When people ask Dave Drapac about his plans for a cemetery where people can be buried without chemicals or even a coffin, their responses tend more toward "cool" than "yuck."
People have said "I love the idea that I can be composted," said Drapac, president of the Trust for Natural Legacies, which works to preserve and restore natural areas throughout the Midwest. The group is one of two here looking to establish a "green" graveyard.
"You can pretend that your body's going to be nice and preserved if embalmed and air tight," he said. But that's not the case. "It's not a pretty picture any way you choose."
It's an idea that's catching on. Circle Cemetery, an arm of Circle Sanctuary near Barneveld, is seeking to expand its existing one-acre cremains-only cemetery to 20 acres to include natural burials.
Next month, Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee will set aside three of its 200 acres for green burial sites - possibly the first cemetery in the state to do so. About eight green cemeteries, including some where only a portion are green, have been established in the nation in the last 10 years, Drapac said.
The Trust for Natural Legacies is not quite as far along. But the group is looking for land close to Madison for a conservation cemetery, perhaps near Nine Springs Creek in Fitchburg.
"It would be, I think, an ideal site for us," Drapac said, although he admits "it's very much pie in the sky" because the land is near a major development corridor, driving up its value.
\ Interest increasing
James Olson, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and owner of the Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, said interest in green burials has increased, especially in the last two years.
While there aren't many options for such burials in Wisconsin, cremation - which doesn't take up any land or introduce chemicals into the ground - remains a popular choice for people looking for a more environmentally friendly send-off, Olson said. Also, some caskets are made without metals and are biodegradable.
In addition, not all cemeteries require cement vaults to surround the caskets, which serve mainly to keep the ground from collapsing under heavy equipment such as lawn mowers and backhoes, he said.
Those vaults won't be used in the green area of the Forest Home Cemetery, meaning the cemetery will periodically add soil as the ground settles, said Tom Kursel, president of cemetery on the south side of Milwaukee.
Simpler can also mean cheaper when it comes to funerals and burials. The average cost of an adult funeral, including embalming, preparation of the body, buying a casket and paying facility and staff costs is $6,195, according to 2006 statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association. That doesn't include the cost of a cemetery plot, monument or other burial costs.
\ Minimizing effects
But Olson said money isn't the only reason for the increasing interest in green burials. It's also about minimizing the ecological effects of traditional burials. "It really is a true concern for the environment," he said.
Besides protecting the land, natural interments "sort of reconnect us" with the Earth, Drapac added.
Locating a loved one's grave in a green cemetery may take a bit more work, however. Because there won't be any headstones, visitors to the green portion of Milwaukee's Forest Home Cemetery will be given GPS devices to find the sites, Kursel said.
Large boulders will be placed on the property on which peoples' names and dates will be inscribed, he said.
Drapac also envisions a more natural marker for any future conservation cemetery his group establishes.
"A lot of people like the idea of a living marker like a tree (or) perennial flower," he said.
Traditional funeral services, including a viewing, can still be incorporated into green burials even though the body wouldn't be embalmed.
If the body needs to be viewed a week after the death, it can be preserved through refrigeration or dry ice, Drapac said.
\ Expanding site
Since 1995, Circle Sanctuary - a Wiccan church and ecospirituality center - has operated a cemetery where people could spread or bury loved ones' cremains. But now, the organization wants to expand people's options.
"We felt that we were at a point where we wanted to have bodies buried as well," director Selena Fox said.
Church members started the expansion process in 2006 but were sidetracked by efforts to get their religious emblem, the pentacle, added to the list of acceptable symbols for military graves, which they succeeded in doing nearly a year ago.
Fox said she expects to resume the cemetery expansion process soon with the hope of completing it this summer. The cemetery is available to anyone who supports nature preservation, she said.
"Before anybody started using (the term) 'green cemetery,' we actually had that as kind of our basic piece of our land project," Fox said. It's a concept that dates to ancient pagan times, she said.
"It's an old thing revived in a new way."
Hildy Feen, of Madison, who joined the Trust for Natural Legacies a year and a half ago, said she doesn't want to be buried in a sterile environment - one where the cemetery lawns are mowed and treated with pesticides.
"If I'm buried, I would certainly rather be buried in a natural surrounding," she said.\ \ CIRCLE CEMETERY
People interested in viewing Circle Cemetery can do so during this weekend's Earth Day Festival from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve, 5354 Meadowvale Road, Barneveld.
A tour of the current and planned cemetery will be given following Earth Day ceremonies at 12:30 p.m.
For more information, visit www.circlesanctuary.org/earthday or call 608-924-2216.
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