Natural Burial Gaining Countywide Interest

Natural Burial Gaining
Countywide Interest

By Darla M. Youngs

During my father’s last hospital stay, as he was being treated for lung cancer that had spread to the brain, an attending physician asked him, “What’s your life’s plan?” The doctor wanted to talk about brain surgery, and Dad was having none of it. “What’s my life’s plan?” he replied. “Pushing up daisies, that’s my life’s plan.”

This was in the spring of 2006, and my father died shortly after. Since then, though, “pushing up daisies” has become a real option for those making end-of-life plans. The National Funeral Directors Association reported last year that 55.7 percent of people surveyed in an NFDA Consumer Awareness and Preferences Report would be interested in green funeral options because of their potential environmental benefits, cost savings or other reasons.

“Natural burial is an alternative to traditional burial and cremation. It is burial without embalming, in a biodegradable vessel, such as a burial shroud or plain pine casket, and without a steel burial vault,” explained Anna Rutenbeck, a member of the newly formed Upper Catskill Natural Burial Association and project coordinator for the Otsego County Conservation Association.

Natural burial and green burial are terms used interchangeably by most in the alternative death care community.

“People are interested in natural burial because it’s environmentally friendly, less costly than traditional American burial and it is the way many cultures around the world bury their dead already,” Rutenbeck continued.

The UCNBA held its first meeting in April of this year. The group is currently a small one, comprised of Bob Brzozowski, Jim Mills and Karen Palmer, all of Oneonta, and Rutenbeck, who lives in Cooperstown.

“We are in the process of designating our group as a 501(c)3, but currently do not hold formal status as a nonprofit,” Rutenbeck said.

“I’m relatively new to the area,” said Rutenbeck, who moved to Otsego County in 2019, “but our other members have deep ties to Otsego County and the Upper Catskill region. Bob reached out to the organization where I work, OCCA, in early 2022 asking about natural burial options in our region.

“Because we have none, we got to talking and started meeting. I’ve cared deeply about natural burial and alternative death care practices for over a decade. I think it’s important that we create places and resources for those who want to lessen their environmental impact after death, and for those who want areas to create personal and meaningful spaces for death care,” she continued.

According to Rutenbeck, traditional American burial is extremely costly to the environment.

“The production of caskets and steel burial vaults, the health and environmental impacts of embalming chemicals, and the burial of all of those products has a huge environmental impact. Cremation has costs as well, with a single cremation producing an average of 535 pounds of carbon dioxide. The carbon cost of a natural burial can be virtually nonexistent, with actual benefits to the environment in terms of nutrients being returned to the soil and the creation of spaces which are conserved specifically for this purpose,” she went on to say.

Interest in natural burial is growing for a number of reasons, Rutenbeck emphasized—low environmental impact, the low cost, the connection to nature, the connection to culture and many more.

“The benefits to natural burial are as varied as the people who seek it,” she said.

There are four types of natural, or green, burial grounds—hybrid burial grounds: conventional cemetery incorporating natural burial practices; low-impact burial grounds: conventional cemetery with area for natural burial practices; natural burial grounds: low-impact grounds with commitment to natural landscape; conservation burial grounds: natural burial grounds backed by a conservation organization.

Washington, Colorado and Oregon have legalized human composting, a type of green burial that turns the body into soil using wood chips and straw to make it easier for microbes to break down tissue, with legislation underway to add
New York and California to that list.

“As far as I’m aware,” said Rutenbeck, “the nearest natural burial cemetery is the Fultonville Natural Burial Ground.”
On Sunday, October 23, the UCNBA hosted its first online program, “Natural Burial in Otsego County.” The presentation featured information about natural burial and how to get involved in the creation of a natural burial cemetery in Otsego County.

“Our Zoom was attended by about two dozen people,” Rutenbeck said. “There was ample opportunity to ask questions, connect with others interested in natural burial, and to learn more about sustainable death options.”

Rutenbeck cares deeply about the environment, and has grown to care deeply as well about Otsego County and this region.

“We have incredible environmental resources here and I think we should do everything we can to preserve them,” she said.

For more information about the UCNBA, contact or (802) 310-3902.

Darla M. Youngs is the general manager of Iron String Press and a former executive director of the Otsego County Conservation Association.

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