The great efforts and hard-won victories inspired by NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) prove that tribal people continue to view burial as a sacred trust and responsibility. A widespread commitment to natural burial grounds would extend this resistance to removal.
As tribal people committed to practicing self-determination on our own lands, together we can create a renaissance of burial methods that will provide our current generations the spiritual and physical dignity of a literal returning to the earth, linked to the ongoing livelihood of indigenous flora and fauna. The observation of these truths can be of profound comfort to those who remain, who are able to visit a place imbued with the essence of the departed. Let our remains remain, – truly, a living memorial.
Traditional tribal burial grounds, in alignment with larger green burial movement, can:
offer a place of community and ancestral solidarity.
honor traditions based in natural law, and the cyclical nature of a “dust to dust” relationship to the land.
Traditional funereal wrappings of birchbark and basswood require conscious care and effort. Indeed, the birchbark harvest included an entire day devoted to petitions and offerings of gratitude and need, before any actual stripping of the trees occurred. There is humility in this type of interaction with life’s necessities. When careful attention is paid to everyday articles and activities, there is more awareness of the sacredness within the living ecosystem. This sacredness extends to the articles used in preparation of the dead. The materials used for burials and grave markers can reflect our reliance upon the surrounding ecology. The intentions behind green burial respect the sourcing of materials as a key measure of environmental, and therefore spiritual, responsibility.
Contrast this with statistics:
Each year in the U.S., 22,500 cemeteries bury the following materials (for vaults and caskets):
30-million board feet of hardwoods – much of this sourced from rainforests;
104,272 tons of steel (90,272 for caskets and 14,000 for vaults);
2,700 tons of copper and bronze; and
1,636,00 tons of reinforced concrete.
Furthermore, 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid (primarily formaldehyde – a highly toxic substance) are used to prepare bodies for burial and additional binders, glues, stains, varnishes, and fabrics are used to produce and finish caskets. Many of these materials have an adverse impact on the environment, leaching dangerous chemicals into watersheds. And continued sourcing of exotic hardwoods for caskets depletes rainforests. (www.greenburial pittsburgh.org)
A typical 10-acre swatch of cemetery ground contains
enough coffin wood to construct 40 houses
nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel
20,000 tons of vault concrete
enough embalming fluid to fill a backward swimming pool
akin to a landfill, these statistics point to an underground wasteland…
Here is an all-too-familiar consumerist tendency to exploit natural resources for the sake of profit and prestige. In short, the fancier the casket and the heavier the vault, the more they cost both the consumer and the planet, while the biggest death care industries such a Service Corporation International made 44% of its nearly $2.2billion 2010 revenue “through sales of burial vaults, caskets, mausoleum spaces, memorials, and other items” (http://bizmology.hoovers.com/2011/03/24/investing-in-daeth-care-casketsvs-cremation/).
Further, morticians in frequent contact with embalming fluid are at elevated risk for immune system and respiratory track disorders, as well as its being a carcinogen. By stating that “chemical preservatives are not used”, the Statute promotes a larger view of the community affected by death and burial processes.
Simple preparations :
Kinship and intimacy of contact remains central to the esteeming of our relatives and ancestors, as a lesson and testament to those still living. This kinship extends to the sustainable, biodegradable resources used in traditional burials, wherein burial-related items are viewed through a lens of our impact upon the planet.
As stated in the LTBB NAGPRA Handbook “Finding Our Way Home” from 2012, “Objects are not merely ethnographic items, but sacred objects to help ensure the prosperity and well-being of an indigenous community”(3). Similarly, caskets and vaults are not mere containers, but upset the well-being of human and earth communities, while natural burials respect the larger implications of the resources.
The method of marking the grave site can help create a place of natural beauty and repose that can stand as living testament to tribal people’s keen identification with plant and animal life. In addition, stressing that stones and plants be native to the area supports the rehabilitation of lands and ecosystems previously stressed by invasive species, or under threat by them.
Vegetation or a stone native the surroundings can provide a meaningful connection to the marker that is more personal than an engraved headstone of far-off origins might be. The traditional use of spirit homes and carved, wooden clan markers are also in alignment with the intentions of Natural Burial Grounds. This helps create a Burial Grounds that will eventually function like a wildlife refuge – a peaceful place welcoming to the spirits of those who passed and remain. Restoration, established in perpetuity.
It is another example of how traditional tribal values, steeped in the physical and spiritual necessity of biodiversity, provide guidance pressing ecological problems.
This Burial method prioritizes the positive effects of natural areas, and encourages the peace of mind that a beautiful resting place for the departed can bring to those left behind. In many ways, the result is a nature preserve able to provide a haven for wildlife as well as an educational resource for those interested in native plant species, control of invasives, bird watching, and other possibilities.
Rather than the Big Business that modern burial conventions are often shaped by, a traditional burial grounds is beholden to the plants and animals that will enliven and enrich the area selected for burial. No need to rely on pesticides and lawnmowers to maintain acres of grass.
From “Grave Matters”, by Mark Harris, the natural mounding of gravesites creates aerated pockets of land, natural “pit,-mounds” like those found in mature forests when a tree blows over and it’s roots create a mounded mass. The land is thus more hospitable are more to seed establishments, ant colonies that assist in aerating and planting the soil, along with the fertilizing properties of the body’s natural decay in terms of organic nutrients and the microbes, insects and other organisms attracted.
The Circle of Life is embodied by the teaching of the Medicine Wheel, which invite us to consider the vast web of relations that compose our surroundings and support the quest for wisdom. When we pass on from the living to walk the Path of Souls and leave our earthly body behind, our spirit begins a new journey. Yet, our body remains a part of the earthly Circle, able to offer nourishment back to the soils that sustained us throughout our time among the living. By establishing the Traditional Tribal Burial Grounds, we are claiming our right and responsibility to offer our bodies to the earth in a way that acknowledges the active truths of the Circle of Life. A green burial, in refusing the chemical process of embalming and the alienating practice of concrete vaults and sealed caskets, allows us to contribute to the continued growth of a natural place intended to bring comfort and respite to human, plant, and animal relations. Birth, growth, death, and regeneration compose the Circle of Life. These aspects are all present in a burial grounds that remains central in the awareness and experience of a community determined to live and die in accord with or teachings.