ESSEX, NEW YORK—I’m standing with John Davis in front of his grave. It was the very first grave he dug three years ago in the firm soil of the Adirondacks in a place known as Spirit Sanctuary. He had planned to be buried on his land, but he became so enamored with this exact spot, tucked among willows and behind a pine tree, that he decided it would be his final resting place instead.
I just hope Davis doesn’t die anytime soon for both personal reasons—he’s very nice and at 55 years old, much too young to go—and technical ones. After weeks of rain and snow, the 3-foot deep pit in the ground is full of water and a thin veneer of ice is creeping around its edges. If Davis were to go now or in another wet winter, his loved ones would have to bring a sump pump out to bury him.
This is a conservation cemetery, the leading edge of the burgeoning green death movement which envisions a new way of dying by turning to the past, when we were more connected with death. Like other green burial sites scattered across the country, you’ll see no headstones or manicured lawns—in this case, just the snow-frosted landscape of the Adirondack lowlands. In fact, the only sign there’s a cemetery here is the wrought iron and stone sculpture at its entrance and a few signs demarcating the conservation land that surrounds it.
But what Davis and a cadre of conservationists and afterlife advocates are building isn’t just about reconnecting with the Earth. They’re using the cemetery as part of a greater conservation plan for the Adirondacks. If they’re successful, that template that could spread to other landscapes stressed by human activity, helping them adapt them to the very modern problem of climate change.
The typical funeral today is a roughly $10,000 affair. Cremation—which surpassed traditional burial in a casket as the afterlife of choice for Americans in 2015—will run you about $2,000. Add on bell and whistles like a nice urn and flowers, and the costs rise higher. All told, the funeral industry with its estimated 19,177 funeral homes and thousands of cemeteries and crematoriums is worth an estimated $20.7 billion.
This big industry comes with a big environmental impact. In the U.S., 5.3 million gallons of toxic embalming fluid are buried every year. Each cremation releases as much carbon dioxide as a 500-mile road trip. Whether it’s metal caskets stuffed inside concrete vaults six feet below the surface or alkaline ashes that, if not stored in an urn on your mantle, are a real harm to the environment, the modern death industry has changed our relationship with, well, life.
“It’s bizarre we’ve ended up in a place where we spend thousands of dollars pumping our loved ones full of chemicals and painting their faces and putting them in a titanium casket is normal and wrapping them in a shroud and burying them isn’t,” Michelle Acciavatti, Spirit Sanctuary’s “death doula,” told Earther.
It wasn’t always this way. In the U.S., 18th and 19th century burials involved at most, a pine casket and a plot in a cemetery or on your land. But embalming techniques pioneered during the Civil War so thousands of soldiers could be brought home helped spawn the modern funeral industry. The death of Abraham Lincoln and the public viewings of his embalmed body as it was brought from Washington, D.C. to its final resting in Springfield, Illinois likely also contributed to the shift in how Americans conceive of death.
“The reports we get from that era is he [Lincoln] looked pretty doggone good for being dead after being assassinated with a bullet to the head,” Bill Hoy, an end of life expert at Baylor University, told Earther. “That confirmed that [embalming] is especially helpful for two things: One, when our dead’s death occurs a few days from home, and two, when an injury or disease process was such that dead just look horrible, and people thought ‘I don’t want that to be my last picture.’”
But while the growth of arterial embalming fluid gave loved ones more time to say goodbye and create a last memory, the processes also cuts bodies off from what some would argue is their final purpose, of giving life the Earth.
The modern green burial movement is a sort of course correction for the Western world. Acciavatti said that it’s always been much bigger in Europe compared to the U.S. “[i]n part because embalming was never really a thing there, but also because we’re so behind the curve in terms of green movements in the U.S.” But the U.S. is now catching up.
Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first modern green burial cemetery in the U.S., opened 20 years ago in South Carolina. Since then, roughly 150 green burial sites have opened their gates (if they even have them), allowing family and friends to bury loved ones in a more natural way. That generally means wrapping their body in a shroud, digging a grave that’s three feet deep—far enough down to not be detected by scavengers but not so far down as to be cut off from microbial decay—and keeping the grave unmarked.
But Spirit Sanctuary, which became a permitted cemetery about a year ago and interred its first body this past summer, is about something bigger than returning our bodies to the Earth. It’s about preserving an entire landscape.
The three-acre parcel of land is part of something known as the Split Rock Wildway Corridor, a chain of conservation land being set aside to connect Lake Champlain on the border or New York and Vermont with the high peaks of the Adirondacks 30 miles to the west. While much of the ‘daks are protected by the state of New York, the lower elevations around Lake Champlain have largely been turned into farmland. When Davis and other conservationists with the Eddy Foundation noticed a sliver of land that was undeveloped, they started to buy it up.
“There’s this rough terrain that because of the geology has remained mostly forest and so we decided that should be protected,” Davis told me while we warmed up at the Hub on the Hill, a tiny food prep kitchen and honor system store in Essex, before going to tour Spirit Sanctuary. “That’s obviously a crucial wildlife corridor that links the lowlands along the lake with the high peaks.”
Wildlife corridors, where animals can move freely across large distances, are especially important in our modern era of climate change. And upstate New York is feeling the heat: Data from Berkeley Earth shows that the area around Spirit Sanctuary has warmed a bit more than 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1800s with a sharp uptick in the past 30 years. Spring is arriving earlier and fall is arriving later as a result, throwing migrations and bloom dates out of whack. If emissions continue to rise in the coming decades, the region could warm another 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by midcentury, further misaligning the natural world and forcing species to migrate to cooler areas.
In the mountainous Adirondacks, that means moving upslope, and the wildlife corridor that Davis is trying to create is one way to ensure plants and animals aren’t cut off from cooler terrain. Spirit Sanctuary itself plays an important role in building that corridor in a few regards.
The first is that as a cemetery, it becomes land that can never be developed. The second is that anyone who reserves a site at Spirit Sanctuary is asked to donate part of their estate to the Eddy Foundation or other conservation groups in the area, along with paying a $1,200 fee that covers the burial and administrative costs. The part of the estate they donate—there’s no set amount or percentage—is used to purchase more land, ensuring the corridor continues to grow. Those that don’t make a donation can still choose Spirit Sanctuary as their final resting place at a fee of $3,500, still far below traditional burial costs.
So far, there’s just one grave at Spirit Sanctuary, but that number is slated to grow as more people reserve space, similar to how the process works at a traditional graveyard. Davis, for his part, sees getting people to reconnect with the Earth through death as the ultimate conservation move.
“[T]here’s a lot of environmentally destructive behavior that happens because we have a very unhealthy relationship a death,” Davis said. “If we can give people a better way to die with dignity.... I think we would see some of the problems that are really harming the planet and harming our society lessen, particularly the excessive consumption. It’s not to claim that conservation cemeteries are going to solve that problem, but I think they would reduce it.”
Davis’ grave site is nice and all, but if I were going to be buried at Spirit Sanctuary, I’d pick the nascent pine forest. Davis, Amadon, Eric, a local whose father was the first to be buried at Spirit Sanctuary this past summer and only wanted to be identified by his first name, and I trek down a path into the woods with shovels and a pick ax to dig a test grave. Since the cemetery is brand-new and Davis is still learning the tricks of the grave-digging trade, test graves are crucial learning experiences.
Spirit Sanctuary’s young pine forest is thick, but Davis has found a clearing big enough for a body that the four of us squeeze into. Davis had already begun to dig here, as evidenced by a near-perfect circle about 18 inches deep, filled with inky black water that caught flickers of the slate gray sky through the pine boughs. The water is hypnotizing against the dusty brown pine needles and as I stare into it, I imagine what it would be like to be buried here, cold and wet but also again part of the Earth.
We plunge our shovels into the ground, the chuuk of the inch-thick mat of pine needles quickly giving way to the shooooop of moist soil. The ground hasn’t yet frozen and so we make quick work of it, the four us passing tools and widening the hole.
About two feet down, rivulets of water start pouring into our test grave from all sides with any break in digging longer than 30 seconds. A thick pasty mud forms on the bottom, slowing our progress a bit. As we’re nearing the finish line, Eric jumps in to clear the last bit of muck out. I ask if I can join him in the test grave to close the gap. He makes room and I jump in.
Waist-deep in the pit, everything is alive. The smell of dirt, inhabited by millions of microbes fills my nose, cut by wafts of the freshly-churned pine needles. A thin layer of needles quickly gives way to dark brown topsoil, which then fades to a rich orange and then a dusky gray. This close to the forest floor, outside noise quiets down and there’s a space in that natural hush.
Eric referred to being back at the cemetery as a “spiritual GPS,” a way to reconnect not just with his dad but life, death, and the natural order of things. And despite having no loved ones buried there myself, I could feel a fraction of what he was saying down there in the grave as the mud welded our boots in place like temporary tree roots. Eventually, we clambered out and Davis filled the grave with hay to avoid a repeat of the watery pit at his own grave. We walk out of the woods into the rapidly dwindling light and the softest of snow flurries, a quintessential early winter scene in the Adirondacks.
Spirit Sanctuary is a small project. It won’t singlehandedly change the way we view death or how we adapt to climate change. But in a time where radical changes are needed, it can serve as a proof of concept for how we treat death in an increasing out of whack world.
“We’re asking people to change a generation of burial practices,” Acciavatti, the death doula, said. “Anyone that has participated in a green burial becomes an advocate.”