‘To dust you shall return’

Cemetery offers ‘green’ burial as spiritual, environmental option for Catholics

Fr. Charles Morris, left, and Russ Burns, director of All Saints Cemetery, stand before the memorial wall at The Preserve at All Saints Cemetery, which offers the option of natural burials for Catholics who seek a simpler way to say goodbye to loved ones. Natural, or "green," burials still afford the deceased a full Catholic funeral and rites, bu tburials are done without embalming and using a simple shroud and casket. Photos by Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Fr. Charles Morris, left, and Russ Burns, director of All Saints Cemetery, stand before the memorial wall at The Preserve at All Saints Cemetery, which offers the option of natural burials for Catholics who seek a simpler way to say goodbye to loved ones. Natural, or “green,” burials still afford the deceased a full Catholic funeral and rites, bu tburials are done without embalming and using a simple shroud and casket.
Photos by Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Waterford Township — Every Ash Wednesday, Catholics are reminded that one day their bodies will return to the Earth: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

While the Christian life contemplates where one’s soul will end up in the afterlife, more and more environmentally conscious Catholics are making preparations for how they will leave their bodies behind.

“We are part of the Earth, and there is something calming about returning back to Earth, where we all come from,” said Fr. Charles Morris, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and professor of religious studies at Madonna University.

While not as common today, Fr. Morris noted "green" burials are rooted in an ancient tradition harkening back to the time of Christ. "When you think about it, the most famous burial in history was in a shroud," he said.

While not as common today, Fr. Morris noted “green” burials are rooted in an ancient tradition harkening back to the time of Christ. “When you think about it, the most famous burial in history was in a shroud,” he said.

A former board president and current board treasurer of the Green Burial Council International, an organization that promotes and educates people about “green” burials as both an environmental and spiritual option, Fr. Morris said such final preparations are compatible with Catholic teaching.

Green burials are those in which the deceased’s body is not embalmed, but rather buried in a simple shroud or biodegradable casket made of wood or wicker, with the intention that everything being buried will easily decompose as the body returns to the Earth’s soil.

In green burials, Fr. Morris said a standard Catholic funeral is performed in a church, before the body is transported to the grave, where the body, either covered with a shroud or encased in a wooden or wicker casket, is lowered into the grave. Before then, the body is washed and put on dry ice to preserve it until the funeral.

Everything involved in a green burial is intended to be biodegradable, including the shroud or wooden casket. Occasionally, a temporary metal casket is used to transport the body, but then the body wrapped in a shroud is removed from the casket and lowered into the grave, occasionally by members of the deceased’s family.

“The cool part is the family helping lower the body into the grave; there’s something spiritual with the family having an active role in burying their loved ones,” Fr. Morris said. “I’ve only presided over a green burial four times, but each time the family found it fulfilling. You can’t be environmental without being spiritual, and green burials are very in touch with the spiritual side of things.”

Fr. Morris served as administrator of Our Lady of Hope Cemetery in Brownstown Township from 1989 to 1993 and Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Wyandotte from 1993 to 2010. At Mt. Carmel, he presided over his first Catholic green burial in 2007.

“The first green burial I did was for a woman from Damascus and there was no embalming fluid, it was a natural burial with no chemicals, fertilizer, or concrete vault,” Fr. Morris said. “It leaves a lower environmental footprint, helps the ground break down the body, and its advantage over cremation is that there are no greenhouse gases.”

Russ Burns, director of All Saints Cemetery in Waterford Township, said cemeteries today offer more choices to families on how best to lay their loved ones to rest, and natural burials offer a “green” option for environmental and conservation-conscious families.

Separate but connected to All Saints, The Preserve at All Saints Cemetery is the first in the Archdiocese of Detroit specifically set apart for natural burials. The traditional burial cemetery on the border of Waterford and Clarkston offers 5.95 acres with a separate entrance where families have the option of burying loved ones in a “green” way.

“We had a nice piece of land, and we just wanted another option to offer people,” Burns said. “Most of the people who are interested in green burials live a green lifestyle and want to go back to nature, leaving as little of a footprint as possible.”

Families have the option buying an on-site stone with the deceased's name on it to place over the grave.

Families have the option of buying an on-site stone with the deceased’s name on it to place over the grave.

All Saints has buried 36 people in its natural burial section, with more than 370 sites reserved.

Green burial graves are not as deep as “traditional” burials, which helps in the degradation process, and on average are $2,000 to $3,000 cheaper, as green burials save on casket, concrete encasement and headstone costs.

At All Saints, families have the option buying an on-site stone with the deceased’s name on it to place over the grave, or can choose not to mark the grave, and put the person’s name on the cemetery’s memorial stone shepherd’s wall.

“The family is involved as much as they want to be,” Burns said. “We welcome them to fill the grave back in, we have straps if they aren’t incorporated into the shroud. I find it helps families with closure, they are educated about green burials, and are more at peace knowing it’s the way their family member wanted to go if they were very environmentally conscious.”

Fr. Morris acknowledged green burials might seem odd to Catholic families at first, particularly the novelty of not having a metal casket or in some cases a headstone. But he pointed out that throughout most of human history, including during the time of Christ, nearly all burials were “green.”

“A green burial is like any other burial in terms of the rites received,” Fr. Morris said. “When you look at other parts of the world, this is how they bury. The funeral is still a full Catholic service, but we use a temporary casket and a shroud burial. When you think about it, the most famous burial in history was in a shroud.

“But this fits very well into Catholic theology, that we’re part of creation,” he said. “It’s all in the sense of who we are with the resurrection of the body and sense of family participation in the burial rite. There is still a reverence of the body, as it returns to the Earth, dust to dust.”


The Preserve at All Saints Cemetery

To inquire about natural burials at The Preserve at All Saints Cemetery, call (248) 623-9633.