Life Doesn’t End With Death: Why I Wrote a Burial Depth Bill

I tell people my goal is to help everyone plan (and hopefully experience) their own good death- whatever that means to them- and that includes the right to choose a manner of disposition in accordance with their own ethics and values.

It came as some surprise when I learned that Vermont was one of only 2 states that had a required minimum burial depth, and that that depth, (at least 5 feet) meant that green burial wasn’t really an option for Vermonters. I happened to speak about this at the conference I held to launch my business in August and a Calais cemetery commissioner was in the audience.

At the end of the day she asked me to come to her town’s cemetery commission meeting because they had gotten requests for green burial and wanted to know what they could do to make that happen.

So, many people are probably thinking that burial depth doesn’t have anything to do with green burial. That what matters is being buried without embalming, in a biodegradable container or shroud, and without a vault (grave liner). While it’s true that these steps mitigate many of the harms caused by our current burial practices they don’t do a lot to also increase the benefit of burial. After-all the definition of green burial is two-part:

  1. Minimize harm to the environment
  2. Maximize benefit to the environment

At 5 feet or deeper there is not enough heat or oxygen for aerobic decomposition, the process is anaerobic, slow, and has by-products that aren’t very pleasant to think about. Nor is there a microbial community, insects, or root structures that could return any of the body’s nutrients to the soil above.

But at 3.5 feet the body is very close to the active layers of the soil, where there is a lot of insect activity, a robust microbial community, roots, oxygen, and sunlight to warm the soil. This adds up to rapid, aerobic decomposition with an efficient exchange of the body’s nutrients with the soil above. This is a way to allow the natural decomposition process to happen while still protecting the body from scavengers.

That’s right. For those of you worried that 3.5 feet is too shallow- it’s not. Part of the amazing thing about soil is what an excellent filter it is. The same properties of soil that fix and break down things like chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, and trace amounts of heavy metals found in bodies also prevent the odors of decomposition from escaping in noticeable amounts. Humans can’t smell anything and scavengers aren’t drawn to the body. Burials at or around 3.5 feet are happening  in 29 states certified by the green burial council and have been for almost 30 years and none of them have ever reported an issue with scavengers.

Aside from oxygen, heat, insects, and microorganisms, here’s no magic recipe necessary for green burial- it’s natural decomposition, exactly as our ancestors were returned to the earth. And, the way many of our farm animals are today.

But as of today it’s not legal in Vermont.

Imagine my surprise, when after a meeting with the Calais Cemetery Commission in which I told them they would have to revise their by-laws to make vaults optional IF the law ever changed they said their representative would sponsor legislation to change the law and change the required minimum burial depth to at least 3.5 feet-  provided they wrote the bill.

So we wrote a bill.

So far, Vermont Bill H.3 (An Act Relating to Burial Depth), which was introduced in January, has passed unanimously out of the House committee charged with considering it and passed out of the House to the Senate with a majority voice vote. I’ve spent these past months learning how to negotiate the State House and touring the state to educate people about burial depth and green burial.

But all that has more to do with how I came to write a bill and less to do with why.

Most people who work in death-related fields have seen examples of “people die the way they live,” or, as my mother-in-law says “we don’t change as we get older, we just get more so.”

Here in Vermont land is important to people. I mean, this is true everywhere, but it’s amazing to see the number of small farms, sustainable land practices, farm to table restaurants, ethical planting by cities, sourcing of everything from kefir to coffee beans by local companies, the sheer number of people that flock to farmer’s markets and CSAs or grow their own food. Add that together with the amount of outdoor recreation and the importance of ethical enjoyment of the outdoors, the beauty of our seasons, the number of people who are here because either they or their parents moved here in the 70s to get back to the land… and, well, what you get is a state with a population that is largely very conscious of its impact on the environment and doing what it can to make that impact a positive one. This is true of hunters, farmers, skiers, walkers, urbanites, and hermits alike.

It’s a huge part of why I’ve been drawn here twice in my life, first for college and then again 3 years ago to live. Vermont is a state where the land is not only a reflection of its people, but its people are a reflection of the land. We are all touched and shaped by living here.

So much so that many never leave. Many do their living here until the day they die. And over, and over, and over again what I have heard people say is that when they die they want to return to the land. They want to become a part of the land they love.

They want their final act, their disposition, to be an act of giving back.

And until the law changes, that’s not really possible the way they envision it.

And that’s why I wrote the bill.

 

(Data referred to in this post comes from the Green Burial Council, the book “Greening Death” by Suzanne Kelly, and “Soil Microbiology, Ecology, and Biochemisty” 4th edition, edited by Eldor Paul)

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For those of you who are curious I’ve written a lot about the bill at a website and blog I set up to support Bill H.3 including my vision for what green burial sites can be used for- pollinator meadows and forest conservation. Please check it out: vermontgreenburial.wordpress.com

If you’re reading this and you live in Vermont and want to know more, find out where my statewide tour is taking me next (or book me in your town), or support the bill by contacting your State Senators all that information is on the website too. You can also email vermontgreenburial@gmail.com with questions, concerns, offers of support, stories about why green burial is important to you, or anything else about Vermont, green burial, and you.

I’m working with a great team of fellow green burial advocates and we’ve gotten some good press. You’ll find it all posted on the blog at the website, but here’s my favorite:

Shallower, greener graves gain ground in Vermont by Joel Baird of The Burlington Free Press

 

 

 

 

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