R.C. Hooker's letter arrived at the Independent among the usual stack of press releases, letters to the editor and junk mail. In it, the Somers resident suggested a story idea that he thought might interest readers: a look at the current eco-trend toward green burials. In other words, burials that avoid the traditional metal casket, tombstone, vault and chemical-laden embalming process, and instead allow people to transition naturally back to the earth.
"Nearly everyone has a set of principles by which they live, but how many would be willing to die with them?" his letter started. "Natural interment, it would appear, represents the epitome of personal conviction: You live green; you die green. But is such an alternative possible in Montana?"
Hooker's letter went on to answer its own question. In June, a family living in the Swan Valley had opened the state's first all-natural cemetery. The bucolic "corpse garden" encompasses 120 acres of prime wildlife habitat just west of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land. After researching the various legal ramifications, the family decided the best way to preserve its land for future generations was to create a natural cemetery.
Hooker thought people should know about it. He thought the Independent was the best outlet to tell them. Then he offered a slight twist.
"Three weeks ago I discovered that I have pancreatic cancer and have less than six months to live. In fact, I recently visited the land to pick out my own personal site. I will be the cemetery's first customer," he wrote. "My biodegradable pine box is already on order."
About 90 minutes north of Missoula, just past Lion Creek Road on Route 83, there's a turnoff for Natural Cemeteries. A long dirt road travels east into the woods, crosses a small wooden bridge and ends at the log home belonging to Henry and Joan Meyer.
In 1951, the Meyers decided to leave their native New Jersey, elope, and seek out "the wildest and woolliest place there was." Their first inclination was to head to Alaska, but the Korean War was in full swing and the draft board nixed the idea; Alaska wasn't yet a state. The young couple chose the Swan Valley instead, and purchased 200 acres from the local sawmill owner for $25 an acre.
"When we first bought it, the guys at the sawmill all told us we was robbed," says Henry, now 79. "Can you believe that? I didn't know. I thought they might be right."
Henry recalls the family history with verve, as if he's told these stories before and never gets tired of hitting the inflections—"we was robbed"—just right. His short gray hair and beard belie his infectious enthusiasm and smile. He's clearly proud to talk about his life and how he and Joan literally built it off the land.
"When I first came here, I couldn't tell one tree from another," he says. "I didn't even know anything about building, and I had to build a house, you know. It was all timber and lodge pole, and I just selected the best trees I could. I drug 'em in with a block and tackle. I packed the sand and the gravel for the concrete piers out of the creek and mixed it in the washtub. Slowly but surely, we figured it out and built it up."
The Meyers' home hasn't changed much since the '50s. They added electricity when it reached the Swan, and indoor plumbing only after their four children moved out. They logged the land selectively, using real horsepower, and replanted the forest for sustainability. They continue to drink directly from Lion Creek, which runs past the back of the cabin, and they hunt in their own front yard. With the exception of a brief stint in the Army—Henry, sure enough, was drafted right after reaching Montana—and the couple's annual winter camping trips to an unnamed beach in Baja, they've lived off the property and learned to be good stewards of the land.
"We never got rich and we were never going to be rich," Henry says. "The land was our wealth."
In fact, land in the Swan Valley became incredibly valuable. Among the changes the Meyers have witnessed over the years, none compares to the region's sprawling development.
"It started when they put in the road," says Joan, also 79, referring to Route 83. "That changed everything, and in a good way. We like it. But it also opened up the area to more people."
"More recently, a whole heck of a lot of those people have been moving in from all over" adds Henry, "and I guess some of them have some money, so that makes a big difference."
The constant threat of more development in the Swan is part of the reason Henry and Joan, with the help of their son, Peter, decided to create Natural Cemeteries. The family explored conservation easements and other traditional avenues of preserving the land, but was skeptical of loopholes and wanted more personal control. By creating a nonprofit natural cemetery, they could make the property untouchable forever—and ensure that Henry and Joan were buried on the land in which they've lived for nearly 60 years.
"I belong here," says Henry. "I don't want to be buried in town. I want to be buried right here on my own land. I looked into that and found that most anybody can be buried on their own land without much restrictions, but there's no assurance that you'll stay there. There's no guarantee that someone won't come along and build a septic tank right there on top of you. They can dig you up at any time. I thought about that and, with all the development happening now, I thought, 'Gee, well that don't sound real good.'
"So I looked into it a little deeper," he continues, "and found that if you want to be protected, you have to establish your own official cemetery. We decided to give it a try."
Once R.C. Hooker received his terminal diagnosis, the self-described "consummate nihilist" started to research his own burial options. He didn't find many.
Since the late 19th century, most people have chosen to be buried in a traditional ceremony that requires many costly, resource-intensive components. Coffins are usually made of steel or exotic wood. Most cemeteries require coffins be placed in a concrete vault, which ensures that the carefully manicured grounds don't collapse. Elaborate headstones, statues and mausoleums help decorate those manicured grounds. And before a body even reaches the ground, embalming fluid, which is mostly carcinogenic formaldehyde, helps preserve the body.
The Green Burial Council, an independent nonprofit organization based in New Mexico, estimates traditional burials in the United States contribute to a staggering amount of waste. Specifically, 30 million board feet of casket wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete in burial vaults, more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid—or enough to fill an Olympic-sized pool—and 90,000 tons of steel from caskets end up in the ground every year.
The waste doesn't even begin to address the immense cost of burying it all. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average funeral runs $7,323. That price includes a basic service fee ($1,595), removal/transfer of the body ($233), embalming and other body preparations ($753), a viewing and ceremony ($869), use of a hearse ($251), a metal casket ($2,255) and a vault ($1,128), as well as other small charges. That cost, of course, can rise exponentially for more elegant accommodations like a hardwood coffin, especially if it's made of an exotic wood from a tropical location.
"Sorry, but hardwood or soft, exotic or common, it is an absolute travesty to see it all end up buried in the ground," says Hooker, 64. "It is a senseless waste."
Hooker then looked into cremation, but that popular alternative to traditional burial still creates a sizable carbon footprint. According to Slate.com, a typical incinerator requires about 2,000 cubic feet of natural gas and 4 kilowatt-hours electricity per body. That means the average cremation produces roughly 250 pounds of CO2 equivalent, or about as much as a typical American home generates in six days. Hooker wasn't sold and kept looking.