Archive for Sunday, May 27, 2012

Natural selection: Burial method gains popularity

May 27, 2012


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.


Kirk Larson 5 years, 12 months ago

On one hand, this is appealing. On the other, I have been determined not to take up any real estate from the living. I'd rather be composted.

ECM 5 years, 12 months ago

+1 To each their own but I plan to donate any organs that can help someone, cremate the rest and compost the ashes.

Crazy_Larry 5 years, 12 months ago

"I would request, that my body, in death, be buried, not cremated, so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the Earth, so that flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined on flora and fauna throughout my life." (a source)

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 12 months ago

I am going to look into this. I am old enough to begin to think about things like this and I know people like to joke about the subject to take the edge off of the fear about death, but, seriously, you need to make definite plans so people will know what to do. My father died when I was very young and I threw a handful of dirt into the grave. I didn't want to because I thought I would be throwing it at him and resisted the idea. But, it was explained that it was a way to say goodbye.
To this day I want to jump into the grave, tear open the coffin and yell, get out of there! You don't belong in there, you belong with me! So long ago it was and yet so close. "The old and the new, side by side. What once was and what will be again — a natural marker, if I ever saw one." Chad, that is the truth, if ever there was a truth. Thank you.

infidel 5 years, 12 months ago

Great Article, It would be interesting to know the costs associated with this type of burial as opposed to a more traditional one. If i recall correctly from 10 years ago, a basic funeral was around $8000.00 and much of the cost was for city mandated items like Vaults and Coffins etc.

Jill Jevens 5 years, 12 months ago

As one who is quite familiar with Oak Hill Cemetary because its history is interesting to me and it is next to my Brook Creek neighborhood, I want to thank you, Chad, for giving us this well-written piece about this unique part of it. I had wondered about that corner, and I think it's a really great alternative. This area of town is so interesting, and unlike the neighborhoods of some of my friends, who are in other parts of town, I've known many of my neighbors for years. It's funny to me when I hear others reference this far east side of town as "scary" or "dangerous". I'm happy to have chosen for the last 13 years to live in this friendly, interesting, and historic part of Lawrence.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 12 months ago

Wooo! They will "let you scatter ashes" for a "scattering cost of 200$-300$ dollars"???? Excuse me???? Seriously?????

deec 5 years, 12 months ago

Or you can just take grandma out in the country and do it yourself for free.

deec 5 years, 11 months ago

Weird video, but I don't get the relevance. Part of my mother's ashes are in my vegetable garden in the back yard.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 12 months ago

Okay, after reading this, I totally change my mind. No one in the family knows how to dive and I don't think they are going to learn so they can plant me in a reef. Say, what about creating a reef in Potter Lake? Who wants to have their ashes mixed in cement, then made into a ball and then put into the lake? Over time as more are added it will be part of a new habitat. However, I want to be cremated and put in the cheapest urn available because I would rather have the family use the money aboveground so to speak.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 12 months ago

I agree, autie. I've already told my family I want to be a direct cremation and to spend as little money as possible. No embalming or nuttin'. What they do with my ashes is up to them. I'm sure I'm not going to be in any position to give a rats read end.

deec 5 years, 11 months ago

That depends on the rules in your state. My mom was cremated, and it was still over $4K.

Aileen Dingus 5 years, 12 months ago

Most of the people who are interred here have chosen this method ahead of time. The deceased relative is the one who ASKED for this, there's no disrespect.

I attended a green burial a couple of summers ago. I must say- it was odd, having grown up with Knights of Columbus or Eastern Star attendants, caskets made with more metal than my car, the deceased looking fresh as a daisy inside. But I can see the appeal. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There's no reason to keep a body laying about in perpetuity- what made that body a loved one is gone, so why not let the vessel nourish the earth?

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 12 months ago

Something left out of the above is a small tidbit I read about some time ago:

Quite often teeth, except for gold crowns, are not removed from a body before cremation.

And so, cremation of a body can release mercury from fillings in the teeth into the atmosphere. I don't know how significant or harmful that is to the living, but the author of the article that I read thought that breathing mercury vapors was harmful to living persons, a so there should be greater care taken to remove all teeth that have mercury fillings in them before cremation.

In the future, that won't be much of a problem because mercury is rarely used for filling cavities anymore.

Kirk Larson 5 years, 11 months ago

I wouldn't worry too much about the amount of mercury released through cremation once it's compared to what comes out of a coal fired power plant. Now eat your tuna casserole.

Clara Westphal 5 years, 12 months ago

Since I am one of the older people in Lawrence, I keep receiving brochures from a funeral home. It lists the prices of funeral services and the 'green burial' is higher the others. So much for saving money.

Pat Long 5 years, 12 months ago

SS56, reducing an expired body to its basic elements is not disrespectful...think of it as an accelerated decomposition. I find it abhorrent to have someone painted up like a 5 pound bass and shown off to the world.

kawdog 5 years, 12 months ago

The funeral is for the living, not the deceased. The best we can hope for is the promise of a particular kind of funeral; we won't be there to see it carried out. Having said that, it is illuminating to those present to think upon the corruptibility of the flesh, its return to the earth, and its incorporation, at whatever level of complexity in terms of the compounds taken up by other living beings, into new life. If I use a little energy to combust the better part of my substance into carbon dioxide and water, it gets incorporated into the larger ecology every bit as much as the more complex molecules left if my body is allowed to decompose naturally. True, we must take the larger ecology to include cycles not included within entities currently considered alive, e.g. the CO2 wafting past my nostrils may not be incorporated into plant-based sugars anytime within the next hundred millennia, yet that same CO2 exists in a reservoir, so to speak, exchange with which occurs continually by plant and animal life. So bury me, cremate me, whatever y'all want. It'll all work out in the end. But, hey. It's your money!

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 11 months ago

It sounded so good at first with that pretty picture but after reading more I am now against the idea. Even though the soul is gone it is still the body of a loved one. I am convinced that life is eternal but that the death shroud is like a cocoon and that we emerge from it in a different form. So, everyone is aware of what is going on back home.
Look, I do know what kind of remarks this is going to generate as to some it will sound really different from what they believe. But, this is my belief and one that is very real and dear to me. I don't think that people who con those in grief into spending money to prove how much they loved the deceased have any respect whatsoever for either the dead one or their family. And, how many will give someone a really lavish funeral to impress others and not because of their feeling for the person in the casket?

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