Cynthia Beal was looking for a new thing. It was 2004. She’d just sold her successful natural foods grocery store in Eugene and wondered what venture she should embark upon next.
“I thought to myself, what is gonna happen to our bodies when we die? What do we do? How to we dispose of ourselves? What do we do with us? That was just a fascinating question,” she says.
Beal started writing a business plan. She named her new entity The Natural Burial Company and submitted paperwork. Two weeks later — she received some jarring news.
“I find out I’ve got a tumor,” she says. “And so I go into this really interesting mode for about four months of possibly being my first and last customer.”
Beal says at the time, the idea of a modern natural burial was virtually unheard of. Her friends said her ideas wouldn’t work. Beal heard from skeptics who told her embalming and concrete vaults were required for burial. She just said ‘no way.’
Beal wrote her own burial plan.
“I basically said, When I die I don’t want to be embalmed. I want to be buried in the ground, shallow so I can decompose. I want to be in a biodegradable coffin. I want to have a cherry tree planted on top of me,” Beal says.
But, a successful surgery removed the cancer. What remained was a commitment to make it easier for other people to plan and carry out a natural burial.
Twelve years later, Beal’s Natural Burial Company offers consultation and sells organic coffins, caskets and urns. The materials include willow, bamboo, even paper — all bio-degradable.
There was a time in this country when every burial was natural. During the Civil War, the need to transport dead soldiers home led to the practice of embalming bodies for preservation. To this day, a traditional burial usually includes embalming — and that, says Beal, is a problem.
“The bodies are not decomposing,” she says.
Beal extended her promotion of natural burial when she purchased two cemeteries, one in Junction City and another just west of Eugene.
Oak Hill Cemetery has a view of Fern Ridge Reservoir. Some of the headstones date back to the late 1800s.
Conventional thought is that unpreserved buried bodies are detrimental to the environment. Many cemeteries require vaults or grave liners for interment. Walking between graves, Beal points out patches of dead grass.
“This is a rocky hillside. That’s where the burials have taken place with the bodies in the metal caskets inside concrete vaults. And so the soil is not absorbing the water any longer, it’s just running off,” she says. “And when this hillside bakes in the sun, it kills the grass.”
Beal says most cemeteries deal with this problem by using fertilizers and herbicides.
I ask Beal if she has any idea who established the 6-feet-under standard.
“It’s a relatively arbitrary choice,” she says. “At one point, I think the decision was there to deter grave robbers a long time ago from digging into graves. But the 6-foot designation has no scientific basis whatsoever.”
For a natural burial at this cemetery Beal says they dig graves a few feet down.
“We like to have 20 to 24 inches of soil on top but they are relatively shallow,” she says. “And we feel that is a good compromise between getting the body down a good solid depth but not so far that it inhibits decomposition.”
On this day, 20 seventh-graders arrive at Oak Hill Cemetery. They are part of SPICE, a science camp for girls.
These young scientists are going to excavate to learn about decomposition — but not by digging up bodies. Beal and her staff have buried pieces of sheep kidney. The students will exhume them and examine the soil under a microscope. Cemetery as classroom.
In many parts of Europe, where natural burial is de rigueur, it is customary to re-use a grave many years after the former occupant has decomposed. The United States is just beginning to grapple with overcrowded cemeteries. The city of New York has almost no burial plots left. Metal coffins and cement vaults don’t break down and Beal says that will have grave impacts.
“We may actually be leaving a tremendous challenge for future generations who may have to dis-inter all those boxes and figure out what to do with them.”