Green burial taking root in the Copper Country

You’ve probably donated to charities. You’ve filled a sack with spare soups and pasta for a food pantry. But have you considered giving yourself back to Mother Earth?

That’s what green burial is all about–returning your body to nature when you’re done with it, without toxic chemicals, expensive coffins and cement vaults.

The Keweenaw Green Burial Alliance is working to educate the public about green burial, encouraging cemeteries to designate green burial sections and helping funeral directors provide a green burial option to their clients. In addition to a website, the group has a Facebook page where they post the latest green burial news and a YouTube channel where KGBA board members share their personal green burial stories.

The early days

The idea of bringing green burial to the Keweenaw surfaced in 2005 at a meeting of the Keweenaw chapter of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. At first, the founders wanted to build a green cemetery. The Northwoods Conservancy offered to donate some land for it, but right around that time, the state legislature increased the endowment size requirement for cemeteries to a level that made creating a green cemetery here impossible. So the founders changed their focus to promoting green burial in the Keweenaw.

Vern Simula, an ecologist and retired professor of education at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, was a member of the original green cemetery initiative. He met Keren Tishchler, who had studied ecology and who says her passion in life is environmental stewardship.

“I didn’t know much about green burial, but it aligns with my personal values,” she recalls.  “I’d say it’s a priority for me to live carefully, in recognition that all things are connected. Green burial provides an opportunity on a personal level to extend this care into how I die, and on a cultural level, it offers an opportunity to look at our cultural norms around burial and ask: does this continue to serve?”

Tischler, who owns and operates a mushroom farm called Metsa Hill Farm, helped Simula incorporate the fledgling organization as a nonprofit.

Simula moved away from the Keweenaw in 2009, passing the green burial torch to Jay Green, a civil engineer. Green, Tischler and a few others carried on the green burial efforts.”

Simula is planning his own green burial. “Knowing that my remains will be returned to the soils and waters and biota of this Earth, I feel comforted, knowing that some material aspects of ‘me’ will continue to be an integral part of this great cycle of life,” he says.

Simula has thought long and hard about the issues raised by conventional burial and cremation. “The two conventional options available, cremation or embalming, violate my spiritual sensibilities,” he says. “I embrace a sensitive reverence for all life, which includes all the cellular tissue and micro-organisms that comprise my body. Both cremation and embalming do violence to this value.”

“Cremation and embalming also violate my ecological sensibilities,” Simula goes on to say. “The process of cremation requires enormous amounts of fossil fuel-based energy. Cremation also involves the use of highly toxic chemicals that pollute the air and soils of the Earth and have constituted a serious health hazard to morticians.”  

He describes green burial, on the other hand, as “a simple, practical way that we, as humans, can alter our cultural practices so that we can all live more simply and sustainably on this Earth.”

Cemeteries and funeral directors

In 2015, shortly after Stephen Jukuri moved back to his home turf in the Keweenaw after years downstate, he joined KGBA. “I’ve been interested in having a natural burial for most of my adult life, as I believe it makes the most sense to allow the earth to reincorporate my body back into itself, in the truly traditional way that we’ve moved so far away from in our culture,” he explains.

Jukuri now is president of the Keweenaw Green Burial Alliance. The primary challenge the group has faced is most cemeteries’ requirement that caskets be buried in cement vaults. Their community programs have empowered local citizens to ask their cemeteries for green burial, and several cemeteries responded well, working closely with KGBA to figure out how they can best do green burial without vaults.

Chassell cemetery is their prime example and a model for other cemeteries considering green burial. There, green burial without a vault is permitted in wooded sections that reflect the desire of most green burial advocates to rest in a natural, attractive environment. “We want a burial area that feels like a walk in the forest,” Jukuri says.

There are now approximately six cemeteries in the Keweenaw that offer or are considering green burial.

Another challenge was working with supportive funeral directors to understand how green burial would change their funeral/burial practices. At first, some funeral directors saw green burial and handling unembalmed bodies as an inconvenience and a problem. However, the number of supportive funeral directors is growing. Some are now stocking “green” embalming fluid, which is far less toxic than traditional chemicals. “Our local funeral directors are professionals, and most of them have responded well and are adapting to meet this particular need in our community,” says Jukuri.

Jeff Dennis, who runs the Pearce Funeral Home in Lake Linden , says: “There is a growing interest in green burials in our area. Society is changing, becoming more environmentally aware and friendly.  Along with that awareness, comes the desire to make burials more sustainable.  Many people in this area hold a special appreciation for Lake Superior and the natural beauty of the Keweenaw Peninsula.  For these people, a greener burial can be a fitting choice. More people have had questions about green burials, especially after the opening of the Chassell Cemetery green burial section.  People usually have given some thought as to what their wishes for final disposition are before they meet with a funeral director, but we will help answer questions about green burials and the options they have.   The good news in the Keweenaw is that we do have green burial options that we didn’t have a few years ago.”

KGBA’s other goal is informing the public about green burial. The group has sponsored several public programs on topics such as how to plan for a green burial, home funerals without embalming and how to manage burials without vaults. They have also sponsored cemetery tours.

“I definitely think that attitudes toward green burial are changing,” Tischler says. “Awareness of and interest in green burial, both nationally and locally, has increased substantially. I suspect KGBA has played an important role in that shift at the local level.”

Membership in KGBA is free, and the group now has about 100 members. A volunteer board runs the organization. Some board members describe their interest in green burial.

Why green burial?

“I want to be a tree,” says Frann Grossman, a retired Michigan Tech faculty member. “After I die, my body will compost in the ground with nothing around it. I will be one with the soil. Soil is where the tree seedlings are, and eventually I will be a tree.”

Says Sue Ellen Kingsley, another KGBA board member, “Over the decades, I have put some pretty good nutrition into my body, and I want to give all those nutrients back to Mother Earth. I don’t want to waste 120 pounds of good nutrition by walling it off from the soil or letting it go up in smoke.”

Candy Peterson, a board member who has been teaching a class on embracing mortality since 2009, adds: “I want to reciprocate, to make a contribution to the earth that has given everything to me.”

KGBA’s reach is spreading throughout the UP. Marquette’s Park Cemetery is now offering green burial, and Iron Mountain, Morin Township near St. Ignace and Champion Township are looking into it.

While working to educate the public, funeral directors and cemeteries about green burial, KGBA is also exploring other natural burial options such as : body composting, which is now legal in a few states.

Green burial links

KGBA web page: https://kgba.weebly.com/

KGBA Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/KeweenawGreenBurial/

KGBA YouTube videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7CVdGXKauVlle5KVFNEe9A

Green Burial Council: https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/


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