Lloyd Shepherd is trying to figure out what to do with his body when he’s done with it.
After deciding against a traditional burial, he briefly settled on cremation. But it wasn’t until after he attended an open house at a natural cemetery in southern Wisconsin that he felt he had found the best option for his remains after shuffling off this mortal coil.
“I find standard burial kind of creepy, myself,” Shepherd said. “I was researching things a bit and convinced my son and even my grandson to come to the open house with me.”
The cemetery Shepherd and his family visited, Natural Path Sanctuary, is part of a nature preserve near Verona that includes 25 acres of woods and meadows, a pond and rocky ridges.
The visit to Natural Path Sanctuary convinced Shepherd that, while the location may not have been exactly to his liking, natural burial was the way he wanted to go after he goes. As for the site of his final resting place, Shepherd has started working toward his ultimate goal: establishing a natural cemetery in the Eau Claire area.
“I come from the prairies, and I kind of like to be able to see things, so I’d be happier with a more open landscape,” Shepherd said. “So I really want to get a natural cemetery established here for my own benefit.”
The biggest differences between standard and natural burial is that natural burials occur with no embalming of the body and commonly lack a vault and a headstone.
“And with the natural burial, you don’t go as deep because you want to be in the zone where the microbes can work,” he said.
According to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization focusing on environmental sustainability in the field of funeral service, natural burials occur 3.5 feet under the ground with, at minimum, an 18-inch smell barrier, preventing animals from becoming interested in the bodies; present no danger of contaminating potable water and include a mandatory setback from water sources; and are ideally situated on well-drained soils with some clay content to absorb organic compounds and an active biological presence of bacteria for promoting efficient decomposition.
Shepherd said most natural cemeteries don’t allow headstones in an effort to allow the cemetery to blend better with the landscape around it, but they do often allow a marker that is flush with the ground. Some natural cemeteries allow caskets made from wicker, but others just a body wrapped in a shroud and placed on a pallet to lower into the ground.
Shepherd has already built a pallet he’s planning to use for himself using pine boards from a sawmill near Augusta and cotton cord to hold the pallet together.
“Everything has to be biodegradable,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd is currently trying to pin down a property for the cemetery, and he recently found a property near Elk Mound in Dunn County that he considers promising. He said his ideal site would be 3 to 5 acres of relatively level land that is reasonably accessible from county roads in Chippewa, Dunn, Eau Claire or Trempealeau counties.
Shepherd said he expects the natural cemetery he hopes to create would serve an eight-county area surrounding Eau Claire. The region has a population of more than 330,000, and at the rate of mortality in Wisconsin would account for about 3,000 deaths per year. If just 1 percent of those individuals would choose burial in Shepherd’s cemetery, the cemetery would be able to break even financially, Shepherd said.
He said costs could be made comparable to, or possibly even less expensive than, cremation.
“Cremation takes quite a bit of energy,” Shepherd said. “The attraction for (natural burial) comes, primarily, from people with environmental concerns.”
Wisconsin is currently home to two natural cemeteries with a third near La Crosse serving a local Catholic convent. There are also traditional cemeteries in the state that have space set aside for natural burial.
Natural Path Sanctuary, the natural cemetery near Verona, opened as a natural cemetery in 2011. Linda and Gene Farley lived on the property for 25 years before Linda died in 2009. The couple, both longtime family physicians, had planned to donate their bodies to science, according to Shedd Farley, the couple’s son and Natural Path Sanctuary coordinator. When Linda Farley’s body was rejected for donation for scientific purposes, the family was left without a Plan B, Shedd Farley said, so they decided to bury Linda’s body on the couple’s property.
“Family and friends came, and it was an amazing thing for us,” Farley said. “There was lots of participating in the process, which you don’t get with a conventional burial.”
Following Linda’s burial, the Farley family had to make some decisions about their future and the future of their property.
“You can bury one body pretty much any place you want,” Shepherd said. “But if you bury two, then it becomes a cemetery. So they went through the process of making it into a cemetery.”
“After Mom died, we had to make a choice: We could either get rid of the property after Dad died and bury him someplace else, or we could get certified as a cemetery,” Farley said. “Dad was never a small thinker, so he said, ‘Let’s get certified as a natural, green cemetery.’”
Farley said it took about two and a half years for the preserve to get certified as a cemetery.
“Wisconsin laws work perfectly for natural burial,” Farley said. “There are no hoops to jump through, you just have to follow the law.”
Farley said his father’s vision was for the cemetery to pay for the other initiatives that are the focus of The Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, including community-works projects and a farm-incubator program that provides immigrant farmers with a place to use their skills.
Shepherd, a member of both the Unity Christ Center and Lake Street United Methodist churches, is hoping to spark some interest in natural burial within the churches to help him move ahead in the process of establishing a natural cemetery near Eau Claire.
“It’s going slower than I’d hoped it would go, but I’m not discouraged,” Shepherd said. “It’s kind of a new idea; people aren’t really aware of it. There is definitely an educational component to this.”