Amid graves that have been cleared of leaves and adorned with wreathes of thyme and mint, members of the Wisconsin-based Wiccan church Circle Sanctuary on Monday will celebrate the last day of a pagan festival that rings in the new year and honors the dead.
Church members, several of whom come from the Chicago area, gather annually at the 200-acre Barneveld, Wis., site to mark Samhain (pronounced SOW-un), which culminates with members placing plates of food and chalices of beverages on an altar in the cemetery while reflecting on loved ones who have passed on.
But this year, the festivities will also take place in a new section of the cemetery that has been expanded to include environmentally friendly full-body human burials.
Although some cemeteries in the Midwest have designated areas for natural burials, the nearly 20-acre Circle Cemetery is believed to be one of the few in the region that handles only green burials, according to the Green Burial Council, based in New Mexico.
In April, the cemetery had its first and, so far, only interment.
The Rev. Ana Blechschmidt, a resident of Sycamore, Ill., and an ordained minister at Circle Sanctuary, said natural burials are important in paganism and other nature-based religions because it's difficult to fully honor a loved one who has passed on when that person is not buried in a way that preserves the land.
"The thought of getting filled up with formaldehyde and being placed in a sealed, laminated casket and put into a cement box in the ground is not in keeping with preserving Mother Earth," said Blechschmidt, a volunteer chaplain at Northern Illinois University.
"We believe the soul is eternal and immortal. So we want to leave as small a physical footprint as possible. If you honor the Earth you live on, how can you desecrate her and still honor the person you're burying?"
In natural burials, the body is not embalmed but refrigerated until the final services, and the casket or covering used is biodegradable. (Think bamboo caskets lined with unbleached cotton or natural-fiber shrouds.) Also, graves don't have liners or vaults, most of which are made of concrete or fiberglass to stabilize the ground.
And rather than being buried 6 feet under, bodies are interred no more than 5 feet — deep enough so that they're not disturbed by animals, yet shallow enough so that the microbes near the top of the soil can make decomposition happen more readily.
The Rev. Selena Fox, senior minister and founder of Circle Sanctuary, said the idea is for the body to decompose and return to the ground in the most efficient and thorough way possible.
"This is about the greening of the end-of-life process," Fox said. "If one is really choosing as part of their way of life to eat whole foods and reduce or eliminate additives and to really live a sustainable life, then when you die, it makes sense to be able to have your body naturally return to the earth without chemical preservatives.
"You want to continue the sustainable living even in death."
She said that a century and a half ago, natural burial was standard operating procedure.
"It was the Civil War that brought about the popularity and practice of embalming because of such mass kill-offs," Fox said. "Families wanted the bodies of their loved ones back, and the most practical way was to embalm."
She said that although cremation has long been considered an eco-friendly option, there has been some concern about its use of fossil fuels to turn the body into ashes.
Blechschmidt, who was part of the church's cemetery expansion team, said there were other concerns about cremation. While members were comfortable with it, some worried that their families wouldn't approve.
"My own father is very weirded out by cremation," said Blechschmidt, whose father is a Southern Baptist. "If something would happen to me before him, he would like a cemetery plot to visit. In some faiths, if you don't have a body, you can't be resurrected. For some of our members whose families are of those kinds of faiths, it's important for them not to be cremated."
Fox said a person needn't be a member of a pagan faith to be interred at Circle Cemetery. The church also doesn't require the use of a funeral home, although it is highly recommended.
"There have been such bad practices at some cemeteries over the last decade," Fox said. "That makes us extra careful. We have 20 acres and we're not looking at having huge numbers of people buried here."
She said the church offers recumbent grave markers made of granite, and gravesites can be positioned near existing trees. While the average funeral runs about $8,000 to $10,000, a green one can cost less than half of that.
"We know from history and our study of archaeology that natural burial has been done from the earliest of times," Fox said. "Having natural burial is not new. What is new is combining nature preservation with natural burial. This works well with our commitment to environmental preservation."
On Friday, the opening day of Samhain, Circle Sanctuary members walked in a procession through a restored prairie to the ridge top where their cat companions have been buried. The area is adjacent to the new natural burial site.
Church members laid to rest the 19-year-old Artemis, whom Fox said was the last of the cats who grew up on the Circle Sanctuary land.
Blechschmidt said all living things are of precious value and to be honored in life and death.
"When we bury Artemis, when we honor our dead, we celebrate our liberty," she said. "Their bodies were tired and old and not functioning properly anymore, and now their souls are liberated. We celebrate life by celebrating the passing of life into the next life. And, we always are aware of the great gift we have of living on this Earth."
Wiccan church honors dead in eco-friendly cemetery
Believers say natural burial shows reverence for the land as well as the departed
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