see an environmental message underlying the story. It seems to me now that we all are the little boy, and the tree is all of Nature. We come into the world like the boy, full of carefree innocence as we climb and explore our world. As we age we become caught up with the demands of our lives, viewing nature as a commodity and often disconnecting ourselves from it. When we reach the end of our lives we will all return to Nature – to the earth – to rest.

Obviously everyone’s interpretation of any work of art will be different and personal. In the wake of my time spent with this family, this environmental interpretation feels like an appropriate and important reminder. A reminder to live my life mindfully, not taking too much from the tree. A reminder to cling to that young boy within me, swinging in the branches of the tree with a heart full of love and joy. A reminder to ensure that, when I reach the end of my life, I can return and rejoin her in peace.

I can only hope that those I leave behind will be able to carry with them the image of me swinging among her branches.

givingtree_lg