PROVINCETOWN — Thirty plots in the town cemetery may soon be available for “green burial,” in which a body is placed in the ground without a metal casket, cement vault, or embalming fluid to taint the earth.
The cemetery commission and board of health have both unanimously recommended that the select board favor green or natural burial. If approved at the board’s Feb. 10 meeting, Provincetown will become one of the few local communities to bury the dead au naturel.
Brewster Memorial Cemetery, Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Chilmark, and West Tisbury Cemetery already allow green burials, as does the private South Wellfleet Cemetery, according to the nonprofit Green Burial Massachusetts.
Natural burial is not toxic to groundwater, nor will body parts be seen in the jaws of coyotes, though these are the two most common concerns related to the green burial concept, said Dawn Walsh, a member of the cemetery commission. Walsh is a death doula who leads Death Café discussion groups locally and is teaching “The Art of Dying” at Winter Wednesdays at Provincetown Schools.
The formaldehyde in embalming fluid is an environmental problem, she said.
In one year, the U.S. buries 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, to say nothing of the tons of steel, copper, bronze, hardwood, and reinforced concrete included in coffins and steel vaults, the Green Burial Council reported in 2014.
As for the fear that animals will dig up bodies without coffins, natural graves are three to four feet deep, which is more than enough to keep the coyotes at bay and shallow enough to access the aerobic bacteria that break down the body, Walsh said. Coffins must be closer to six feet under.
A body may also be shrouded in a “mushroom suit,” also called an “infinity suit,” which is lined with mushroom spores that activate and speed up decomposition.
There is a long-standing and misbegotten cultural belief that embalming is necessary by law, Walsh said. It’s not. Ninety percent of the world buries green, according to the Green Burial Council. Only the U.S. and Canada almost always embalm their bodies, Walsh added.
In fact, a lot of routine practices surrounding death are not necessary. Survivors can handle death to burial without any professional help other than obtaining a death certificate and a transportation permit from the town’s health department. They also may need a funeral home or a hospital to keep the body cold until burial is arranged. But there is no reason why a survivor cannot dress and prepare a loved one in any manner they choose, and then drive the body for burial in a cemetery without a hearse, casket, or vault, Walsh said.
Still, it may all be a bit much to take on by yourself.
“We’re lucky to still have a local funeral home that is independent and more than happy to work with us,” Walsh said. Many funeral homes are owned by chains.
Jim Keefe, who manages the Gately Funeral Home in Provincetown, said green burial is perfectly acceptable and Gately will help the family do whatever they want to do. He already sells crematory urns made of cornstarch, which disintegrate in the ground. Keefe recently tried to assist a family with a green burial at the South Wellfleet Cemetery, but due to topography and the placement of the burial plots, hand-digging was necessary, and it was nearly impossible to find someone to hand-dig a grave, Keefe said.
Chuck Cole, caretaker of South Wellfleet Cemetery, said he doesn’t know of any green burials at his cemetery to date, but hopes that will change.
Embalming became traditional during the Civil War as a way to preserve dead soldiers until they could be united with their relatives at home, Cole said. Death education, he added, “is a blind spot that we don’t deal with until we need it, and then we have corporate America.”
Another benefit: Instead of $10,000, a green burial can cost as little as $750 for a plot in Provincetown or $250 for a piece of ground in South Wellfleet.
David Agger, of the Wellfleet Cemetery Commission, hopes to spread the concept to Wellfleet. He said that he would invite the Provincetown Cemetery Commission to Wellfleet if there is a public hearing on the subject.