Photo by Ashley Ahearn
Dave and Marilyn Sabold, shown at their home near Winthrop, discovered the challenges of providing a natural burial after their friend Ken White passed away. Ken did not want to use chemicals to preserve his body, preferring to return to the earth naturally.

Natural burial advocates seek an alternative to modern-day practices

When Ken White was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, he made it clear that when he passed away he wanted nothing to do with any morticians or embalming fluids and chemicals. White was a lifelong Methow Valley resident and a passionate naturalist and environmentalist. For him, “dust to dust” was a phrase meant to be taken literally — as in, he wanted his remains to return to the earth with as little human interference as possible.

But things didn’t go as smoothly as White may have hoped, his friend Dave Sabold recalled.

White had wanted to be buried at the Beaver Creek cemetery in Twisp next to his wife, Marjory, but standard procedure was for all bodies to go to a mortician for embalming before being laid to rest in a casket in a cement-lined grave. The cement liner forms a sort of sarcophagus that prevents the soil in the graveyard from collapsing over time. Ken White never wanted all of that.

Instead, one of Ken’s friend’s built a simple pine box for him to be buried in. But the cemetery wouldn’t allow him to be laid to rest without cement grave-liners. Instead of going with the large ones that are typically used, and require a boom truck to install, Dave Sabold and his wife, Marilyn, found smaller cement slabs that had been left out back at Sullivan Cemetery in Winthrop.

The smaller slabs are no longer permitted for use in either cemetery, but at the time they were the least-invasive underground structure that would allow White’s body to be laid to rest beside his wife’s at Beaver Creek Cemetery.

Handling the burial themselves, as opposed to letting a funeral home, mortician or the cemetery make all the arrangements, took time and a lot of effort.   

“[White’s body] was at our house for a few days,” Dave Sabold said. “We had to get ice and a rubber sheet,” Marilyn added.

White’s death — and what the Sabolds went through to bury him the way he wanted to be buried — inspired the Sabolds to begin organizing an effort to establish a natural burial ground in the Methow Valley. More than two decades later, the group, which is known as Cascades Natural Burial, has met some opposition from local cemeteries that are hesitant to adopt their minimalist, though legal, practices. Now the group is looking for its own piece of land to form a natural burial ground.  

The old school way

Photo by Jodie Buller

Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, the first Conservation Burial Ground in the United States, was started by Billy Campbell.

Natural burial practices involve no preservatives or concrete sarcophaguses. Bodies are buried in shrouds or simple coffins 3 feet below the surface (as opposed to the standard 6 feet). The shallower depth promotes microbial activity to decompose the remains, while being deep enough to prevent any odors from attracting animals. Gravesites can be interspersed with natural features, like trees or sagebrush, across the landscape, and are set back from any water bodies.

By contrast, modern burial practices typically involve embalming a body (though that is not required), sealing it in a casket and laying it to rest inside a cement sarcophagus 6 feet below ground. It is a more resource-intensive approach to burial than was in practice just over 100 years ago.

For the homesteaders who settled this valley, a simple pine box on a quiet hillside was most likely the standard burial option. In fact, embalming the dead did not become popular in the United States until the Civil War, when families who had the means wanted a way to get the bodies of their sons and husbands home from the front lines.

Since those days, the funeral industry has expanded to a multi-billion dollar business. However, burial trends have changed in recent years as conventional burial has been overtaken by cremation. Now, funeral homes are seeing increased demand for more environmentally friendly burial options, such as not using embalming chemicals or preservatives.

Conventional burial involves more resources than natural burial. By some estimates, each year enough wood is buried to build 1,800 single-family houses and enough embalming fluid, which contains formaldehyde, to fill eight Olympic sized swimming pools. According to the Green Burial Council, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete is used in burial vaults.   

A tough sell  

The largest obstacle proponents of natural burial have faced in the Methow Valley is finding the right piece of land. They have been in discussions with several different property owners who considered donating or selling land to create a natural burial ground but who then changed their minds.

“To me it’s a no-brainer. It’s the ultimate conservation move. No one’s going to dig up a body,” said Susie Kowalczyk, a member of Cascades Natural Burial.

The group is looking for 20 or more acres with road access and some tree cover. The soil can’t be too hilly or rocky.

“I’m just hoping that somebody starts thinking in this direction and decides that they have some land that they can spare. We just keep talking to people,” Kowalczyk said.

Proponents of natural burial have also approached the cemeteries in Twisp and Winthrop. Kowalczyk served on the board of the Beaver Creek Cemetery in Twisp and had advocated for natural burial there, to no avail. “We tried to introduce that idea but they had worked hard and had it the way that they liked it,” said Kowalczyk. “There seemed to be a lot of reluctance about doing natural burial.”  

Dave and Marilyn Sabold own a burial plot at Sullivan Cemetery in Winthrop. They had hoped to one day have a natural burial, without concrete casket-liners, but the cemetery said that would not be possible under current regulations.

“Basically [natural burial] is a new enough concept that we really haven’t had the interest or the time to see about it,” said Rick Stone, who serves on the board of the Sullivan Cemetery. The board meets four times per year.

“I don’t really foresee in the near future that being an acceptable course up at Sullivan Cemetery,” Stone said, adding that some of the older graves at the cemetery were not cement-lined, which lead to the collapse of the soil over the grave sites.   

“Back in the early 1900s, some of the burials were pine boxes and those do decompose along with the bodies and we’ve had a few situations where we’ve had grave collapse,” Stone said. “It’s hard enough to keep a nice cemetery lawn level, let alone having collapses. We’ve had to expose bodies in order to put in proper concrete covers.”

Stone said that, if it was legal, he’d personally like to be “wrapped in muslin, rested against a stump up on a mountain side and let the earth have me” when he dies, but from a cemetery maintenance standpoint he said natural burial makes things more complicated. “It’s a tremendous amount of effort just keeping headstones on the level because they’re constantly wanting to lean and settle,” he said.

Cascades Natural Burial has also approached the Methow Conservancy and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in the hope of finding land for a natural burial ground in the valley. No agreements have been reached yet.

Increasingly popular

Photo by Jodie Buller

Members of the Conservation Burial Alliance, a collaboration of conservation burial ground operators, toured Carolina Memorial Sanctuary near Asheville, North Carolina.

There are just a handful of natural burial grounds in Washington state. One of them, the White Eagle Memorial Preserve, is located in Goldendale on Ekone Ranch. Jodie Buller, the head of White Eagle, came to the Methow Valley this summer to talk with natural burial organizers here.

“We’ve hired out and professionalized a lot of the things that were the ties that bind a community and as we’re seeing with community gardens and natural burial, people are turning back toward those lost things,” Buller said. “There’s movement and some momentum afoot.”

Seventy-five people have been buried at White Eagle since it was founded in 2008. Buller said this year has been one of the most popular to date and more than 125 people have reserved future burial plots at the 20-acre site.

The graves at White Eagle are all hand-dug and families and loved ones can gather at the ranch to hold a ceremony of their choosing before the body is brought to the grave site by horse-drawn carriage. Bodies can be buried in simple shrouds or wooden boxes. No preservatives are used and graves are dispersed in 20-by-20-foot plots through a meadow dotted with trees. Buller says it looks like a wild meadow, not an orderly graveyard.  

“The way we have constructed cemeteries with straight lines and headstones, they’ve become monocultures, and I contrast that with the potential for burial in a place that has lots of living trees and wildlife moving through it — that riot of life.” Buller said. “There is an understanding in folks, especially in rural places, that this is not an icky thing. It goes back to how the family cemeteries of our ancestors have done it.”

Visit the Cascades Natural Burial website at https://cascadesnaturalburial.org.