Your Burial: A Spectrum of Possibilities

Editor’s note: this is the second in a series of posts co-written by Kent Burreson and Beth Hoeltke. The first was “Pondering our Death.” The coincidence of continuing this conversation on All Saints Day makes it all the more worth our reflection.

In our last post, we encouraged you to “ponder your own death.” Why? Because your body is a gift to you from God in this life. The Lord holds your bodily life as the apple of his eye (Psalm 17:8). And the Lord will raise your body on the last day, giving you bodily life for eternity. Pondering your own death is one way in which you continue to treasure the gift of your body and give thanks for it, even beyond your final breath as you look to the Day of Resurrection.

Pondering your own death includes giving attention to your own burial, to the disposition of your body at death as it rests until Christ raises it on the Final Day. Since the Civil War in the United States, an “American Way of Death,” to use Jessica Mitford’s infamous phrase, has taken hold. This usually involves entrusting care of the body to a funeral home or director either for embalming and burial in a cemetery with use of elaborately constructed caskets and vaults or for cremation with disposition of the ashes in a columbarium or other appropriate location. Most Christians presume this is the way we must attend to our dead. But this amounts to a severe restriction of the possibilities. Instead we should consider a spectrum of possibilities that open us to more natural, green practices. By doing so we would return to ways of burial that our ancestors would have practiced prior to the 1860’s.

A shrouded body, one option as part of a Natural Burial.

Narrowly-speaking, Natural Burial opens us up to part of that spectrum of possibilities. What is Natural Burial? Essentially it entails four things: 1)Elimination of embalming in caring for the body; 2) Burial in a biodegradable covering/casket 3) Placement of the covering/casket directly in the ground without use of a vault; 4) Burial in an environmentally conscious and responsible burial ground that encourages the natural decomposition of the body and its return to the earth from which the Lord created it. So, the new possibilities include: No embalming; No traditional caskets and vaults; Burial directly in the ground within a cemetery that practices natural burial.

But the possibilities certainly don’t end there! Attending to your body’s resting place encourages you to consider other moves away from the “American Way of Death.” These include at least three areas of attention: the care of your body as you are dying through the final placement of your body in the ground; the funeral rite through which the Christian community bears you, a brother or sister in Christ, to your resting place until the Last Day; and the actual interment of your body in the ground.

In our next post we will begin to explore the entire spectrum of possibilities beginning with caring for your body immediately before and after death.

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9 Comments

  1. Eric Longman November 1, 2017
    Reply

    The challenge with a natural burial is that there are very few cemeteries that allow it, and few communities that have laws that allow for it. My wife and I researched it a few years ago, and if memory serves there were fewer than half a dozen locations in the country. Perhaps there are more today; I hope so.

    • Beth Hoeltke November 1, 2017

      Eric, actually there are more places than you would guess. Each year we have seen a small increase. A great book that deals individually state by state is: Final Rights, written by Lisa Carson and Josh Slocum. There is also a website by the Green Burial Council that is very helpful. We promise more to come. Thanks for your interest.

  2. Rev. Michael Mueller November 1, 2017
    Reply

    Eric is correct. Most States have laws regarding the movement and disposition of the body after death. It is all a part of trying to deal with the whole subject of death at a distance and without the implication that one day I, too, shall die.

  3. Kent Burreson November 1, 2017
    Reply

    Eric: As Beth notes, the numbers of natural burial cemeteries are increasing. The Green Burial Council indicates: “The number of GBC approved providers in North America has grown from 1 in 2006, to more then 300 today, operating in 41 states and 6 provinces of Canada (this includes funeral homes, cemeteries, and product providers).” The GBC website is: https://greenburialcouncil.org/. Missouri only has one GBC certified natural burial cemetery: Bellefontaine Cemetery in Saint Louis. But there is a non-certified natural burial cemetery in Missouri: Green Acres in Colombia, MO. Other traditional cemeteries may offer green burial options, although the spectrum of their green burial options may be limited.

    With regard to movement of bodies, as Rev. Mueller commented, laws very by state, some more restrictive than others. In Missouri anyone may transport a body with the consent of a physician, medical examiner, or coroner. Out of state disposition permits can be obtained if a body will be removed from the state. But other states laws might then apply in that state.

    Thanks for the comments!

    • Eric Longman November 2, 2017

      That’s excellent news! Obviously, much progress has been made since we looked into it several years ago. Thank you for the links, too!

  4. Andrew November 6, 2017
    Reply

    What are the rules in most of the cemeteries belonging to our congregations?

  5. Beth Hoeltke November 7, 2017
    Reply

    Andrew, without checking, I would say it would totally be up to the congregation and the cities they reside in. I am assuming that most, if not all, are privately owned meaning they would all be eligible to do Natural Burial in their graveyards. I would guess though that most have not considered it.

  6. Steve Andrews January 8, 2018
    Reply

    With this practice, would the funeral service held at the congregation be altered at all? I don’t think people would handle it well to see the deceased laying near the altar for the full service. Should they be taught to? Or, should the body be removed to the cemetery prior to the service, giving perhaps even stronger value to the committal?

    • Beth Hoeltke January 16, 2018

      Hello Steve,
      Sorry for the delayed response.
      No, the funeral service at the church would not be altered at all and for the service some may choose to rent a casket for the service. With the body present the focus of the journey of the body becomes a bit more prevalent. No, we certainly don’t want to see the body taken to the cemetery prior to the service because then the people of God are not able to journey with their brother or sister to the grave. Once the church service is over there is the walk, or travel by car, to the grave site making the final journey with your loved brother or sister.

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