Ann Arbor has a reputation as an environmentally progressive town when it comes to recycling services, bike lanes, and local organic food, but it’s lagging behind when it comes to alternative ways of preparing and burying the dead.
The national Green Burial Council promotes “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact.” A typical green burial might include refrigeration of the body instead of embalming; placing it in a fabric shroud or biodegradable casket of wood or wicker; and burial without a cement vault.
Cemeteries offering green burial may be groomed and orderly like a conventional cemetery, or rustic, with marked and unmarked graves among wildflowers, woods, and wildlife. But there is no green burial in Ann Arbor: the city’s public cemeteries, Arborcrest Memorial Park, Fairview Cemetery, and Forest Hill Cemetery, all require vaults.
Washtenong Memorial Park in Ann Arbor Township, just north of town on Whitmore Lake Rd., is the only nearby cemetery that’s even considering it. Donna Campbell, a spokesperson for Midwest Memorial Group, which operates the cemetery, says, “It’s been discussed, and it’s in an exploratory phase right now, but no commitments.”
Merilynne Rush is on the board of the Green Burial Council. A former nurse and birth midwife, Rush now helps families plan and carry out home funerals and green burials (see “A Full Moon Funeral,” March 2013). She also leads the monthly Death Cafe at �xADCrazy Wisdom, where people come to “drink tea, eat cake, and talk about death.”
In 2014, Rush helped organize a conference on green burial that brought nearly 200 people to the U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Now she and journalist Barbara Lucas lead a new group, the Ann Arbor Green Burial Network, that is circulating an online petition calling for more natural burial options.
“Natural burial is not more expensive. It’s not more complex. It’s very doable. Availability is one reason why people don’t choose it,” says Lucas, who produces the environmental program The Green Room for CTN and WEMU.
At a presentation in September, Lucas explained some of her environmental concerns: formaldehyde embalming has been shown to be harmful to funeral home workers; cremation is energy �xADintensive and can send harmful emissions into the air; and both cemetery vaults and headstones are energy intensive to produce.
That made sense to attendee Sheila Johnson. “I’m just not happy with how we’re doing funerals in our present culture,” Johnson says. “I compost my vegetables, and I do everything I can to save resources. I seldom use my car, and I walk, bike, or take the bus. For environmental reasons the whole burial thing is very important to me.”
Those concerns are leading some Ann Arborites to Chelsea, where Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home has been a certified green burial provider since 2006. “I’d estimate that of the ten or fifteen home funerals and green burials we did in the past year, about eight or nine of them were from the Ann Arbor area,” says director Mike Mitchell.
Mitchell, who thinks he may be “the only licensed funeral director in the country with an environmental science degree,” attributes the interest to baby boomers who grew up with the environmental movement and now want to carry its principles into old age and death.
“This is the oldest newest trend in funeral service,” Mitchell says. “What people want is what we used to do before funeral homes were around. People want something that’s very intimate and very personal. That’s what we’re able to do with home funerals and green burials.”
For green burials, some locals are traveling all the way to Oakland County. In 2010, the Mt. Elliott Cemetery Association opened a certified natural cemetery in Waterford Township. The Preserve borders the traditional All Saints Cemetery, but it looks more like a nature preserve, with winding grass paths through �xADindigenous-wildflower meadows. Some graves along the path are marked with stones and boulders; others farther into the meadow are unmarked.
Russ Burns, director of All Saints Cemetery and the Preserve, has twice held informational seminars in Ann Arbor. He says about thirty people attended each one, and seven Ann Arborites have already been buried at the Preserve.
Toula Saratsis and her husband, Joe Stageman, knew that their daughter Angelica would have a short life. She was born with a rare metabolic disorder and suffered physical limitations, developmental delays, and numerous medical complications before she died in August, just short of her seventh birthday. “She was a tenacious and brave spirit,” says Saratsis.
“I’m Greek American, I have family in Greece, and I am used to home funerals. That’s how it’s been done, and still is. I knew that’s what I wanted for Angelica.
“She suffered quite a bit during her life, and we wanted to be part of that final rite of passage.”
When Saratsis saw an article by Rush a few years ago about home funerals, she clipped it and saved it. When her daughter started hospice care, she contacted Rush, who helped them plan a home funeral.
After Angelica’s death, Mike Mitchell came to the home to prepare the paperwork and coach the family on proper care for the body. “It was kind of the reverse of giving birth,” Saratsis says. “Just being there and being present for her, preparing her body, the scents, the lotion, the bathing. For about an hour when she was still warm, we were able to hold her, touch her, and hug her. That letting go and preparing the body was an amazing experience.”
More than 150 people came for the viewing. “Receiving people in my home was so natural,” says Saratsis. “People were relaxed; there were kids in the house. It was like we had one of our parties, and she was there.”
Mitchell returned later to transport Angelica’s body to the funeral at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Because her parents weren’t concerned about using a vault, they were able to bury her at Bethlehem Cemetery near their home.
“It’s so close that we walk to her grave almost daily, pray, give reverence, burn incense, and tend flowers, kind of hold space there,” Saratsis says.
Barbara Lucas says she is still thinking through her options.
“I might donate my body to science; I might choose cremation,” she says. “But I also like the idea of a headstone with my name on it in the cemetery near my home. The neighborhood has such a rich history, and the headstones in the cemetery are filled with the names of the people that the streets are named after.
“It makes sense to me that the people who live here should be buried here. The reasons the cemetery has given me for not allowing burial without a vault aren’t insurmountable,” she says, noting that the older graves in her neighborhood cemetery don’t have vaults.
“When you think about the history of the human race, people have been buried in the ground without a fancy coffin and without a fancy vault.
“What’s good enough for them would be good for me too.”