Natural Burial

At Resurrection Cemetery

The purpose of a natural burial is to allow the body to quickly and naturally return to the elements of the earth and begin the regeneration of new life.

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Natural burial is making a comeback, and there’s a good reason. Learn about why natural burial is friendlier to the enviroment, and how its simplicity feels less commercial, more spiritual. 

What is natural burial?

To dust we shall return

In the natural-burial process, the body of the deceased, and the earth to which the body returns, are treated with reverence. The body is not embalmed with chemicals nor is it enclosed in a typical casket and lowered into a concrete vault. Instead, during the natural-burial process, the body of the deceased may be wrapped in a natural-fiber shroud or placed in a container made of biodegradable material such as unfinished wood or wicker, and buried at a site that is dedicated to natural burial.

The term natural burial represents a broader spectrum of burial options than does green burial which is more definite and conservation-based. An existing cemetery that adds a natural burial section determines the rules, regulations, and limitations while maintaining the integrity that is foundational to the values of green burial.

In other words, a natural-burial section may occasionally use machinery if necessary, but no chemicals would be used when preparing the body of the deceased nor while maintaining the cemetery grounds. The concepts put forward by such organizations as the Green Burial Council would be adhered to as much as possible.

Preparing for Natural Burial

Because the body is not preserved through embalming, some funeral preparations need to be in place. The body can be washed, wrapped in a cloth shroud made of natural fiber, and placed in the grave. The wrapped body can also be placed in an open or closed container that is made of materials that decompose such as pine, wicker, or bamboo.

If the body of the deceased is clothed, the clothing must be made of natural fibers such as cotton, linen, wool, or silk that will decompose. The garments should be free of all plastics and metals such as buttons, zippers, and hooks. Jewelry, belt buckles, and other materials that are not biodegradable also cannot be buried with the deceased.

What is the Green Burial Council?

The Green Burial Council’s mission is to inspire and advocate for environmentally sustainable, natural death care through education and certification. This includes ensuring universal access to information and environmentally sustainable death care. For more information on Catholic green burial options, check out Lee Webster’s article for the Green Burial Council titled, To Lie Down in Green Pastures.

Natural burial costs

Costs associated with a natural burial are similar to those of a conventional burial. The purchase of a gravesite includes a contribution to the permanent care fund and the cost of memorializing a name on the common memorial, thereby saving the cost of a marker or monument. The interment fee (grave opening and closing) is paid at the time of burial; with natural burial, no outer burial container is required.

A Catholic perspective

organic return to the earth

We commit the body to the earth, “For we are dust and to dust we shall return.” People are taking this belief to heart with a desire to return to a more organic, less industrial approach to death and burial.

Pope Francis—whose reverence for nature led him to choose his papal name inspired by that of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology—is committed to the sanctity of nature and the need to respect and protect it. The Pope’s leadership influences Catholics to be mindful of our natural environment and dedicated to having a gentler impact on our planet.

Archdiocesan priest, Father James Notebaart, wrote in an article, “Today we have begun to step back to much earlier practices, those of the preindustrial world in which there was a more organic sense of how all things are related, both natural resources and the human use of them. This awareness is shaping a new articulation of ecological ethics, of which Pope Francis is a leading proponent.

A brief history

biblical practices

When the body of Jesus was removed from the cross, it was washed, wrapped in a cloth shroud, and placed in a tomb.

For many years, most burials took place in a similar manner. These practices changed in the U.S. around the time of the Civil War when bodies were transported long distances for burial. By treating the body with embalming chemicals to prevent decomposition, the body became suitable for transportation and viewing.

A physician— Dr. William (Billy) Campbell— and his wife, Kimberly, initiated the natural-burial movement in the U.S. They opened the first “green cemetery” in North America at the Ramsey Creek Preserve near Westminster, South Carolina, in 1998.

Renewed interest in natural burial is influenced, in part, by people’s desire to honor their loved ones in a manner that is perceived as being sensitive to the environment.

The Saints of the Gate of Heaven Preserve

The initial sections are named after two scriptural saints, two historic saints, and two contemporary saints. All are “canonized saints” of the Church. The selection of the particular saints of the Gate of Heaven Preserve is the proprietary responsibility of the Executive Director and the staff of The Catholic Cemeteries. Factors of consideration include women and men, cultural and ethnic origins (including patrons of some of the founding communities of this region), the mission and charisms of the saints and the representation of the various ages and history of the Church: biblical, historic, and contemporary.

The resources below are from “Blessed Among Us”, by Robert Ellsberg, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, Published: 2016.

St. Francis of Assisi

Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. His early life was spent in frivolous enjoyment. But a series of harsh experiences, including war, captivity, and sickness, turned his heart from worldly ambitions. A breakthrough in his life came when he kissed a leper whom he met on the road. Afterward, he took to emptying his father’s warehouse to give to the poor. When his father publicly upbraided him, he stripped off his fine clothes and volwed henceforth to recognize no other father but God in heaven. While praying before a crucifix in a ruined chapel, Francis heard a voice commanding him to “repair” the Church. At first he took this quite literally, setting about to rebuild old church ruins. But in time he repaired the Church in a more profound way. Attracting followers, he launched a new order, the Friars Minor, who, in their strict faithfulness to the Gospel – seeking out the poor, the sick, the marginalized, embracing poverty and nonviolence – turned the values of their socity upside down. The stories of his life reflect the joy and freedom that were hallmarks of his spirituality. In his life and in his relationship with the poor, with women, outcasts, and all of creation, Francis represented the emergence of a new model of human and cosmic community. His last years were marked by terrible suffering, including the wounds of the cross that marked his hands and feet. He died on October 3, 1226. His feast day is observed on October 4.

  • Middle High Ages
  • Founder, Friars Minor (1182-1226)
  • Feast Day: October 4
  • (Section Open June 2019: Limited space available)

“All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon for love of you.” – St. Francis

St. Clare

The story of St. Clare of Assisi is inevitably linked with her companion St. Francis. It was Francis who gave her a vision and enabled her to define a way of life apart from the options offered by her society. Her goal in life, however, was not to be a reflection of Francis but to be, like him, a reflection of Christ. “Christ is the way,” she said, “and Francis showed it to me.” Clare belonged to one of the wealthy families of Assisi. In 1212, when she was eighteen, she heard Francis deliver a series of Lenten sermons and afterward arranged in stealth to meet with him and ask his help that she too might live “after the manner of the holy gospel.” One night, soon after, she slipped out of town, met with Francis and his brothers, put off her fine clothes, cut her long hair, and assumed a penitential habit. In time other women joined her in a community dedicated to prayer and poverty, a counterpart to Francis’ fraternity. It has been said that of all the followers of Francis, Clare was the most faithful. Many stories reflect the loving bonds of friendship between them and the trust that Francis placed in her wisdom and counsel. She lived on for twenty-seven years after his death. Her own death came in 1253.

  • Middle High Ages
  • Founder, Poor Clares (1194-1253)
  • Feast Day: August 11
  • (Section Open June 2019: Limited space available)

“Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! And transform your entire being into the image of the Godhead itself through contemplation.” – St. Clare of Assisi

St. John XXIII

On October 28, 1958, a new a new pope greeted the Church from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. There stood the smiling, rotund figure of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the son of peasants and recently the patriarch of Venice. “I am called John,” he said. In appearance and in almost every other respect Pope John XXIII stood in contrast with his gaunt and otherworldly predecessor. Gregarious and open, John exuded an enthusiasm for life that in itself set a positive tone for his pontificate and raised hopes for a season of change. These hopes were answered by the astonishing announcement that he intended to convene an ecumenical council, the first in almost a hundred years. He spoke of the need to “open the windows” of the Church and to let in fresh air. It was the signal of an extraordinary renewal, an era of openness and positive dialogue between the Church and the modern world. Having launched Vatican II, Pope John did not live to see it completed. Dying of cancer, he retained his humor and humility. “My bags are packed,” he said, “and I am ready to go.” He died on June 3, 1963. In a few brief years he had won the hearts of the world, and his passing was universally mourned. He was canonized in April 2014.

  • Contemporary
  • Pope (1881-1963)
  • Feast Day: October 11
  • (Section Open Fall 2019)

“In convening the Second Vatican Council, Saint John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader. This was his great service to the Church; he was the pope of openness to the Holy Spirit.” – Pope Francis, at the canonization of St. John XXIII.

St. Katharine Drexel

Katherine Drexel was born into one of the wealthiest families in America. Before her father died he established a trust for his three daughters worth fourteen million dollars. Devout Catholics, they all three regarded their fortune as an opportunity to glorify God through the service of others. There were certainly plenty of claims on the generosity of a young Catholic heiress. But Katharine felt a special dedication to those ignored by the Church – especially Indians and blacks. She endowed scores of schools on Indian reservations. In 1878 during a private audience with Pope Leo XIII she begged the pope to send priests to serve the Indians. He responded, “Why not become a missionary yourself?” Finding no existing religious order corresponding to her sense of mission, Katharine founded her own: The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. She insisted that her sisters rely on alms, while she reserved her trust money to fund such initiatives as the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic college established for African American students. Mother Drexel, whose life spanned the era of slavery and the dawn of the civil rights movement, died on March 3, 1955. She was canonized in 2000.

  • Contemporary
  • Founder, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (1859-1955)
  • Feast Day: March 3
  • (Section Open Fall 2019)

“Often in my desire to work for others…some hostile influence renders me powerless. My prayers seem to avail to nothing…In such cases I must not grieve. I am only treading in my Master’s steps.” – St. Katharine Drexel

St. Joseph

St. Joseph’s part in the nativity story is a familiar feature of every Christmas pageant. But for many centuries the Church paid him scant attention. Only in the sixteenth century did the Church officially encourage his place as St. Joseph began to figure as an ideal “provider and protector” of the Holy Family. In 1870 Pius IX declared him Patron of the Universal Church. Besides his feast day on March 19, an additional feast for St. Joseph the Worker was assigned by Pope Pius XII on May 1. Joseph and Mary were betrothed when she was discovered to be pregnant. Matthew’s Gospel relates the story from Joseph’s perspective. Here, the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy precedes any divine reassurance, thus presenting Joseph with a terrible dilemma. According to the law Mary should be stoned to death. But Joseph, “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame,” resolves to divorce her quietly. Fortunately, an angel appears in Joseph’s sleep to explain the source of Mary’s condition, and he is apparently satisfied. Aside from his virtues as a father and man of faith, Joseph is also a poor working man – a detail not without significance in the Gospels. Though linked to the house of David, he remains a carpenter from a Galilean town so miniscule that it serves as the butt of jokes. Thus, while Joseph recedes from the Gospel story, he remains a reminder of Jesus’ humble origins – and an enduring reminder of his humanity.

  • Biblical
  • (First Century)
  • Feast Day: March 19
  • (Section Open Fall 2019)

“Is this not the carpenter’s son?” – Matthew 13:55

St. Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene was one of the original Galilean disciples of Jesus and one of the many women who followed him in his itinerant ministry. Little can be said of her origins; she is characterized simply as a “woman from whom seven demons had gone out.” There is no scriptural basis for the later tradition that depicted her as a penitent prostitute. All four Gospels name her among those women who followed Jesus to Golgotha and there witnessed his passion and death. While (according to the Synoptic Gospels) all the disciples fled, it was these women who remained faithful to the end, and who went to his tomb on the third day, hoping to anoint his body. They found, instead, an empty tomb, guarded by an angel who revealed that Jesus was raised from death. The women were charged to tell the disciples to meet the Lord back in Galilee. In the Gospels of John and Matthew (as well as the longer ending of Mark) Mary actually sees the Risen Lord. According to John, Mary was weeping outside the tomb when she saw Jesus. She failed at first to recognize him, until he addressed her with a single word: “Mary.” “Rabboni! Teacher,” she cried. He instructed her to go to the disciples and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” It was Mary Magdalene, the faithful disciple, who first proclaimed this good news to the Twelve. Thus she has often been called the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

  • Biblical
  • Apostle to the Apostles (First Century)
  • Feast Day: July 22
  • (Section Open Fall 2019: Limited space available)

“I have seen the Lord.” – St. Mary Magdalene

St. Brigid of Ireland

St. Brigid lived in the era when traditional Irish religion was giving way to the formal institution of Christianity. Her very name was that of a Celtic sun goddess in ancient times. As best as can be known, Brigid was born into slavery and was baptized in her childhood by St. Patrick. She was granted her freedom when it proved impossible to curb her enthusiasm for giving alms. Brigid became a nun and ultimately abbess of Kildare, a double monastery consisting of both men and women. Through her fame as a spiritual teacher the abbey became a center for pilgrims. So great was her authority that she even induced a bishop to join her community and to share her leadership. The themes of generosity and compassion feature in many miracles attributed to Brigid, whose only desire was “to satisfy the poor, to expel every hardship, to spare every miserable man”. One time “she supplied beer out of one barrel to eighteen churches”. On another occasion she encountered a leprous woman asking for milk, but “there being none at hand she gave her cold water, but the water was turned into milk, and when she had drunk it the woman was healed”. In St. Brigid, the Irish people found a repository for primeval religious memories of the maternal face of God. She became known as “The Mary of the Gael”.

  • Historic
  • Abbess of Kildare (ca. 450-525)
  • Feast Day: February 1
  • (Section Open Spring of 2020: Limited space available)

“Her merit before God is greater than ours!” – Catholic Online

St.Patrick

St. Patrick is remembered for his role in implanting the Church in Ireland. But his first introduction to Ireland was involuntary. At the age of sixteen he was kidnapped from his village in Roman Britain and taken to Ireland as a slave. Sold to a local king, he spent six years in menial occupations. His life was not valued more highly than the beasts he tended. All the while he clung to his Christian faith and dreamed of home. Eventually, an opportunity arose for him to escape. He made his way back to his home. But he had changed. Apart from the scars of his ordeal, he bore the zeal of a profound faith. He believed his sufferings and deliverance had been ordained for some purpose. After studying for the priesthood in Gaul he had a dream in which Irish voices, the voices of those who had stolen his youth, cried out for him to return. In 432, by now a bishop, he returned to the land of his oppressors to devote himself to their salvation. Patrick’s thirty years as a wandering bishop are the stuff of legend. He is justly honored as the patron of Ireland. But it is well to remember that Patrick was the victim of Irish injustice before he became the symbol of Irish pride. His spiritual conquest of Ireland followed the prior victory of love over the anger and bitterness in his own heart.

  • Historic
  • Apostle to Ireland (389-461)
  • Feast Day: March 17
  • (Section Open Spring of 2020: Limited space available)

“Christ be with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me.” – St. Patrick

St. Oscar Romero

The selection of Oscar Romer as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 delighted the country’s oligarchs. Previously known as a traditional and conservative prelate, there was nothing in Romero’s background to suggest he was a man to challenge the status quo. No one could have predicted that in three short years he would be recognized throughout the world as a “voice for the voiceless”. Nor could one foresee that he would arouse such hatred on the part of the rich and powerful that he would be targeted for assassination. What caused this change? Within weeks of his installation Romero was shaken by the assassination of his friend Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit dedicated to social justice. In the following weeks, Romero increasingly took on the cause of justice. His weekly sermons cast the glaring light of the Gospel on the realities of the day. He came to embody the Church’s “option  for the poor”. As he said, “A church that does not unite itself to the poor…is not truly the Church of Jesus Christ”. On March 23, 1980, he appealed to members of the military to refuse illegal orders. “I beseech you, I beg you, I command you, stop the repression!” He was shot the next day, while saying Mass—the first bishop slain at the altar since Thomas Becket in the twelfth century. In May 2015, following a belated decree from the Vatican that he had died as a martyr “in hatred of the faith” (and not, as his critics charged, because he had mixed himself up in politics), Oscar Romero was canonized by Pope Francis on October 14, 2018.

  • Contemporary
  • Archbishop and Martyr (1917-1980)
  • Feast Day: March 24
  • (Section Open Spring of 2020: Limited space available)

“If God accepts the sacrifice of my life then may my blood be the seed of liberty…A bishop will die, but the church of God– the people–will never die.” – St. Oscar Romero

St. Kateri Tekakwitha

St. Kateri was born in 1656 near present-day Auriesville, New York. Her mother, a captured Algonquin, was a Christian, while her father, a Mohawk chief, viewed the new religion with deep suspicion. Both parents died from smallpox when Kateri was four. Her own scarred face showed the marks of the disease, which also darkened her vision, causing her to stumble in the light. As a result her people called her Tekakwitha—”the one who walks groping her way”. When a Jesuit missionary arrived in her village in 1674 she requested baptism. She was given the name Kateri—a Mohawk version of Katherine. Kateri’s conversion caused distress in her community, so much so that her confessor feared for her safety and urged her to flee. Under cover of darkness she set off from her village by foot and traveled two hundred miles to a Christian mission near Montreal, where on Christmas Day, 1677, she made her first communion. Though free to practice her faith, she was still forced to grope her way in a world that supplied no clear models. She resisted the idea of marriage. She proposed founding a convent, an idea that was quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, in 1679 she made a public vow of chastity—as far as she got with her dream of religious life. Soon after she fell ill and died on April 17, 1680, at the age of twenty-three. She was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2012.

  • Historic
  • “Lily of the Mohawks” (1656-1680)
  • Feast Day: July 14
  • (Section Open Spring of 2020: Limited space available)

“I am not my own; I have given myself to Jesus. He must be my only love.” – St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Additional information on these saints and others can be found in many resources including: franciscanmedia.org/saints or the “Saint of the Day” mobile app.

Download our Q&A Guide to Natural Burial 

If you are interested in natural burial, this guide will address frequently asked questions about this type of burial.

 

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