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'Going' Green: Environmentally Friendly Burial Grounds

Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, Mills River, NC

The Pandemic has brought the idea of death so much closer to us all. And that has helped revive a plan, long in the works, for an ‘eco-friendly’ green burial ground in Floyd.  Robbie Harris has more.



The sad sight of body bags piled up in refrigerated trucks early on in the pandemic crystalized an idea Philip Olson has long had on his mind. “This is more about rethinking the relationship between human beings and the environment in a way that we understand ourselves as much more continuous with that environment,” Olson says.

Olson teaches science, technology and society at Virginia Tech and the idea he’s talking about is ecologically sustainable green burial-- a different way of honoring the dead and the environment.

“We put death behind these silky curtains, and what we’re asking is that we and recognize and have a relationship with it as a community,” says Kristy Radcliffe. She's part of this group which is now in the process of looking for land in Floyd. 

Perrin Heartway is also part of the group. “We intend to create, with the community, a place that will be visited for grieving and celebrating and nourishment of mind, body, and soul.. it will be a place with a resilient, diverse ecosystem trails, uh, that welcome people to walk in solitude or together to, um, to speak to their higher power, whatever that may be to connect with something bigger than themselves, and remember their ancestors or simply to have a picnic with their family and celebrate life.”

There are only a handful of green burial sites in Virginia.  Many cultures around the world bury their dead with what you could call green burial practices.  “Essentially there is no embalming. There is no non-biodegradable casket. So a biodegradable casket can be used, which could be a pine box, wicker, cardboard box, or even, at the minimally invasive, a shroud, a cotton shroud. So, there's also no concrete vault. Concrete vaults are used in traditional conventional cemeteries. It's a large amount of concrete that goes into a very large hole to suit that concrete and the concrete then contains the vault, then contains the casket."

Isabel Birney is with the Funeral Consumers Alliance.  "And when we have our displays at health fairs and things like that, they make wide circles around our table. You know, they don't want to talk about death," Birney says. "And we always say that talking about sex, doesn't make you pregnant and talking about death, doesn't make you die.”

Birney says people are really reluctant. "I think in our culture, young people think that it's disrespectful to talk to their elders about it. And often older people say, my kids are going to take care of everything. I don't have to worry. And of course that's not true. And it is a burden for survivors if there are no plans."

This pandemic will change many aspects of the way we lived before. And this group hopes it will open this discussion on what has long been an uncomfortable topic, and one that we are all too familiar with now.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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