Underground Mystery

The vast majority of cemeteries bury people in caskets set into concrete vaults, which could be producing soil and water pollution. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

Are cemeteries polluting soil and water?


ynthia Beal walks through a shower of sunlight streaming through the branches of Doug-firs at Rest Lawn Memorial Park. Next to her, leaning against a tree trunk, is a coffin made from willow.

The handmade coffin will eventually be used for a natural burial, an alternative to the traditional method of metal coffins encased in concrete vaults, a practice used since the 1950s and the way most burials are done today.

Beal talks fast and passionately about what may be happening underground. As the owner of two cemeteries and a former teacher of a sustainable cemetery management class at Oregon State University, she’s learned a lot about what goes into the ground, but what happens after that is a mystery.

Few have studied how the concrete, metal, and embalming chemicals of traditional burial might impact the soil and water.

As she submerged herself in site management, Beal started to think about what happens to water when it hits the vaults — or boulders, as she calls them — and whether it carries toxic materials. No one seems to know.

“For whatever reason, science hasn’t looked at it,” says Jay Noller, head of OSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science. “It’s low-hanging fruit.”

Noller met Beal in 2012 when he was a professor of soil science. Her ideas intrigued him, and he set up a meeting with the department’s faculty. They, too, saw the value of Beal’s ideas.

So, Noller and Beal approached Sonny Ramaswamy, then dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU. He agreed to have Beal develop an online course in sustainable cemetery management through OSU’s Ecampus. She and Noller founded the Sustainable Cemetery Studies Lab, and Beal wrote the curriculum and taught the class for three years.

“The dean said her project was important and that we needed to listen to Cynthia, and I’m glad we did,” says Noller, director of the lab. “It’s very relevant to soil science.”

As the pair moved forward, Beal remembered Steve Clarke, an old friend and prospective graduate student, and she brought him into the project. Now a doctoral student in Crop and Soil Science, Clarke also teaches water conservation and watershed science at Lane Community College. He was a perfect candidate to do the work that Beal is so passionate about, but the going has been tough. For four years, he’s been heavily embroiled in research that only a handful of people in the world are doing—in the United States, he’s the only one.

Since cemeteries live in perpetuity, they often end up in public hands when an owner dies or can no longer keep them. Then the possible liability shifts to taxpayers.

“Google ‘Superfund’ and you’ll get millions of hits,” Clarke says. “I have maybe 100 papers that look at cemetery issues and they are dealing with different issues. Soil and water is very, very under-researched.”

The reason, he says, is that it would require a lot of money and the ability to sample many cemeteries, a lot of which haven’t even been located for a census. Also, there just isn’t enough interest by the public or even cemetery owners, though they could be held liable if pollution is running off their property into waterways or getting into groundwater. Since cemeteries live in perpetuity, they often end up in public hands when an owner dies or can no longer keep them. Then the possible liability shifts to taxpayers.

On a mission

So, Clarke is going solo. He spent two years looking for non-existent research and then turned to topography maps and engineering models to pinpoint areas to drill 15-foot monitoring wells where there might be pollutants moving off the property.

If they are, he needs to determine how they move. He describes the top couple of meters of soil in the middle of the cemetery as a waffle iron with boundaries of undisturbed soil — a situation like no other. Common sense, he says, tells us water will in all probability move down through the topsoil and potentially stall out in the region of the gravesites.

“It’s very different than it was 100 years ago,” Clarke says. “Traditionally, people were buried in wood boxes or shrouds. There wasn’t a whole lot of container involved. There’s a lot more going into the ground now, and we don’t know what will happen to them in the long term or if we need to be concerned.”

So, the idea is to find out how — or if — cemetery pollutants move around in the soil. It’s a combination of precipitation, soil type, and how many graves are dug and where and how deep.

“All of the residuals from burials becomes the raw stuff that may move through the property,” Clarke explains. “You have to understand enough about the inside to appreciate where it might come out. Some chemicals get in and out quickly. Others sit around for a very long time.”

Natural alternative

The handwoven coffin in the shady setting at Rest Lawn, put aside for a natural burial, captures a trend waiting to happen. Being buried in a biodegradable coffin appeals to many of the vast population of Baby Boomers who are starting to think about end-of-life arrangements. When Beal explains the benefits of a more environmentally sustainable burial, many see it as a viable alternative to metal coffins deposited in concrete vaults.

“But that wasn’t always the case,” Beal says. “Eight years ago, few people I met had heard of natural burial. Most thought it was illegal, and many had stories of cemeteries or funeral homes telling them that purchasing a vault or having mom embalmed was required by state law, which is not true.”

Beal came at natural burial in an unusual way. At the dawn of the 21st century, she began writing a science fiction book that took place in 2040. As she wrote, she pondered what would happen to her characters when they died. The idea of natural burial popped into her mind.

“A little scenario came to me to put our bodies somewhere, and that led me into thinking about natural burial,” she says.

So in 2003, Beal sold her Eugene natural foods store. A year later, she started the Natural Burial Company

After canvassing the globe for sources of biodegradable coffins, she discovered that England was on the cutting edge of natural burials. She turned to coffins made of woven willow, bamboo, and hemp, or “Ecopods” made of pressed paper. Another option was simply a beautiful shroud. With sustainable burial, the body would decompose naturally and “dust to dust” would have meaning again. In 2007, she brought the first commercial biodegradable coffins to Oregon.

With sustainable burial, the body would decompose naturally and “dust to dust” would have meaning again.

She realized there could be demand if people knew about natural burial. So she did something extraordinary. Without ever being involved in cemetery management, she bought two: Rest Lawn Memorial Park near Junction City and Oak Hill Cemetery just west of Eugene, both more than 150 years old.

Beal, a slight woman usually dressed in jeans with glasses perched on her head holding back a mane of dark hair, dove into natural burial and sustainable cemetery work in a big way. She knew the social and historical significance of cemeteries and realized there was considerable environmental value as well. Being a steward of the land became her mantra. Natural burial fit perfectly.

Sustainable landscapes

For Beal the mystery of the possible pollutants leached from coffins and vaults is frustrating.

“Most coffins are 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 2½ tall,” she says. “They’re like giant boulders. Imagine all those boulders. What are they doing for the availability of water, as well as to the water? It’s just drying up the landscape.”

The soil is a sponge, she explains, and every one of those boulders can’t hold water the way soil can.

“We know how water and gases will exchange through soil,” Noller says, “but we don’t know what happens when looking at cemeteries that have a vault wall and one next to it and then another. We’re constrained by that. We can take soil samples, but that doesn’t tell us how the water moves.”

The forest makes sense,” Noller says. “If bodies are placed in the ground, they decompose and feed the trees and ferns.”

Beal and Noller are hoping for more information about how chemicals are affecting tree root systems, topsoil, vapor, circulation, and how alternatives like natural burial could help. That, in turn, could carry implications for urban planners, insurers, and communities, particularly as cemeteries that were once rural get swallowed by urban centers and are closer to water sources. “It might be one of the reasons we’re seeing rivers with higher-than-expected arsenic in them,” Noller says.

Walking through the Doug-firs and birch at Rest Lawn, Noller and Beal point out the things that have been done to restore the habitat. With help from soil science students, they grubbed out invasive plants and added native ones. They’ve built berms out of downed branches and other debris to catch rainwater runoff and eroding soil. Not only are they functional, they also add atmosphere to the forest where eventually natural burials will take place.

“The forest makes sense,” Noller says. “If bodies are placed in the ground, they decompose and feed the trees and ferns.”

In coffins sealed in concrete, the body doesn’t decompose. It often turns to sludge, Beal says. She respects those who still want traditional burials and offers those at her cemeteries. But she makes sure customers know about natural burial, which costs about the same as a traditional burial, depending on which coffin you buy.

At Oak Hill, Beal is busy with restoration as well. Swallows grab birdhouses as fast as she can put them up. Some areas are mown only twice a year to leave a soft meadow of grasses. Perennials pull in pollinators. She never stops.

Cemeteries aren’t just places to bury people, Beal points out. They have historical value. People have connections to their ancestors, and online genealogy has amped up interest. Cemeteries act as parks, provide income for a multibillion-dollar industry, and can — and should — be examples of environmental stewardship.

Way of the future

On a June day, Beal takes a break from cutting veggies for a salad and moves into the living room. In a place of honor in front of the floor-to-ceiling window looking out on Fern Ridge Lake sits a beautiful white Ecopod. She’s used her artistic talent to mold swirls in the top. She is not afraid of death.

“When I first started the Natural Burial Company, I found out I had a tumor,” she says calmly. “I could have been my first and last customer.”

But she recovered and is in remission. The coffin, though, reminds her that life is fleeting. She strongly believes people should plan their end-of-life wishes. And she strongly believes natural burial is the way to go.

But first she needs to convince other mortuary owners, who sell the coffins and services, and the cemetery owners, who sell the plots and sometimes the coffins. But it’s tough going. Mortuaries hesitate to change because they think there’s not enough demand. Cemeteries hold back because they’re not getting requests from funeral homes. And most people have never heard of natural burial.

At first, there was no market for her coffins. So, Beal got busy. She carted her coffins to trade shows and displayed them in galleries in Portland and Philomath. And she talked. For many people, she didn’t have to talk much. They got it. When they learned there was such a thing as natural burial and that it’s legal, they got excited. Beal is convinced demand will change tradition. Or rather take us back to tradition. There will be 3 million people dying a year by 2026 and 4 million by 2046, according to census statistics. That will have large impacts on cemeteries.

“It’s inevitable,” Beal insists. “The way we do burial now is not sustainable economically, environmentally, or demographically. Natural burial is the future.”

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