Dying to go green 

The natural burial eco-trend reaches Montana

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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."

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