Crossing the River

Jason E. Kaplan
Suzanne Wright Baumhackl and Russell Hargrave are co-founders of Great River, Oregon's first entirely natural cemetery

Oregon companies reflect changing attitudes about death.

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F rom a grassy promontory high above the town of Mosier, the stunning beauty of the Columbia River Gorge is on full display. Wildflower-strewn meadows slope off to meet the trickling waters of a seasonal creek. The snow-covered face of Mt. Adams rises behind a steep basalt subduction jutting up over the Columbia River. Towering ponderosa pines and Oregon white oaks catch the music of the ever-present wind, and hawks ride the thermals above them.

Each year this striking landscape draws millions of visitors pursuing an active lifestyle.

But a new local business invites people to reside here after they die.

When it opens in early 2020, Great River will be Oregon’s first entirely natural cemetery. Like other natural cemeteries in this growing national movement, Great River will use sustainable, environmentally conscious burial practices, including biodegradable shrouds, coffins and urns, and will bar the use of embalming chemicals or vaults used in conventional cemeteries.

“A green burial ground will preserve natural space for the living to use and allow the dead to become part of the fertility of nature,” says Great River co-founder Russell Hargrave.

The Great River grounds will include a small celebration building for ceremonies, but most of the property will be left in its natural state with gravesites clustered under groves of trees and in meadows.

Only about 10 acres of the 80-acre parcel will be used for burial sites. Within the remaining landscape, the founders have plans for a network of trails for hiking, bird-watching and mountain biking.

JEK 6036The Great River cemetery features a network of hiking trails  Credit: Jason E. Kaplan

“This will be a place for reflection, grief and contemplation,” says Great River co-founder Suzanne Wright Baumhackl. She believes natural burial is one way to break the cycle of disconnection that pervades modern life.

Great River is just one of many Oregon companies reimagining how people manage the death of loved ones. Recent years have seen conventional cemeteries from Portland to Ashland and Estacada allowing natural burial in addition to conventional interment.

The national Green Burial Council — which certifies cemeteries, funeral homes and product manufacturers in sustainable, eco-friendly practices — says many more are following conservation guidelines but not necessarily seeking certification. The organization counts 70 cemeteries among its membership, but estimates that the number of U.S. and Canadian companies following its guidelines is closer to 240.

“Green burial just opens up this whole social and cultural opportunity,” says Lee Webster, Green Burial Council board member.

Webster says natural burial is about more than attention to sustainability. It goes hand in hand with other social trends like the 20-year-old home funeral movement. Home funerals are family-directed, and though they often incorporate the services of professional funeral homes, they mirror U.S. traditions from the 19th century and earlier, including preparing and viewing of the body at home.

“There is a deeply critical time, a liminal time, when we have to stop and take in what happened and think about what our life is going to be like without that person,” says Webster, who is also former president of the National Home Funeral Alliance. “In the end it is about creating community, and that is the value of end-of-life work.”

Since 1994, when it became the first of seven states to pass death-with-dignity laws, Oregon has been a bellwether regarding changing attitudes about death.

The Eugene-based Natural Burial Company, founded in 2004, has promoted natural burial through the sale of biodegradable coffins, eco-friendly shrouds and ash burial urns, and by helping educate consumers about how natural burial works.

In 2013 Portland joined an international movement when it began staging PDX Death Cafés, which bring people together for guided conversations about death. A 2015 workshop called “Death: Let’s Talk About It,” which grew out of the café series, drew 500 people.

“Over the past six years, thousands of strangers have sat around tables facilitated by PDX Death Café to talk about what’s on their minds about what was, until recently, a largely taboo topic,” says Holly Pruett, founder of PDX Death Café and the Portland-based Death Talk Project.

“This strong local interest in death as a topic of conversation, along with the growth of home funerals and natural burial, speaks to the vacuum that so many of us have, particularly out west, when it comes to intact cultural practices around death.”

Pruett, who is also a celebrant and a home funeral guide, sees natural burial as an opportunity for people to return to traditions of the past.

“Once caring for the dead was outsourced to the funeral industry, many of us became disconnected from the role families and communities have always played in transitioning our loved ones from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Home funerals and natural burial provide the opportunity to slow down the process and engage with tasks that are a fundamental part of being human.”

Another newly launched Oregon company is taking a different angle on death-related services by focusing on high tech. Launched in April this year, Solace is the brainchild of former Nike executives Keith Crawford and David Odusanya. The Portland-based company offers 24-hour online cremation services in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties as well as Clark County, Washington.

Privacy, ease and choice guide Solace’s concierge-style digital service. People can arrange the practical concerns of the pick-up of a body, the necessary paperwork, cremation, and the return of remains to the family or delivery to a cemetery.

Company founders say their intention is to use the digital platform to ease human suffering. They were moved to create the company after they each had negative experiences with conventional funeral homes following the deaths of family members.

“We said, ‘Let’s find a way to make it easier,’” Crawford says.

Solace representatives say that while some people choose to complete the entire process electronically, others ask for help in arranging formal ceremonies, including a recent elaborate funeral featuring a flyover for a military service.

“If you want to talk to someone, great. There are people there. We are human-powered. If you don’t want to, you can do it all online. That is a big difference — giving choice to the consumer,” Odusanya says.

Pricing transparency is a point of pride for Solace too. The company charges a flat fee of $895, which includes concierge customer service, the assistance of a funeral director and staff, help with paperwork, transportation of the deceased person’s body, cremation, return of the person’s remains in a recyclable urn, and all necessary permits and fees. Pricing transparency is sorely lacking in the funeral industry, they say.

“Home funerals and natural burial provide the opportunity to slow down the process and engage with tasks that are a fundamental part of being human.” – Holly Pruett

“We felt like we were being upsold and made to feel cheap because this was our final gesture to our mom, but then you end up feeling like you have been cheated,” Odusanya says of his own experience.

The company also offers pre-planning services for individuals and families to help people decide in advance how they would like to handle the end of life.

“If you have not been through this, it can be overwhelming. We are here to help and pass along what we are learning as we go,” Crawford says.

According to the most recent data from the National Funeral Directors Association, the funeral business was worth more than $16 billion in 2012. The association reports that cremation is on the rise in the U.S. with more than half of Americans choosing cremation in 2017, and a 10% increase in the number of licensed crematoriums between 2015 and 2017.

The association says the driving force behind Americans choosing cremation is perceived cost effectiveness. The organization also reports that just under half of people it surveyed are interested in exploring “green” funeral options.

Whether a death is followed by a home funeral, a natural burial or a digital transaction, all parties agree that the work does not end there.

“We can’t make it easier for people, but we can allow them time and space to grieve,” Crawford says.

JEK 5981Great River co-founder Russell Hargrave. Credit: Jason E. Kaplan

For their part, Great River’s founders hope it will be a place for people to gather in grief but also in joy. The celebration house will be available for weddings, baptisms and other celebrations as well as funerals. In addition to the trail system, the founders plan to build a children’s playground.

Hargrave says Great River is a place where the dead won’t be forgotten.

“I want to be buried where other people enjoy visiting, where people enjoy the entire circle of life. I want to be in a place where death is part of life, and life is a central part of the burial ground. Great River is such a place,” he says.

Great River will be a refuge for grief and the love and joy that accompany it, says Wright Baumhackl.

“I want my sons to know that dying does not have to be feared, and honoring and remembering your ancestors is something we all long for and need. Grief is normal and can be held in community.”

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