The Hills We Die On
On a warm summer day with bright yellow flowers in full bloom, Lydia Shockey and her family gathered at a secluded forest meadow surrounded by mountains to bury her father. After lowering his body into a shallow grave, they covered him with dirt and adorned the mound with pinecones, flowers, and sticks laid into the shape of an R.
An admirer of wild places, Robert Trottmann had a burial that matched his ethos. Furthermore, every aspect of his body’s disposition was in line with what is known as natural, or green, burial standards, which prohibit concrete grave liners and toxic embalming fluids and call for a biodegradable casket or shroud. All of these details, Shockey says, would have made her father proud.
“He had such a connection to nature,” she says. “I think he would have really been relieved.”
Shockey’s father was buried 12 miles northeast of Ashland at the Forest Conservation Burial Ground, a new cemetery in Oregon dedicated solely to natural burial. Though she didn’t know a lot about natural burial before her father died in July 2020, Shockey says it was something that fit with the way he and the rest of their family had always talked about death.
“I think socially so many of us have been conditioned to think of humans as inherently bad for the environment,” Shockey says. “With green burial there’s an opportunity to counter that narrative and to participate in the natural world in a healthy way. We can care for the needs of our loved ones and care for the earth at the same time.”
The concept of natural burial isn’t new. In early US history, when someone died their body was cared for by a family member. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that embalming fluid entered the scene and the funeral industry gained momentum, with undertakers performing the tasks of preparing deceased bodies for burial.
Burial rates in the US have declined as cremation has grown in popularity. Over the past five years, the share of Americans who are cremated after they die has crossed the halfway mark and is now around 56 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors
Association. By 2040, the cremation rate is projected to reach 78 percent nationally. In Oregon, it’s nearly that already.
While cremation is often viewed as a less costly and more environmentally friendly option, it still results in an estimated 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted in the US each year—an annual energy equivalent of running about 38,000 homes.
In response, there’s been increasing interest in alternative deathcare options, such as alkaline hydrolysis, a body disposal process that uses water, lye, and heat, and human organic reduction, a process similar to composting. Both options were the subject of House Bill 2574, expanding options for "alternative dispositions," which was passed by the Oregon Legislature in June 2021 and will go into effect July 2022.
“We think consumers need all the choices in the world available to them when they are making these decisions,” says Rep. Pam Marsh of Medford, a chief sponsor of the bill. “This is not a decision any of us will get out of.”
These alternative options also include natural burial, a practice growing in popularity, while helping to revitalize a struggling cemetery industry.
“When three-fourths of your clients that you’ve been used to serving no longer want what you have to sell, it’s a killer,” says David Noble, who has spent 17 years as the executive director at River View Cemetery in Southwest Portland. It was around 2007 when Noble started noticing bereaved family members asking for burials without embalming, varnished caskets, or concrete boxes.
“At first blush my thought was, ‘You can’t do that,’” he says. The point of a concrete burial container, he explained, is to keep the grave from sinking over time. Forgoing one presents a safety concern and could require added maintenance of the lawn.
“Then one day, somebody said to me—and this was a mind-opening statement—‘I don’t understand, because our family plot at River View has been there since the late 1800s and there are several generations of people that were buried there that didn’t have a concrete box. They were buried in a simple plain wood casket, so why can’t I?’”
That point, plus the fact that the business wasn’t in a position to turn away paying customers, led Noble to start offering natural burial. In doing so, he unwittingly became the go-to resource in Oregon for cemetery owners looking to do the same.
“To me, it’s laughable,” he says “It’s not complicated. It’s anything but complicated. I think I sort of thought I was inventing this, only to look around and see that it was happening elsewhere.”
Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that sets standards for and aims to educate about sustainable and natural deathcare options, calls River View a hybrid cemetery in that it offers natural burial alongside traditional burial—and it’s not the only one in Oregon.
Oak Hill Cemetery in Eugene and Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Junction City both offer natural and traditional burial. They’re owned by Cynthia Beal, who got involved in the deathcare industry after owning a natural food store in Eugene.
“We were paying attention to what we were putting into our bodies, but not what we were doing with them after death,” she says. “We were composting everything but us.”
Beal sold her store and in 2004 launched Natural Burial Company, which sells biodegradable caskets and urns and organic shrouds. Through her contacts with funeral home directors, she began helping traditional cemeteries transition to offer natural burial, too.
Beal says she is trying to spread the word that there are options when it comes to deathcare. Instead of starting a new cemetery, Beal focuses on the cemeteries that already exist.
“That is actually doing more conserving, in my point of view,” Beal says. “At the same time, you’re preserving history and culture ... those cemeteries would be abandoned otherwise, and a cemetery is around forever. It can’t be anything else.”
While there is no specific designation for natural or green burial with the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board, the Forest Conservation Burial Ground, where Robert Trottmann now rests, is in the process of becoming the first cemetery in Oregon to be certified as a conservation burial site through the Green Burial Council. (By the council’s standards, natural burial and conservation burial both adhere to the same guidelines for sustainable burial practices, but conservation burial grounds also partner with land trusts to enact strategies that conserve and restore the land to its native habitat.)
Such spaces are “a milestone” for the state and region, says Lee Webster, a former Green Burial Council president and cofounder of the Conservation Burial Alliance who has spent 15 years in the funeral reform space. Of about a dozen conservation burial sites across the country, Webster says only a fraction are certified through the Green Burial Council. It’s a big development for this particular resting place, yet the owners of the Forest in Ashland didn’t plan to add to a growing natural deathcare scene in Oregon. In fact, they didn’t originally plan to open a cemetery at all.
Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt were only looking for 40 acres to do some organic farming when they fell in love with a sprawling 445-acre plot tucked in the Southern Oregon Cascade Mountains. Fulfilling lifelong dreams, the couple bought the property and started Willow-Witt Ranch in 1985.
“We just thought it was heaven and we still do,” Willow says.
Over the years the duo has expanded their business into agritourism, repurposing a 1920s farmhouse into their own house and building new lodging and a campground for overnight guests. They lead activities such as birding and goat hiking, and host school outings and weddings. But early on in their ranch ownership, they learned that parts of their forest had been badly logged and wetlands had been damaged by cow grazing, facts that led them to take steps to restore the land to a healthy, balanced state.
And while they knew after a few years that they wanted to be buried at their ranch, the couple laughed when they learned they were permitted to operate a cemetery on the property, a fact hidden on the backside of a zoning document. They gave the idea more
serious thought when their friend Pat Gordon, who had sold her 80-acre ranch, approached them looking for a place for her own burial.
Gordon did some initial legwork and brought Willow and Witt the beginnings of a proposal. “It didn’t take much convincing,” Willow says, adding with a chuckle: “And for my next act, I’m going to become a cemetarian when I grow old.”
After an archaeological survey determined there were no Indigenous burial grounds on their property (the area was home to several tribes, including the Takelma, Shasta, and Athapaskan) and after getting advice from a forest manager, the couple officially opened the Forest Conservation Burial Ground in June 2020, with Gordon the proud first customer to secure a burial plot.
“I’m going to be planted by two white oak trees,” says the 80-year-old Jacksonville resident, who has already performed a dress rehearsal of her deathcare wishes. “My decomposing body is going to help nurture those white oaks and whatever vegetation is growing there.”
Even when someone isn’t so involved in their post-death plans, their family has a chance to be. While traditional burial is predicated on a family’s removal from the deathcare process, natural burial invites them in. Mourners are encouraged to care for their loved one’s body, a component of the practice that strongly resonates with those who have experienced it.
That was true for Lydia Shockey. While some relatives dug the grave, she and her husband changed her father’s clothes and wrapped him in a cotton shroud and elk hide. This task not only gave her something to do with her hands, but also contributed to her sense of closure.
“Every moment that I was participating in felt like a part of that process of realizing that he was gone and the finality of death and being able to move on,” she says. “We saw that it was real and that it was OK, that we could keep living.... It was sad in some sense, but it felt so right. This is what humans do. We need to bury our loved ones.”