By Missy Katner
Lumen Assistant Editor
Death. It can evoke images of gruesome violence and feelings of immense sorrow. But for some, it brings forth a sense of serenity and returning to nature. Sister Sharon Berger organized the Franciscan Sisters of Pertual Adoration (FSPA) natural cemetery three years ago in St. Joseph’s Ridge, Wis. It is located behind the Villa, the FSPA assisted living facility.
What is natural burial? And why is it important? In an interview with Lumen, Berger shared her thoughts on the topic.
Berger was part of the leadership team and liaison to the FSPA Villa from 2002 to 2010. In that time, she got to know the sisters there and attended many funerals.
“You realize that when people are ready to die, there’s a certain level of peace that tells them, this is part of the cycle of life,” Berger said. “We don’t like to think about it and talk about it, but we see it in nature all the time.”
Natural cemeteries allow people to be buried in a simple biodegradable container without embalming and without a concrete grave liner. The first natural cemetery was established in South Carolina in the mid 90’s.
Some feel that this alternative is necessary to protect the environment. Every year in the United States, 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, two million tons of metal and concrete, and 30 million feet of hardwoods are put in the ground to accompany bodies. These materials slow the natural decaying process, but cannot prevent it.
A Wisconsin green energy fair sparked Berger’s interest in natural burial in 2007. At that time, a group was trying to start a public natural cemetery near Madison.
Helen Gohres was the first sister at the Villa to express a wish to be buried naturally.
“Sister Helen just wanted to be wrapped in a sheet and laid in the ground,” Berger explained. “I started exploring whether that was possible.
It took Berger two years to get a Special Use Permit, have a county hearing, and acquire all the appropriate documentation.
Most people were very open to the project and helpful. “But it was always ‘Oh, this is something new,’” Berger said.
In 2009, an acre of land behind the FSPA Villa was approved to become a natural cemetery. Sister Helen lived until the following fall and was the first to be buried there.
Berger told Lumen that some sisters thought it was great and others thought it was awful.
“This is a choice,” Berger said. “Nobody is asked to do this. Some sisters thought they all were going to have to buried that way. No that’s not it.”
Now, four sisters have been buried naturally and 31 have filled out documentation for it.
The embalming process became popular in the United States during the Civil War. In order to ship soldiers who were killed in battle back home, their bodies needed to be preserved for traveling.
Because there is no embalming in natural burial, bodies must be buried no longer than 36 hours after death.
There are other difficulties. Since there are no grave liners, plots cannot be lined up right next to each other as in regular cemeteries. They must be spread out, sometimes in a circular formation.
“You may be taking more space, but what you’re not doing is destroying the natural contour and makeup of the land,” Berger said. “So it stays a preserve and it will grow wild. It’s not meant to be a manicured place.
Natural burial is widely thought to be illegal in most places. Berger said she came across more opposition from older generations than from younger ones.
Berger explained, “Death is not that imminent to people [in their twenties]. It’s as you get older that you really start thinking about what does all that mean.”
People tend to change their attitudes, as many have with cremation. But there are several preconceived notions about natural burial. Some believe that grave liners are necessary to prevent the spread of disease, but most viruses and bacteria cannot survive more than a few hours in a dead body.
“We have these concepts,” Berger said. “That is one of the stipulations the county put on us. If a sister was to die of an infectious disease, we wouldn’t be able to bury her there if she wasn’t embalmed.”
Will there be a public natural cemetery in La Crosse? Berger said there have been initial conversations, but it depends on the interest of the local community.
“Part of the interest is returning to the natural state, but also, why we are spending all this money on all these materials just to put them into the ground,” Berger said.
People often ask Berger if it is gruesome to be talking about this. She explained, “I don’t find it that way.” Sister Helen Gohres told Berger why green burial mattered to her: “This earth has nourished me all these years and now it’s my turn to feed the worms.”