A May breeze catches the tall blade of grass and causes it to gesture like an old friend trying to casually gain your attention.
The blade of grass draws you nearer to three roundish rocks — too big to be stones, not big enough to be boulders — that sit among the clumped grasses, vines and other vegetation that will become timber brush in the months ahead.
A body is buried beneath these three rocks.
A record in a city database says so, but not much else does. There’s no headstone, no cross, certainly not a name to be found anywhere.
Here, in this corner of Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery, such formalities are not required. Here, a tall blade of grass, wiggling in the wind like the beckoning finger of a friend, will do.
In late 2008, city officials declared that a wooded corner on the northwest end of Oak Hill Cemetery would serve as a “natural burial” area. It became the first such natural burial cemetery in the state of Kansas, and city officials think it was the first municipally run natural burial area in the country.
The wooded patch is far different from the rows of cut tombstones that fill the remainder of Oak Hill Cemetery. And the differences go beyond simple aesthetics. The natural burial area has several rules, including:
• Coffins may not include any made-made materials, such as metal, concrete, plastic or even plywood. In fact, most of the burials haven’t included a traditional coffin at all, although the city requires bodies at least be enclosed in a “cardboard carrier.”
• Bodies may not be embalmed or otherwise chemically preserved.
• Concrete and steel vaults aren’t permitted as part of the burial, and no machine-cut or polished markers are allowed in the area.
The city does allow the use of modern mechanical devices that funeral homes employ to lower a casket into a grave, but most families have opted not to use them. Instead, a crew of six city Parks and Recreation employees use a 1x12 board, ropes and pulleys to lower the body into the grave.
“It feels like you are back in the early 1900s,” said Mitch Young, who oversees cemetery operations for the city.
Back in 2008, then-City Commissioner Boog Highberger lobbied for creation of the natural burial area. He said he was convinced there were people who wanted a burial option that produced a smaller environmental footprint. But the reasons for the nontraditional burial have gone beyond the environmental.
Highberger said he attended a burial for a friend at the site.
“At the service I attended, they were able to pick up a handful of dirt and throw it on the coffin,” Highberger said. “There are details like that that give a greater sense of participation in the process.”
Indeed, Young said that at most of the site’s burials family members have used shovels and filled in the grave. He said many often sign the cardboard carrier before it is lowered into the ground.
Highberger, who said he has nothing against the traditional burial methods, thinks the idea of natural burial has attracted some.
“I think the setting is appealing,” Highberger said. “I think a big appeal is the simplicity of the process.”
The final resting place of Con Davis Walsh — April 5, 1985, to Oct. 17, 2009 — is beneath the bent limb of a tree that has grown toward the western sun. Walsh is among those who have left their names behind. There are four rocks in the area — some barely more than a foot tall, others 3 feet or more — that have names carved in them.
Even on a hot May day, Walsh’s stone is in a cool shade for now, although everything eventually changes at this site.
A total of nine burials have occurred in this natural corner of Oak Hill Cemetery since late 2008. Interestingly, most have been burials of residents who lived in the Kansas City area but were drawn here because they were looking for natural burial options, Young said.
More burials at the site are nearly as certain as, well, death and taxes, as they say. The city has pre-sold 25 burial plots in the area. The current area for natural burials is small, but the city has set aside enough land in the timber to accommodate about 150 burials, once the underbrush is cleared.
Cemetery maintenance crews go through the area once a year to mow the underbrush, maintain a trail that runs through the area and do minor weeding to ensure that the marked stones aren’t entirely covered. Young said he is pleased so far with both the area and the interest in the service.
“It is doing better than I thought it would, actually,” Young said. “A lot of the people who have pre-bought are part of the baby boomer generation, so maybe that is a sign of more to come.”
Every dip, every rise of the ground beneath your feet makes you wonder.
There are nine bodies buried in this small corner. Four have marked stones, another has a trio of unmarked stones that were obviously placed there for a reason, but the rest are left to deduction.
One is easy — a rectangular patch of broken soil that hasn’t been barren long enough for even the clods to break down.
But the others are largely a mystery. City officials know their location. They keep a book that marks the coordinates, but for the rest of us, we’re left to try to read the landscape like a book.
Along that western edge, there certainly is a mound. But is it a grave or merely a natural undulation? Maybe a depression, a spot where the ground has settled, is what you should look for. But as you walk through the woods, you realize just how uneven nature is. There are dips and depressions everywhere.
Maybe beneath the big trees there are signs. We’re all naturally drawn to the shade. But then your eyes catch something else: a young tree. Really, it is natural for us to want to leave something behind, even if it is not a name. Indeed, this tree has been newly planted. There are still stakes near its side. But something else rests near its base: a piece of a large, dead limb, decaying into the ground.
The old and the new, side by side. What once was and what will be again — a natural marker, if I ever saw one.