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.
He wanted something that made sense and fit his lifestyle. Before moving west, Hooker worked as the editor of an outdoor magazine in Pennsylvania and often gave lectures about the importance of conservation. In Montana, he continued to write as a freelancer mostly about the outdoors and the environment. He figured there had to be a more natural burial option. Wasn't death, after all, a natural thing?
His search led to a lot of information on the history of burials. There was the introduction of the term "ritual burial," during the Upper Paleolithic times, when artifacts were first placed with the deceased for use in the afterlife. There was the Dark Age, when the ecclesiastical elite, motivated by fear of eternal damnation, wanted to plant themselves in a consecrated cemetery. Then there were those who wanted to separate themselves from the riffraff within those consecrated cemeteries, and built lavish vaults and sepulchers.
Other cultures followed different rituals. The Parsi, who live primarily in Mumbai, India, believed that the proper way to deal with the dead was to expose them on specially built towers called dokhmas, or "Towers of Silence." Vultures were then free to eat away. Interestingly, problems started when the vultures themselves began dying. Forensics showed the dead birds contained lethal levels of Diclofenac, an arthritis drug used by humans that remained in the system and caused kidney failure in the birds.
"What happened to the Parsi is happening to the modern cemetery of today," Hooker says, referring to the waste being buried and its impact on the environment.
Hooker eventually found Natural Cemeteries through "the green grapevine," an informal assembly of Montana friends whose part-time avocation is de-carbonizing the size of their footprint. The idea of naturally returning to the earth—no chemicals, no fancy casket, no excess waste—immediately appealed to him.
"The woods have always been my own personal salutarium, especially when I was young," he says. "I was happiest alone, too, because the woods represented not an escape from, but rather an escape to a better world."
Hooker's not alone in shunning a traditional burial. Funeral homes across the country are beginning to embrace eco-friendly alternatives. The Green Burial Council, which helps certify businesses that meet certain green standards, approved of just 12 businesses a year ago. Now, more than 300 green burial providers are listed through the council.
"Death is the last taboo, really," says Joe Sehee, founder and executive director of the Green Burial Council. "But green burial is something people can actually wrap their head around. It's a concept—returning to the earth, naturally—that they understand and are willing to talk about. It's moving into the mainstream quicker than anyone thought."
Bozeman's Dahl Funeral Home applied for certification with the Green Burial Council less than a year ago and is the only approved Montana provider. (Natural Cemeteries has consulted with the council, according to Sehee, but has not applied for certification.) Irene Dahl, a third generation funeral director, explored green burials because she wanted to offer families a new alternative.
"It's sort of an educational tool at this point," she says. "A lot of people are curious. Some people will come in and say that they want cremation because it's the most natural way to go, and I can point out that, actually, there's another option."
Dahl can offer green burials because her funeral home uses Sunset Hill Cemetery, which is owned by the city of Bozeman and is one of the few public cemeteries that don't require the use of a vault. A local store provides biodegradable caskets. Embalming, Dahl adds, is also not required by law; bodies are simply refrigerated before burial. She estimates that a bare-bones natural burial could cost, roughly, between $2,500 and $5,000, depending on the type of service and casket.
"It's progress, not perfection," says Dahl of the green burial she offers. "If it were perfection, you wouldn't have to drive a hearse to the cemetery, there would be a pesticide-free section of the grounds and the gravestones would be natural rocks. It's a positive step, but we're hoping to offer even more in the future. All of this is still in the beginning stages."
The Meyers understand growing pains. As Peter and Henry walk the grounds of Natural Cemeteries, they tell more stories of the land and their attempt to bury people in it. On a ridge that overlooks the Meyers' log cabin and two neighboring barns, as well as the surrounding valley, Henry points to his gravesite, marked by a simple metal corner stake.
"I can see the mess I made just perfectly from here," he jokes. "This was always my spot."
Joan's site is directly next to Henry's. Federal law requires that both she and Henry pay for their own sites, just as anyone else would. Stakes for two other customers—the Meyers say 10 people, so far, have signed up to be buried at Natural Cemeteries—have been set up farther down the ridge. R.C. Hooker is still expected to be the first person actually placed into the ground.
"It's nice to finally see it taking shape," says Henry. "It was a hell of a mess setting the thing up, but we made it."
The mess came from the fact that no other natural cemetery exists in the state. Unlike Dahl Funeral Home, which simply added natural burials to its established offerings, the Meyers needed to start from scratch—and had no model to follow. Peter jokes that he couldn't even find a copy of Building Cemeteries for Dummies at the bookstore.
"We pretty much wrote the rules for natural cemeteries in Montana," says Peter, 49, who handles most of the nonprofit's logistics. "We didn't really have a choice."
Peter says the family worked through county, state and federal agencies for nearly four years to gain the necessary approvals. They achieved official nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2006. Peter says he checked with the state's Board of Funeral Service on state regulations. (The cemetery isn't licensed with the state, but according to annotated code 37-19-803, private nonprofit cemeteries are exempt.) Peter also presented the cemetery's mission and goals to the Board of Lake County Commissioners, which is responsible for maintaining records of burials on the site.
"Everything was fine," says Commissioner Paddy Trussler. "Other than the records, there's not much we're involved in."
The only hang-up, according to Peter, was that nobody knew how to define a natural cemetery. In one comical go-around, the IRS needed to know what criteria Natural Cemeteries had to be compliant about so that it could ensure compliance—and it was up to Natural Cemeteries to provide the criteria.
"Everyone who asked," says Peter, "we just repeated our mission statement: 'Live and die in harmony with nature. A green burial takes place in a forest environment using earth's natural process to recycle human remains in a way that harmonizes with nature. A multiple use concept will be used to provide a restful place to meditate and observe nature. A green burial encourages biodegradable materials and encourages the planting of trees and shrubs'...We got a lot of 'yeses' and a lot of 'nos' and we just kept at it until we figured it out."
Since the cemetery is a nonprofit organization, customers are considered "members" and payments for "sites"—not plots—are considered "donations." The sites, which can be reserved for $500, are confirmed with specific GPS coordinates. Burial costs—known as "opening and closing"—add an additional $1,000. By law, 15 percent of every donation goes into a perpetual trust fund, which ensures the future maintenance of the cemetery. The cemetery's bylaws map out the long-term stewardship of the site. A board of directors, which is comprised of Henry, Joan, Peter and Peter's son, Mike Matola, runs the operation.
"We'll keep it in the family for as many generations as possible," says Peter. "If, for some reason, that's no longer possible, it'll go to the community, or the state of Montana, or the federal government. But no matter what, it'll always remain as a natural cemetery."
Natural Cemeteries encourages its members to enhance the surroundings by planting a tree or natural shrub near the grave. Natural rocks can also mark a site. The idea is not only to maintain the land's current character, but to make it even more wild.
"We don't just want it to look like it does today forever," says Peter. "We want it to look like it did 100 years ago, before anyone even knew it was here."
The Meyers don't refer to themselves as religious. Peter prefers to say they're "spiritual." But Henry admits that he's been reading about religion more recently, mostly because he expects to be asked about it. Standing at his future gravesite, he articulates how the cemetery lines up with his personal beliefs.
"I read that one of God's purposes for the earth was to create a paradise for man to live in," he says. "We want to have this place be part of that. We don't want to do something that's contrary to that concept. When you live in the Swan, you already live closer to nature than the people who live in the city. You get a feeling of what nature wants and what nature has, and how to live within that. All we want is for nature to do her own thing."
When R.C. Hooker first wrote to the Independent, he weighed 170 pounds. Now, he's under 130 and refers to himself as "the anatomy lesson." His once-healthy complexion has turned a mossy green and he tires quickly. Talking on the phone is difficult. Nevertheless, he still expresses excitement about his decision to go with a green burial.
Earlier this summer, he received his custom-made casket. A friend, Steve Wingard, who is known for his traditional Ojibwa and Cree berry baskets, agreed to make the box. It was constructed with white birch and Wingard didn't use any stain, oil or polyurethane coating, which gives it a high coefficient of degradability. Wingard also used a simple white glue and, where reinforcement was needed, he chose uncoated steel nails that will rust quickly. He wove the handles with hemp rope, leaving the bore holes open to enhance and accelerate the breakdown of cell tissue post-mortem. All together, Wingard spent $110 on materials and approximately 11 hours of labor to make it. He only charged Hooker for the materials.
Hooker also paid Natural Cemeteries for his site, in cash. The spot overlooks an open meadow on the south side of the cemetery and is situated next to an enormous natural rock. Including his membership, opening and closing costs, natural rock headstone and the casket, Hooker paid a total of $1,960 for his burial—a steal compared to a traditional burial, but not an insignificant sum for a "rural rube."
"This money represented my entire financial estate, my life savings," he says. "That it should speak volumes about my life is apparent—if I die with a dollar in my pocket, it's a dollar I wasted. Money was never a means nor an end. I had the freedom that only poverty could afford and my most important possession no matter where I lived was my library card. So from a purely nickel-and-dime point of view, my burial made sense."
His reasoning, of course, goes beyond just money. Hooker talks openly about dying a heroic death—defending a fair maiden, fighting for justice or "maybe just the everyday slaying of windmills." This isn't that; not exactly.
"My degree in philosophy, of course, has helped immeasurably, having been a personal asset, yet a social liability," he says. "In this, the end, it provides the necessary solace to finish the journey with more than a sense of dignity, but also with a sense of triumph."
That triumph comes in the form of reincarnation. He'll return to the earth, give something back, not just die.
"The point is that I am, at this very late stage of the game, willing to grow on spiritual lines, ready to reconsider all avenues, even reincarnation," he says. "Too late? Maybe. But as an active participant in the natural burial movement, I have made a lasting commitment to principle. If I am lucky, my carbon footprint may even disappear all together."
R.C. Hooker and Skylar Browning collaborated on the final draft of this article. Hooker can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. He invites those curious about natural burial to attend his service at Natural Cemeteries. Browning can be reached at email@example.com.