Dying to go green 

The natural burial eco-trend reaches Montana

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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 rc_hooker@yahoo.com. He invites those curious about natural burial to attend his service at Natural Cemeteries. Browning can be reached at sbrowing@missoulanews.com.

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