Most people avoid thinking about death. But not Mary Norton. Norton, 69, wants a “green burial.” That means no embalming, a biodegradable coffin and no vault. Since the Madison resident can’t get a green burial in her hometown, she plans to make Milwaukee her permanent resting place. “Having metal caskets leaching into the soil and […]

Most people avoid thinking about death. But not Mary Norton.

Norton, 69, wants a “green burial.” That means no embalming, a biodegradable coffin and no vault. Since the Madison resident can’t get a green burial in her hometown, she plans to make Milwaukee her permanent resting place.

“Having metal caskets leaching into the soil and possibly the groundwater never seemed appealing,” says Norton. “I like the idea of returning to the earth.”

Norton purchased a plot in Forest Home Cemetery on Milwaukee’s South Side. The cemetery has created a 3-acre section called Prairie Rest, where all burials are green. Rather than a manicured lawn, visitors find a prairie landscape covered with wildflowers. Instead of headstones, two boulders at the area’s entrance are engraved with occupants’ names, and loved ones get GPS coordinates of the grave’s location.

The environmental benefits of green graves are many. The 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid used each year in the United States contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen; metal coffins and concrete vaults don’t biodegrade; and even cremation burns fossil fuels and releases mercury into the atmosphere. Green burials are also cheaper: They can cost half of what a traditional funeral does.

Forest Home became the first cemetery in the Milwaukee metro area to offer green burial in 2007. It has sold about 20 plots so far and had its first burial on May 9 – the same day Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha announced it would offer natural burials, too.

Most people are surprised to learn that embalming, coffins and vaults are not required by law. “The myth that there’s a legal requirement is silently perpetuated by many in the funeral industry,” says funeral director John Bucci, who has handled six green burials in Milwaukee.

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Cemetery regulations, however, can be a barrier. Most require a vault, a nonbiodegradable cement lining around the coffin that keeps the ground level and facilitates mowing. Two cemeteries in Milwaukee that claim to offer green burial – Valhalla Memorial Gardens and Lincoln Memorial Cemetery – still require a vault. “To me, that’s not really green burial,” says local funeral director Elaine Litzau.

The Trust for Natural Legacies (TNL), a Madison nonprofit, is looking to purchase land to create a conservation cemetery in Wisconsin. There are six such cemeteries in the U.S. – none in the Midwest – and they look like nature preserves. Typically, only 10 to 30 percent of the land in a conservation cemetery is used for burial. Yet they needn’t lose money.

“Conservation cemeteries are environmentally sound. They cost less to be buried in, but they do make money,” says attorney and TNL President Mark Dahlby, who lives in Wauwatosa. “It’s market-based conservation.” His group wants to locate a conservation cemetery within 45 minutes of an urban area.

For TNL board member Math Heinzel, that mission is personal. When he and his wife, Rae Atira-Soncea, reserved plots in Dane County’s Mazomanie Cemetery, they were told a vault-free burial would be no problem. But when Atira-Soncea passed away last winter, Heinzel found the policy had changed, and had no choice but to bury her in concrete.

“When the city runs a cemetery, they can change the rules anytime,” says Heinzel. “There’s a lot of money to be made in things like vaults and headstones.”

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