By Curtis Tuden

“There is certainty in death and the change of customs.” – Dee Morris, Medford resident & historian, “Natural Burial in Massachusetts” at the Medford Public Library (1/14/15)

Our uniquely human ability to consider the final moments of our lives and the eternity that follows could be a blessing or a curse. In the end, where and how our bodies get laid to rest are important, often anxiety inducing questions all should reconcile before it’s too late. Dee’s quote is a paradox (don’t get lost thinking about the certainty of change) but her words offer insight to help us find answers. Those of us who gathered at the Medford Public Library one mid-January night learned of “green burials” which may be the answer you’re looking for.

We were first offered a historical context. The funeral wakes we are accustomed to gained popularity in the early 1900s, after President Lincoln was embalmed and mourned around the country in this fashion. Before the Civil War, all burials were “green” and Medford hosts those ecologically entombed in our oldest cemetery on Salem Street in Medford Square, founded 1683. Since then the customs surrounding death have changed. From cremation to Victorian death photographs, burial customs follow a trend, beginning ornately then over time becoming simplified.


President Lincoln embalmed during his national funeral procession (1865).

Philosophically “green burials” can be viewed as change towards the simple. Another Medford resident summed it up best as, “feeding the Earth after it has fed me for a lifetime.” Where contemporary embalming methods make for lengthy decay taking up space inside a fancy box underneath metal and concrete, a “green burial” enables a shrouded body (sometimes in a natural wood casket) to decay naturally. The Earth’s cycles redistribute our remains.

What we bury in the U.S. every year
Formaldehyde based embalming fluid 827,060 gallons
Steele (caskets) 90,272 tons
Non-decaying hardwood (caskets) 30,000,000 feet
Reinforced concrete (vaults) 1,636,000 tons


A representative from Mount Auburn Cemetery, Candace Currie, presented on the practical side of these issues. In 2014, Mt. Auburn was certified as Massachusetts’ first hybrid burial ground meaning its employees have been educated to meet specific, environmentally safe standards. Since then “green burials” have grown in popularity because of their simple, ecological nature as well as thousands of dollars in cost savings. Many with this mindset are currently looking across the state for land to become “green burial” space. Currently there are only a few dozen in the U.S. compared to 100+ in Great Britain. Candace’s best advice concerning any type of burial was, “pre-plan but don’t pre-pay.”

Natural casket

Example of a “green burial” casket. Credit

Medford’s own Oak Grove Cemetery is currently considering offering “green burials.” There’s a debate to be had and residents should let their interest be known. May this information offer a potential answer to those who consider death and their final resting place.

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