Back to Nature

“Bury me not, on the lone prairie.”

                                                ~ The Cowboy’s Lament

It was a lonely grave, no other markers or structures nearby. An old board, with flaked paint almost obscuring the message, stood upright in the desert at the base of Utah’s Book Cliffs. Maybe it had been some cowboy riding the lonely range or a traveler crossing the west to find a better place. I hoped that he found his better place; just not on this earth.

Bleak desert surrounded the small plot. Sage and rabbit brush covered the sandy soil. To the north, the sandstone cliffs rose hundreds of feet, interrupted by canyons whose intermittent streams vanished at the canyon mouths. Cottonwoods were visible back in the canyons and pine trees peeked from behind the cliff rim. Otherwise, the short shrubs and sandstone provided the only company to his final monument.

In unperturbed nature, the dead man would have lain across the desert floor, temporary sustenance for the vultures, insects and small critters — his bones may ultimately have been gnawed by the larger beasts. Even buried, his remains only slightly impeded by a wooden coffin, he would have decomposed into the soft sand to join the uninterrupted cycle of nature.

Who knows how many corpses shared his space over time? Travelers from forgotten ages or people of long-lost cultures? Animals both familiar and strange to us may have left their lives in this spot? Or perhaps just the decayed vegetation of past ecosystems, possible long-gone seas or jungles or savannahs?

On the Navajo, I often found the relics of past lives. The Navajo would abandon and collapse a Hogan, their traditional home structure, if a person died within. You could find the crumpled structures scattered across the reservation. They were off-limits, since the spirit of the dead person was said to still inhabit the place, but I was never clear whether they were interred there as well.

From the Egyptian pyramids to the Vikings’ flaming longboats, we’ve evolved strange practices for our dead. The early European plague-driven practice of burying the dead, then removing their bones after years of decay to be placed in an ossuary (think Hamlet, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio”), is thought to be a space-saving concept to allow ample room for the future dead. (Not unlike our current situation where mortuaries, filling up with COVID victims, are having to store bodies in refrigerated trucks.)

“Ring around the rosies, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, all fall down.”  The familiar nursery rhyme is also attributed to the Great Plague in Europe’s dark ages, when the death rate outran the available burial space, and plague victims’ bodies were burned. Today, cremation is a popular disposition technique for our dead.

Most methods used for dealing with our dead are not particularly environmentally sound. We place bodies in steel-lined caskets to use up space in our graveyards for eternity, or we burn the bodies in wooden caskets using natural gas and emitting air pollution — but saving the ashes for the mantel or to be spread in the mountains, oceans or elsewhere.  

Some places may allow burial in a simple wooden coffin, subject to decay of the coffin and contents over the years. A similar, more direct approach has recently been proposed — compost burial. One company makes coffins from fast-composting mushroom fibers, mycelium, which is the underground fibrous network that makes up most of the lifeform. The “living cocoons” will foster the decomposition of a human body within two to three years, returning it to nature.

A similar idea has been implemented by Capsula Mundi. “It’s an egg-shaped pod, an ancient and perfect form, made of biodegradable material, where our departed loved ones are placed for burial… The Capsula will then be buried as a seed in the earth. A tree, chosen in life by the deceased, will be planted on top of it and serve as a memorial for the departed and as a legacy for posterity and the future of our planet.”

Reporter Kate Wight noted, “The environmental impact of tree pod burials cannot be overstated. Traditional burials fill the earth with nonbiodegradable hardwood and steel, and bodies are pumped full of toxic embalming fluid. Natural burial options, like tree pod burials, will have a huge impact on the environment as the practice becomes more widespread.”

Many tours of Europe include visits to cathedrals, which often include a climb down into the catacombs below the church to see the ossuaries, where hundreds of skulls and other bones are kept. Most of us have visited a local cemetery, where shade trees fill the older portions, but the adjacent earth, newly scoured to make room for more graves, is visible just to the side.

It is just not feasible to keep expanding church basements or our cemeteries for an ever-growing population of dead. But the concept of using ourselves to nourish the soil and create our own new forest appeals to me very strongly. It’s the perfect recycling, the ultimate back to nature effort.

After all, who wouldn’t want to became an oak tree?

Additional information:

Andy Corbley, Dutch Man Invents Coffin that Turns Bodies Into Mushrooms, December 2, 2020, Good News Network

PROJECT – Capsula Mundi,

Steve Tarlton, What Dreams May Come, 7/13/17, Writes of Nature

Kate Wight, How Eco-Friendly Tree Pod Burials Work: Cost, Process & Impact, 10/8/2019, CAKE

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