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Monday September 24, 2007

Green Burial Rituals on the Rise

By Elizabeth Birge
Religion News Service

(UNDATED) In life, Lou Tafuri loved to fish in the waters off the New Jersey coast. In death, he sleeps with the fishes. His family couldn't be happier.

Tafuri, who died in 2005, was cremated after donating his body to science. Shortly before the ashes were returned to his daughter Susan, she learned of a program that could provide her father with an eternal resting place better-suited to him than an urn.

Today his remains are part of a concrete ball that make up an artificial reef seven miles southeast of Great Egg Inlet, where fish roam, plants grow and anglers fish.

Soon his daughter will be able to visit him: She plans to take scuba diving lessons.

"You're in the ocean, you're back to nature, you're not clogging up land," said Susan Tafuri, whose father, a Navy veteran, had full military honors at the viewing of the reef ball the day before it was deployed. "The majority of people I know never go to the cemetery."

Memorial reefs are part of an emerging movement in the U.S. toward simpler, less costly, more environmentally friendly burials. The goal is to return individuals to the earth with as little trace or intervention as possible while preserving green space.

Called natural burial or green burial, the practice is generally defined as one in which the body isn't embalmed, is placed in a biodegradable casket and then is set in a grave without a concrete liner.

Cremation, while not a perfect form of natural burial because of the energy required to complete the process and the dioxin and mercury released into the air, is accepted in this category because the remains leave little or no "footprint."

The savings can be significant. The average cost of a traditional funeral is $6,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission, though some can exceed $10,000.

The cost of a green burial is less than a third of that, and even lower if it involves cremation and scattering the ashes.

These practices are familiar to those of certain religious faiths, including Jews and Muslims, whose traditions and laws call for burial as soon as possible after death, with no viewing and no embalming. While they may be environmentally sound, centuries of faith dictate the
arrangements, not concerns for open space, groundwater, or a more simplified way of dealing with death.

The first green cemetery opened in 1998 in South Carolina. Since then a handful have followed, including ones in California, Florida, Texas, New York and Washington state. They tend to attract people interested in environmental issues or those who have had a close
relationship to nature.

Everyone in Genevieve Maiberger's family, for example, was buried in the traditional manner, she said, except her husband, who was cremated 10 years ago. But a few years ago, the retired teacher from Teaneck,N.J., read an article about Greensprings Natural Cemetery in upstate New
York, and she was sold.

"I have always thought that we should preserve the environment," said Maiberger, 81. "I think this natural burial is ideal to make our planet a better place for all of us to live; we're contaminating it every time we bury someone."

Last year she drove up to Newfield, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region to look at Greensprings, almost 100 acres of protected meadow and woods, and left feeling at peace with her decision.

"You go up this country road and you finally come to this beautiful area that's surrounded by trees and nice bushes," she said. "It's beautiful and you look out there and you think this is so beautiful and so peaceful and so restful."

Like many other green cemeteries, the operators of Greensprings aspire to the creation of a preserve where nature takes its course and provides nutrients to the life growing above the earth.

"I love the idea of just returning to nature," said Mary Woodsen, president of the cemetery, speaking of her own plans to be buried.

"Nature has been taking care of death for a long, long time. I just think it's part of the natural cycle."

At Greensprings the dead may be buried with or without a coffin. No grave stones are allowed; instead, families may have a field stone engraved with the deceased's information which is placed on top of the grave.

One difference with a natural burial, according to funeral directors, is everything must happen quicker because without embalming, the body begins to decompose immediately.

"Burial takes place a little bit sooner than if you're having a traditional funeral," said Bob Prout, the owner of Prout Funeral Home in Verona, N.J., which will work with families interested in natural burials. "You're still able to have ceremony, there would be no problem there."

Mark Harris, author of "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial," believes the new options represent a dramatic change in the way the public thinks about death.

"Baby boomers brought a somewhat environmentally friendly approach to many changes in life," said Harris, who wrote an environmental column for the Los Angeles Times for 12 years. "They took a natural approach to childbirth, they fueled the appearance of organic grocery stores; I feel
that the same will happen as we approach the end of life."

Indeed, eventually Susan Tafuri's father will have company in his underwater setting.

"I'm going to have one," she said, "and I'm going to put them all in with me, my three dogs and the ashes of another."

(Elizabeth Birge writes for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of
this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written

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"the viewing of the reef ball" I love it!

Very good ideas!

I wonder how this squares with those who expect to rise up bodily some day; those bodies will be in far worse shape than that reef ball.

"I wonder how this squares with those who expect to rise up bodily some day; those bodies will be in far worse shape than that reef ball."

That's why, in Christianity, Judaism and Islam---the three main religions to hold that belief---cremation is traditionally forbidden; though obviously many no longer hold this idea, traditionally cremating someone was seen as a desecration, particularly since burning something in the Bible is symbolic of the idea of total destruction.

As for the whole ball issue...well, I guess God can find a way around that, but it'll be weird.

God bless.

I think a green burial is a wonderful idea. I think becoming one with the natural processes of God's creation is simply fantastic. As for the whole bodily resurrection question, I'm pretty sure God will be able to get around that. Besides, people who believe in a bodily resurrection, if they choose to be cremated, will probably have dealt with that issue themselves. It'll probably be a miracle of sorts that we probably shouldn't try to comprehend.

My wife and I have agreed that we, too, would like to be incorporated into reef balls. There is a place here on the Gulf Coast that does them and there are volunteer dive crews that take them out. I cannot imainge a better use for my ashen remains than to cement a home for reef dwellers!

I once had some other "religious professionals" so incensed at the very idea of cremation that I and a friend beat a hasty retreat before we might have gotten hit! The whole bodily resurrection thing leaves a bunch of questions. In that our congregation is an amalgam of of folks from other denominations, I often have to help people work through that question.

My husband and I love the idea of this. We have already ordered information from Eternal Reefs in Florida. The company is amazing and it is such a great idea. The moment I heard about it I was on board. I had never liked the idea of being in the ground or sitting in a jar somewhere. This way, I can go back to nature which is where I have always been most comfortable and the closest to God anyway.

I do find the reef ball idea very interesting, although not for me. I respect the attention given to the environment, not something I gave much thought to, at least until watching Six Feet Under. Catholics have always revered the human body, from the earliest days of worshipping in the catacombs to the practice of placing a relic of a saint in altar. Catholic cemeteries are blessed as "holy ground," like the land upon which a church stands. You will also notice more attention given to the body itself at a Catholic visitation and funeral. A kneeler is placed before the casket so that visitors can pray before the body, there is usually more touching of the body, a rosary is usually wrapped around the hands of the deceased. These customs vary by culture. During the funeral mass the body placed an important role. A white pall is placed on the casket by the family, as well as a cross and a bible, and the casket is incensed. This is one reason why many Catholics are hesitant to be cremated. Catholics these days are welcome to be cremated.

MC your saying that Catholic cemeteries are blessed as "holy ground", reminded me of the Indians of America they also consider their cemeteries "holy ground". Many Military Bases have had to detour around Indian's "holy grounds", to build what is necessary on them. I wonder if the American Indian's of today ever have their ashes scattered in nature places that they have loved. Does anyone know?

I had to take care of my Aunts wishes and service after she passed on in the 70's. Her fiance's ship was torpedoed in the Pacific during the 2nd WW; she wanted her ashes to be scattered in the Pacific, also. Our Funeral Home had the Neptune Society fly them out over the ocean, and according to her they were together again.

"....and according to her they were together again." That is absolutely beautiful and I agree with your aunt.

I hadn't heard of the reef ball until I read this article. Very interesting. My husband and I will be cremated, and our ashes taken to the ocean, to be scattered.

If my parents hadn't been so against it, my sisters and I would have had them cremated, but they couldn't handle the idea of fire, so they had a traditional funeral, complete with the embalming etc. Obviously they wouldn't have known the difference, but following their wishes was important to us.

Ever since I lived in Maine for many long winters I have been a fan of "The Cremation of Sam McGee" (by Robert Service) Since then even the fires of hell ahve sounded pleasant - and for that very reason we live in Florida( where it still gets chilly for a few months of the year). Creamtion for me, then roll me in a ball and toss me in the Caribbean. Gladly will I shelter parrotfish and barracuda for as long as my concrete stay whole.

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