Wake County

Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh now offers green burials

Fiber artist Julie Moore with her handmade custom burial coffin, made of heavy organic cotton cording wrapped with strips of colorful fabric and molded to the body in her workshop Wednesday, July 20, 2016. Moore, 56, who lives in the Fairview Community in southern Wake County has been making biodegradable urns and shrouds for green burials for years and is now making larger biodegradable burial coffins of the same organic fabric of heavier cording. Biodegradable coffins and related items are required for green burials.
Fiber artist Julie Moore with her handmade custom burial coffin, made of heavy organic cotton cording wrapped with strips of colorful fabric and molded to the body in her workshop Wednesday, July 20, 2016. Moore, 56, who lives in the Fairview Community in southern Wake County has been making biodegradable urns and shrouds for green burials for years and is now making larger biodegradable burial coffins of the same organic fabric of heavier cording. Biodegradable coffins and related items are required for green burials. hlynch@newsobserver.com

When Julie Moore dies, she will be buried in a biodegradable cotton casket she made herself and laid to rest at Oakwood Cemetery, where she hopes her remains will fertilize a pink dogwood tree.

“Natural burial is a way of returning back to the earth,” said Moore, 56.

This spring, Oakwood Cemetery near downtown Raleigh began offering green burials, a growing trend among people of all ages who are rethinking traditional burial options.

Green burials – in which bodies skip the embalming process and are placed in biodegradable materials below the earth – are often cheaper than burials that involve wooden or metal caskets or vaults.

Some say they are more environmentally friendly. As opposed to cremation, green burials don’t emit chemicals.

Others say having their bodies spend eternity underground, becoming part of the soil, is calm and spiritual.

“We are returning to our roots,” said Robin Simonton, executive director of Oakwood Cemetery. “We want people to realize that green burials are normal. It’s a gift to the planet.”

In 2015, 64 percent of adults age 40 and older said they would be interested in green funeral options, according to a survey by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council. That compares to 43 percent in 2010.

Oakwood set aside 48 plots in Mordecai’s Meadow, in a northwest sector of the cemetery, for green burials. Half of them have been reserved, Simonton said.

The idea was inspired by the cemetery’s original burials in the 1800s, when Confederate soldiers were often laid to rest in burlap or wooden boxes in a section of Oakwood known as the Soldier’s Cemetery.

In the 19th century, families typically held wakes at their homes and prepared a loved one’s body themselves before “the sanitization of death,” including the practice of embalming, Simonton said. Embalming a body helps preserve it longer by slowing decomposition.

“Green burial is returning to that simple way of caring for your loved ones,” Simonton said.

Through her business Earth to Earth Burial, Moore creates and sells artistic personalized vessels, shrouds and urns from her home in Apex. Her most popular design is “the party jar,” a vessel with vibrant colors.

Moore customizes her products for families, using fabrics and materials that evoke fond memories. In the past, she has created products from old T-shirts and quilts. Her caskets typically cost $2,500 and take several months to make.

She is currently working on a party jar for a young girl in Australia who recently died of cancer. The jar reflects the girl’s favorite colors: purple and yellow.

Growing up on a horse farm in Missouri, Moore said she has always felt connected to nature. She knew from an early age she wanted to buried organically.

“If we, in every aspect of our lives, would step back and allow nature to continue uninterrupted, everything would be better,” Moore said. “(Other forms of burial) are pulling the body out of the natural cycle, and I don’t think that’s right. Every creature dies, decomposes and becomes food for another creature.

“I want to be worm food, and that’s normal and natural.”

‘One with nature’

In 2006, there was one natural burial provider in North America approved by the Green Burial Council, which offers environmental certificates and sets standards for funeral homes, cemeteries and product manufacturers.

Now there are more than 300 providers in six Canadian provinces and 41 U.S. states, including nine in North Carolina. There are three in the Triangle: Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest and City of Oaks Cremation and Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh.

Some proponents of green burials tout the cheaper cost. An average traditional casket can cost more than $2,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Some mahogany, bronze or copper caskets can exceed $10,000.

The median price of a traditional funeral with a viewing and burial cost $7,181 in 2014, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

A green burial plot at Oakwood Cemetery costs $2,750, plus a one-time interment fee of $1,050 for upkeep and repairs.

As for environmental issues, Moore said cremation emits fumes, and vaults, urns and coffins made of steel or other metals never break down.

“Natural burial is the solution to all of these concerns,” she said.

The popularity of green burials will continue to grow as more people see them as spiritual experiences, said Dyanne Matzkevich, manager of Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest and Gethsemane Memorial Gardens in Zebulon.

Pine Forest Memorial Gardens has sold about 100 plots for green burials since 2009, Matzkevich said, and the cemetery can continue to add plots.

Many people are curious about green burials at the cemetery, she said.

“It’s a completion of the circle of life,” Matzkevich said. “It’s cathartic for people when it comes to saying goodbye. A body is important, and when it becomes one with nature, it’s all so much more meaningful.”

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler

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