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Natural burial ground planned near Ashland

The first “natural burial ground” in Oregon will open soon in the mountains east of Ashland, allowing people to be buried unembalmed, encased only in a cloth shroud, cardboard casket or natural wood coffin, in order to have the least impact on the environment.

At an 18-acre forested corner of their organic Willow-Witt Ranch on Shale City Road, Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt are busy pruning and shaping pathways and benches at The Forest Natural Burial Ground, where bodies “can go back to the Earth and become part of the Earth, while using much less energy,” said Willow.

“Green burial,” as it is called, is gaining in acceptance, she said, as people come to realize we have a lot of choice in what we do with a body.

The couple have studied the new movement in webinars. In a book, Suzanne Kelley’s “Greening Death: Reclaiming Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth,” we see pictures of family members interring a loved one in a biodegradable cardboard casket, on which they can paint loving art, poems and farewell notes.

With a payment of $3,000, you reserve your choice of a 10-by-10-foot gravesite. Their farmhands dig a grave three or four feet deep, which is usually about where they hit bedrock. No metal or exotic woods are allowed, though bodies may keep some bionic parts or simple jewelry.

By comparison, Mountain View Cemetery on Ashland Street, which allows natural burials, without casket or embalming, charges $558 for a grave space, $472 to open and close it, and $175 to set a marker, for a total of $1,275, said co-Sexton Drew Burnside.

Mel Friend of Litwiller-Simonsen Funeral Home, adjacent to that cemetery, said cremation, simple urn and paperwork costs $1,485.

At Willow-Witt, farmhands will roll the body or cremated remains on a carriage to the site. They leave it to the family to officiate or find an officiant for the ceremony. Songs, dances, prayers and storytelling may ensue. Family and friends are welcome to visit at any time — for all time, as it is consecrated as a “conservation burial ground,” meaning that it can’t be developed into some other use or have bodies removed. As such, it serves as a spot for hiking, picnicking, birdwatching, baptisms, even weddings, they noted. Such activities are also allowed at Ashland’s city cemeteries, said Friend.

Although the natural burial ground is at 6,000 feet elevation, said Willow, climate change has greatly lessened snow, so burials and visitations can take place year-round.

To be respectful of natives who inhabited the meadow for at least 8,000 years, Witt and Willow called in an archaeologist who surveyed the area and said it had not been a village or burial ground in the past.

“Natural or green burial isn’t new,” said their pamphlet. “It is the way people were buried before the funeral industry developed. It continues the cycle of life, bringing us back to nature without the use of cement vaults, metal or exotic wood caskets or embalming.”

Willow said that even while cremation, which is the fate of the vast majority of bodies today, seems to be low-impact, cremation takes as much fossil fuel as a trip from here to the Bay Area and back.

In a test dig, Willow showed how the first layer is topsoil, the mid layer is rocky and the last layer is clay, followed by bedrock. This limits graves to 3 or 4 feet. It’s a myth, she said, that graves are six feet deep.

When the body is interred, the stones are packed around the body before the topsoil, including grassy soil, is tamped down. Big markers are not allowed. However, among the stones is usually a flat one that may be engraved with names and planted close to the ground. Some don’t want the identifying stone. The family gets GPS numbers so that, years later, the exact spot can be located.

“Those seeking natural burial are people trying to be aware of their lifetime impact on climate and the planet,” she said, “and they are people who don’t want to continue to overuse resources after death. They want to have positive energy in the world, conserve land and help regenerate Earth. This is designed to have no environmental impact.”

Allen Hallmark of Talent is planning his burial at Willow-Witt. He said natural gas contains the powerful greenhouse gas methane, so he has dropped his plan to be cremated.

“I’ve always wanted an alternative to the high cost and wasteful funeral and burial, which was the standard way to go out,” Hallmark said. “Why sink thousands of dollars into a fancy steel coffin and a cement box buried in a cemetery?”

The couple will start burials this spring. Details are at theforestnaturalburial.org. They have operated their 445-acre sustainable farm since 1985. They farm goats, chickens, vegetables, fruit trees and offer camping, tours and a farm-stay program.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Suzanne Willow discusses the process of digging a test hole for a future grave at the 18-acre natural burial cemetery on Willow-Witt Ranch east of Ashland. Photo by Denise Baratta
Suzanne Willow and her dog Izzy walk through part of 18 acres of forest and grassland designated as Oregon's first natural burial cemetery located east of Ashland. Photo by Denise Baratta