Does the idea of spending eternity embalmed in a box turn you off? Do you worry that cremating your corpse will just add more greenhouse gases that are cooking the planet?
If so, then Walt Patrick has a solution for you. Patrick runs the Herland Forest Natural Burial Cemetery (herlandforest.org) near Klickitat, Wash., just over the Columbia River from The Dalles, where you can be buried in a pine box, a linen sheet—or nothing at all.
By choosing a natural burial, your remains go to good use. Washington state law protects cemetery land from development. The more folks who choose burial in the Herland Forest, the more land that’s protected. And your remains fertilize the trees. Graves are marked not with headstones but with small surveyors’ markers. Locations are logged with GPS.
So far, Herland has had 79 clients, 72 below ground and seven above.
“More people are opting out of the funeral industrial complex,” Patrick says.
People who’ve thought a lot about death say Patrick is onto something.
“Natural burials remind us that we are part of something greater than ourselves,” says Barbara Becker, author of the new book Heartwood: The Art of Living With the End in Mind. “In returning organically to the earth, the elements of our bodies rejoin the majesty of the wild, and we renew the circle of life.”
Herland offers a green alternative to cremation, too. It’s called natural organic reduction.
That’s a fancy term for composting, and Washington was the first state to allow humans to be mulched like this. (Colorado and, most recently, Oregon have followed.) Herland puts a corpse in a wooden box with wood chips and wild flowers. The box rolls on a track so that the contents can be turned, just like in a good composter. Solar panels help boost the temperature to kill any dangerous microbes.
When the process is finished, parts like pacemakers and artificial hips are removed and recycled. Loved ones can leave the compost at Herland to fertilize a new tree in the forest, or take it home to spread it on gardens or at a favorite place, just like ashes. Full-body burial and natural organic reduction both cost $3,000.
The name Herland comes from a 1915 work of utopian fiction by feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman about an all-female society that lives in the woods without conflict. They reproduce asexually and live in harmony with nature, free from men and their wars.
Sounds like a great place to spend eternity.