New natural-burial area in Bel Aire part of a burgeoning trend (+video)

VIDEO: Cemetery creates 'green' burial area

The Diocese of Wichita has created an area at Ascension Cemetery where an individual can choose a natural burial. Natural burials involve no embalming and either a wooden casket or burial shroud.
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The Diocese of Wichita has created an area at Ascension Cemetery where an individual can choose a natural burial. Natural burials involve no embalming and either a wooden casket or burial shroud.

Cremation has been gaining on traditional burials in recent years, to the point of being almost as common. But there is another option that may come to challenge it: natural burial, which is now available in the Wichita area.

Last month, the body of Wichitan Patty Ast became the first to be buried in the new natural-burial area of Ascension Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery on East 45th Street in Bel Aire. The natural area, cut off from the rest of the cemetery by berms and asway with native grasses, was developed under former Wichita bishop Michael Jackels and opened late last year. Twenty-four gravesites have been claimed so far, with room for hundreds.

Jim Sheldon, director of cemeteries for Wichita’s Catholic Diocese, foresees the number of natural burials growing as an alternative to cremation – both of which are less expensive than traditional burial.

“I see people who think, ‘I don’t want to be consumed by fire (as in cremation), but I want a simple burial,’” Sheldon said. The Catholic preference also is to have the body at the funeral Mass. Natural burial is an alternative to cremation that allows for both desires.

While there are levels of green or natural burial – and no single definition of what it constitutes – it basically means that an unembalmed body is placed in a biodegradable casket or shroud that is placed directly in the ground without a surrounding vault. Some green cemeteries allow natural grave markers, but at Ascension, there will be no tombstones and only infrequent maintenance mowing of the native grasses planted last fall.

The average price of a standard traditional funeral in 2014 was $6,623, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Kansas City’s survey of that area. At Ascension Cemetery, a traditional burial – apart from funeral-home costs – runs at least $2,550, while a natural burial is $1,300, Sheldon said. Embalming alone costs $600, Todd Phifer of Cochran Mortuary in Wichita said, while short-term refrigeration at the mortuary carries no cost. While biodegradable caskets can be expensive, one option that saves money is a sturdy cardboard container that costs $100, Phifer said.

When Ast began preparing for her death after cancer had metastasized in her liver in the spring, her family visited Ascension and then came home to tell her about the burial options there. Her husband, Clem, had in his mind a spot near the priests who are buried in the cemetery, because Patty had been a devoted volunteer at the Priest Retirement Center next door. Clem Ast told her about the spot, but Patty wanted to know more about the natural area.

“I could tell she got energy around that,” Clem Ast said. As his wife looked into it further, “I began to get excited, because she was excited. We were both raised in the rural areas. We both come from farming backgrounds. She loved the outdoors and she was a free spirit, and she didn’t necessarily need a tombstone or anything like that.”

The five-acre natural section of Ascension, half of it developed so far, is one of a handful of natural-burial areas in Kansas. Most are part of traditional cemeteries – Oak Hill in Lawrence, Mount Muncie in Lansing, Highland Cemetery in Prairie Village, the cemetery of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. But the state is expected to have its first solely green cemetery by the end of the year – the Heart Land Prairie Cemetery outside Salina.

The Land Institute has donated 13.5 acres, now planted in alfalfa, for the new cemetery. It will be restored to native prairie, and hiking trails will make it a destination for people other than the loved ones of the dead.

“Essentially what we’ll be doing here is getting back to the way our pioneering ancestors did burial out here on the prairie before the advent of the modern cemetery,” Sarah Crews of Salina, who came up with the idea for Heart Land, said in a video on the fundraising website Indiegogo. The cemetery is trying to raise $16,000 for a perpetual trust and start-up needs. Crews expects the cemetery to be open before the end of the year.

The demand so far for the natural-burial spots in Kansas has not been huge. Only one burial has taken place so far in a natural wooded area at Mount Muncie Cemetery in Lansing since it opened four years ago. But as with cremations that started out big on both coasts and now make up almost 50 percent of dispositions in Kansas, the demand for green cemeteries is expected to grow here, said Gene Kirby, manager of Mount Muncie.

“We knew it was coming, and we wanted to be ready for it,” Kirby said.

“We have a lot of interest in it, (but) maybe the wife likes the idea and the husband doesn’t. A lot of times it’s trying to get the couples on the same page.”

Oak Hill in Lawrence has had 28 burials in its natural space since it opened in 2009. And it is getting ready to expand, as 76 of the 130 available gravesites have been sold.

“What is very ironic is that 90 percent of the people buried in that cemetery don’t even live in Lawrence,” said Mitch Young, park district supervisor for the city of Lawrence, which operates the cemetery. “It’s a big push outside – in Kansas City, Topeka and Ottawa.”

‘Not just a piece of land’

Clem Ast was initially resistant to the idea of his wife’s natural burial, but he found that it didn’t translate into a huge difference from a traditional one, and he now loves where she is buried. Every day he drives the half-mile from his house in Willowbend to the gravesite, unfolds a camp mattress alongside it, kneels down on the mat and says the rosary aloud.

“It feels very comfortable,” said Ast, who bought the gravesite next to his wife’s for his own. “That’s the way I’m going to go, so I’m comfortable with it. It’s very peaceful.”

While the idea of natural burial may sound novel, only a couple of elements make it stand out to Clem Ast: There was no viewing of his wife’s body, and her grave has no tombstone.

Downing & Lahey Mortuary refrigerated the body from the time Patty Ast died on the Thursday before the Fourth of July until her funeral the following Monday. Her body was placed in a simple but attractive oak casket that had wooden pegs instead of metal hinges to make it completely biodegradable. The casket was taken for a time to the church on Sunday for the rosary but was not opened, and it was returned to the mortuary and to refrigeration overnight.

The casket was brought back to the church for the funeral Monday and, afterward, at the cemetery, it was lowered into a grave in the shadow of a cross planted at the highest point of the natural-burial area – two Osage-orange tree trunks notched and pinned and lashed together with rawhide.

Refrigerating a body is not unusual for Downing & Lahey Mortuary, and it always has biodegradable caskets on hand, especially for Jewish burials, said Bob Sterbens of the mortuary. Jewish tradition has always been “green,” forgoing embalming and using only such caskets. For a green burial, Cochran offers a viewing of the body for family members at no cost – seeing the body is important psychologically, Phifer said – but funeral homes don’t do a public viewing without the sanitation of embalming. And that is one main difference between traditional and natural burials that society would have to get used to, Phifer said.

The natural area of Ascension Cemetery is on blessed land for burial of Catholics, but non-Catholics can be buried there, though it is not being marketed to them, Sheldon said.

“It’s not just a piece of land,” Sheldon said. “We’re primarily a cemetery. Green is secondary.”

Because there will be no grave markers in the natural area, people will plot the approximate location of a gravesite by finding a name on a memorial wall that will include the information that would usually be on a tombstone, as well as an optional QR code that can be scanned on a smartphone.

The lack of vaults for caskets means that the ground around gravesites will settle, and new soil will be added as needed and seeded with native grasses that won’t regularly be mowed.

“It’ll be a process of years” for the plants to grow, including trees that will be planted on the berms to further screen the area from nearby housing developments, Sheldon said.

The natural-burial area in Lawrence allows trees to be planted on top of graves. The new green cemetery outside Salina will allow natural grave markers.

Green vs. natural

The natural-burial option is championed by environmentalists as well as by those who want to hearken to a simpler time or who want something less expensive than a traditional burial and don’t want cremation.

“I buried my husband green in Lawrence a couple of years ago,” said Nancy Jobe, board president for the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Kansas City. “It was an inexpensive way to do it. It was a heart attack. It was sudden. I didn’t involve a funeral home at all. I did it myself. ... We spend a lot of time in the alliance to educate people about their options, even to the point of doing everything at home.”

There are other organizations as well, such as Crossings, that guide people through bringing a body home, preparing it themselves, putting it on dry ice for as long as three days, and inviting friends and family to visit, just as was done in the old days.

“It helps the grieving process if you’re involved in it,” Jobe said. But “it does take a different person. I’m an event planner. ... I just did it because I figured it was my right to bury him.”

Mack Smith, executive secretary for the Kansas Board of Mortuary Arts, also receives inquiries from people who want to bury a loved one on their own property, usually in a rural location. There is no state law against it, Smith said, but people must follow any ordinances that might apply in their city or county.

Most people don’t realize how few regulations actually govern funerals and burials, Jobe said. Options also are available when a body is cremated, with some people holding a wake and funeral with the body beforehand.

The Asts’ decision to go natural was not based on environmental concerns.

“We weren’t really thinking of green as much as we liked the natural-burial concept,” Clem Ast said. “We talked about cremation,” but they also considered that the process emits toxins.

The Salina cemetery, on the other hand, will be seeking certification by the Green Burial Council in Ojai, Calif. Since 2006, the council has certified 54 cemeteries that abide by one of three levels of ecofriendly burial. The council estimates it has certified half of such cemeteries in the United States for various commitments to reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources and preserving habitat.

“It was a sort of a steady growth until about two years ago, then there was an explosion in knowledge and interest, especially on the funeral side on body preparation,” said Kate Kalanick, the council’s executive director.

The council also certifies funeral homes for offering embalming by nontoxic chemicals or, preferably, by refrigeration rather than embalming. Embalming fluids can cause health problems for people who work with them and environmental problems when the fluids are disposed of, Kalanick said.

Other more earthy ways of disposition also are being tried. In what the New York Times called “a startling next step in the natural burial movement,” human composting is being tested by the nonprofit Urban Death Project of Seattle. A three-story vault is envisioned that could hold multiple bodies. There are discussions about what could be done with such “compost,” while at least one critic compared such a vault to a mass grave.

While Clem Ast at first had reservations about his wife’s preference for natural burial, he now takes comfort in visiting her gravesite in Ascension Cemetery. He remembers that when his wife was nearing death, she wanted to have the windows of the house open, even when it seemed too cool. She loved to hear the birds, see the moon and feel the breeze.

Clem Ast sees the grass already starting to take root on her grave.

“It’s kind of refreshing to see new life,” he said.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

For more information

Natural-burial area of Ascension Cemetery in Bel Aire: catholicdioceseofwichita.org (click on “Catholic Cemeteries” under “Ministries & Offices”) or call 316-722-1971

Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Kansas City: www.funeralskc.org

Heart Land Prairie Cemetery outside Salina: www.heartlandprairiecemetery.org