Where the grass is greener

Can growing awareness of green burials, home funerals and end-of-life doulas unearth a broader conversation about how we could better approach death and dying?
stone grave marker at Natural Path Sanctuary
Photo by Larry Chua
Pictured is one of many stone grave markers at Natural Path Sanctuary, a cemetery designed to have as little impact as possible on the surrounding woods. Visitors may not even realize they’re standing among graves, particularly in the lush summer months.

Shedd Farley is hardly a mystical guy, though he’s deeply reverent of his job. Before taking over his family’s Farley Center and cultivating Natural Path Sanctuary into an eco-friendly cemetery, he was a building contractor. His faith lies in square corners and precise measurements, in the exquisite beauty of earthly design. Besides, he’s the son of doctors, well-versed in the limits of bone and flesh.

“Death never scared me, ever. It wasn’t something that my family didn’t talk about. But it is a fact that so many people don’t talk about death,” Farley says, pointing out the sugar maple that shades his mother Linda’s grave. It lies just a stone’s throw from where we’re standing, next to the family home in which she and her husband, Gene, lived for 26 years.

“Decomposing, I don’t even use that word. I say we’re ‘recomposing’ because we’re turning you into something that is usable by everything around you,” Farley says, closing the door to the six-sided, window-lined house he built for his parents in 1983. Nestled on 108 acres in the town of Springdale, 15 miles west of Madison, the home now serves as the office for the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, a 501(c)(3) incorporated by Gene after Linda’s 2009 death and a formalization of everything the couple stood for in life.

As we begin to walk, Farley tells me about his late parents, who met in medical school: big-hearted, science-minded physicians and passionate advocates for social justice and universal health care. Gene was chair of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Family Medicine and a pioneer in creating family medicine programs nationwide. Linda delivered health care to communities that lacked access, such as inner-city clinics in Colorado and New York, and urban and rural patients in Wisconsin. Both worked on the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona, and they saw Wisconsin patients in their homes. “Probably the last two doctors in existence that ever did house calls,” Farley says. Soon after they bought the property, they’d designated some tillable acreage and equipment to be given to Hmong families free of charge; mostly immigrants who had arrived with keen farming skills but few resources. The Farleys invited neighbors to wander the trails they’d cut through the woods and opened their home as a gathering space to Quakers and other fellow justice-seekers from around the world. In 2009, Linda died of cancer at 80 years old.

“She’d wanted to donate her body to science, but science didn’t want her body,” Farley says. “So we had a sit-down with Dad to say, ‘What are we going to do?’ And he said, ‘Well, she loved this place. Let’s see if we can get her buried here.’”

The four Farley siblings — none of whom had ever lived in Wisconsin — soon learned that regulations vary by municipality. In the rural town of Springdale, residents can bury a body on their property if they have 25 or more acres — two or more bodies, and you need to get licensed and certified as a cemetery. Gene was comforted that his remains could stay with Linda’s, but what would happen with the property after he was gone? That’s when he had the idea to incorporate both the farm and the cemetery as nonprofits, allowing him to preserve the land by formalizing programs like the Farm Incubator System — which lends land and equipment and teaches organic farming and U.S. business practices to underserved, under-resourced farmers — and to leverage Natural Path Sanctuary to fund Farley Center operations.

Since 2011, 205 shrouded, casketed or cremated bodies have been buried at Natural Path — including Gene’s, in 2013.

We make our way up to the 25-acre wooded section that now comprises the cemetery, winding through the trail Gene himself blazed all those years ago. We’re surrounded by what looks like regular old woods to me — a glorious snarl of hickory, oak and boxelders, not a tombstone in sight — and I tell Farley so.

“Because that’s what I want it to look like,” Farley says, smiling. “However, I also know that we’ve already passed four graves.”

Shedd Farley in woods

Shedd Farley is director of the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, founded by his father and named after his parents. He is also coordinator of Natural Path Sanctuary, the on-site, certified green cemetery where his parents are buried. (Photo by Larry Chua)

Natural Path is one of only 36 cemeteries in the country certified by the California-based Green Burial Council, or GBC, and one of only two public, exclusively green cemeteries in Wisconsin (the other, at Circle Sanctuary in nearby Barneveld, was one of the first in the nation; read more here). Farley estimates there are another 350 “hybrid” green cemeteries (some certified, some not), including three near Milwaukee — still a fraction of America’s 144,000 graveyards. The GBC defines a green cemetery as one “with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat. Green burial necessitates the use of nontoxic and biodegradable materials, such as caskets, shrouds and urns.” Natural Path does not allow embalmed bodies. It allows grave markers but only if they are made from untreated wood or stone “shaped by nature” and lie flush to the ground.

Natural Path is currently in phase one of a two-phase plan, plotting graves on just 11.5 acres. Legally, Farley could site 8,420 individual plots on an area that size (as a traditional cemetery would) but will keep it to fewer than 3,000 to preserve the wildness of the woods, avoid overcrowding and adhere to GBC requirements. So far he has sold or pre-sold 615 plots — most in the last four years. That trajectory aligns with the results of a 2020 National Funeral Directors Association survey in which 61.8% of respondents said they’d be interested in exploring green funeral options.

The same survey indicates the percentage of those who feel that a religious component in a funeral of a loved one is “very important” has steadily dropped from nearly half in 2012 to only 35.4% in 2019.

“So would you say green burials are a secular choice?” I ask Farley, who stops to correct me.

“How do you think they buried Jesus?” he chuckles, adding that embalming didn’t come into practice in this country until the Civil War. “I get numerous calls every year from priests saying, ‘Hey, we have a cemetery here, how do we make part of it green?’ And I love that question.” Farley regularly fields inquiries from people all over the country interested in building their own green cemeteries. He respects and serves all faiths but — since I asked — his own idea of heaven is exactly what he’s got here on Earth.
“I’m not much on spirituality but, when I die, there is an energy in my body. It’s electrical, it’s chemical, it’s all kinds of stuff and — psssssht!” he says, gesturing at the trees above us. “It’s gone. It’s dissipated into the universe. That energy leaves and does something, because you can’t destroy energy, so it’s just back participating in the universe. And I’m good with that.”

tree at Natural Path Sanctuary

A 300-year-old bur oak grows at the Farley Center’s Natural Path Sanctuary (Photo by Larry Chua)

Farley, 61, never expected to add “gravedigger” to his resume in the second half of his life, but he loves the work. The physical labor, the gift of being outside all day, the way natural burials make sense in the grand scheme of food justice and land conservation. Most of all he just really likes people. Getting to know them, bearing witness to their toughest moments and, hopefully, bringing comfort in death by delivering what they’d wanted in life — a sustainable burial that gives back not just to the earth but to the types of causes the Farley Center supports. The center’s programming includes the farm incubator and community supported agriculture, food pantry gardens, a beekeeper pilot program, work with incarcerated youth and more.

“Everything we do is based on environmental thought,” Farley says — including digging every grave by hand. While the traditional American funeral costs $7,000-$10,000, Natural Path burials start at $3,500 — $2,500 of which is a direct “donation” to the Farley Center and $1,000 of which covers the labor. Caskets require a bigger hole than shrouded bodies and ashes, so they cost more. Conversely, cremains take up less space — but Farley charges the same for those as for body burials. “That’s our carbon-offset fee,” he says, a $500 difference that’s then invested in carbon sequestration programs and renewable energy resources, like the photovoltaic array to capture solar power that the Farley Center installed in 2020.

Cremation is more environmentally friendly than traditional burials that put 4 million gallons of embalming fluid, 64,000 tons of steel and 1.6 million tons of concrete into the ground each year — but cremation isn’t the natural choice people think it is. In 1960, just 4% of Americans chose cremation. That share has skyrocketed to 54.6% today, likely correlated with a growing concern for the environment. But each cremation still requires a furnace burning at 1,400 degrees for two hours, spewing carbon dioxide and using as much energy as driving 500 miles by car.

Farley accommodates either cremains or untreated wood caskets but says the greenest option is to bury a body naked or wrapped in a biodegradable shroud. And this is important: Unless you’re prepared to clean and transport that body yourself, you’ll still need to hire a funeral home.

“The biggest misconception is that people still don’t understand there’s a difference between a cemetery and a funeral home,” Farley says. Wisconsin law protects consumers by separating cemeteries and funeral homes — one cannot be owned by the other. As a cemetery operator, Farley can’t legally prepare or pick up a body. While preparing a body oneself is perhaps more common in Muslim, Amish and Jewish traditions, it has gained some ground in dominant culture over the past decade due to a rising trend of so-called “end-of-life doulas” or “death doulas.” Farley says these are “wonderful” people who guide dying people and their loved ones through a range of empowering services before and after death, but most of Natural Path’s customers still prefer to hire a funeral home to handle everything. He’s worked with every funeral home within driving distance and many refer clients to him.

grave at Nature Path Cemetary

All graves are dug by hand and most sites are barely noticeable among the natural growth. (Photo by Larry Chua)

“I will honestly recommend any one of them, they’re all right on board with us,” Farley says. “They believe in this and see this as part of the future.”

Karen Reppen, a death awareness educator and certified end-of-life doula who sits on the Farley Center board, remembers a burial she attended at Natural Path Sanctuary. The deceased was in his 30s and he’d written his own “goodbye story” to be read aloud as his shrouded body was laid to rest in the woods. Most of the gathered mourners had no experience with unconventional burials. They shuffled nervously in heels and dress shoes as they watched their friend’s cloth-wrapped body descend into the ground among the scattered twigs and leaves. Then a family member asked if they wanted to help cover their loved one with dirt.

“For many of them this was probably the first funeral they’d been to of one of their peers and, you know, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, God, this is so weird,’ ” Reppen recalls. “But then, slowly but surely, everybody started filling the grave and it was the most amazing transformation from people feeling helpless and hopeless and stunned. The thing I’ve learned through death work is that beauty-making is one of the most amazing balms for grief.”

The moment also served as a microcosm of 69-year-old Reppen’s own profound transformation from someone who, until she was nearly 50 years old, identified as “the most death-phobic person on the planet.”

Despite growing up “on a street with two dead ends” (a cul-de-sac on one side, a cemetery on the other), Reppen says a debilitating fear of death kept her from properly grieving the losses she experienced throughout life. In 2000, when a friend invited her to the grand opening of a new inpatient facility for what was then called HospiceCare Inc. (now Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care, Wisconsin’s largest hospice provider), she could barely work up the nerve to walk through the front door. Remarkably, two years later, she accepted a position there as public relations and communications director.

“It became my job to tell the hospice story. To talk to people like me who had no clue that end of life could be something other than terrifying, traumatic and, you know, just awful,” she marvels. She sought advice from HospiceCare’s medical director, the late, great William “Doc” Rock — how was one supposed to talk to dying people about death? “You treat them like they’re human beings,” he told her. “You go and ask them who they are and what they love.”

The counsel stuck and her immersion was swift. But it only took three years working among the dying for Reppen to decide she was missing out on living.

“There’s something about working with people who know they don’t have forever,” Reppen says. “You only live once, and I had been putting things off for years.”

grave marker

Markers are only allowed if made from a stone shaped by nature and set flush to the ground. (Photo by Larry Chua)

She quit her job, opting instead to bring therapy dogs to hospice patients as a volunteer. She enrolled in a certified nursing assistant program at Madison College. She flew to New Mexico for a Zen Buddhist course called “Being With Dying” and devoured books like Maggie Callanan’s “Final Gifts” and Stephen Jenkinson’s “Die Wise.” She learned that home funerals were the norm in this country up until the 1930s — that, in fact, the term “funeral parlor” comes from the historical practice of laying bodies out in a household’s front room. She concluded that death had become pathologized, that funerals had become commodified. She wondered if dying could be a teacher, if grief could be a skill.

“People showed me that even the most gruesome, terrifying experience can have some really beautiful moments and that, for the most part, people don’t have to be physically uncomfortable when they die,” Reppen says. “This being afraid and being estranged from end of life is really only a couple generations away from what it used to be.”

Soon Reppen developed her own death education and awareness curriculum. She started leading workshops and presentations and expanded her volunteerism, which included sitting vigil with hospice patients. She took another job, this time at Rainbow Hospice in Jefferson. She completed certificates in grief support and end-of-life doula work and joined the National End of Life Doula Alliance board. She spearheaded an initiative called Solace Friends, which she hopes will bring end-of-life care to people experiencing homelessness. All along the way, she’s connected with others walking the same path.

Elizabeth Humphries was one of those people. Humphries is a certified nurse midwife of 24 years and the owner of Seasons of Life Madison, a senior home care and end of life agency. She’s also a certified end-of-life doula, a role that unfolded organically through her work with senior clients. “As they progress to their end of life, we’re just there,” Humphries says. “We just love them to the end.”

Humphries got her degree in nurse midwifery partly in response to her dad’s suicide in 1979. Her grief compelled her to turn toward life by helping usher it into the world through birth and babies. Throughout her career, she couldn’t help but draw parallels between the medicalization of birth and the medicalization of death. When her mom got cancer and entered hospice, Humphries was profoundly moved by the way her mother was supported to be present and authentic through the dying process. The day after her mother died in 2011, she took a nursing job with a hospice provider — but it didn’t go far enough for her.

paths through wooded cemetery

The paths that wind through the wooded cemetery at Natural Path Sanctuary are the same paths that founder Gene Farley cut to wander with his wife, Linda, when they lived on the property. Now both are buried there. (Photo by Larry Chua)

“I would go out and see maybe five or six patients — we called them patients; I was a nurse, I wore scrubs, I’d be there maybe an hour and leave,” Humphries says. She wanted to dress in plain clothes and visit longer. Talk through all of their wishes and needs, educate them on options like green burials or home funerals, see them all the way through to the end. “We need to embrace hospice, they’re bringing good things to people and moving us along on our death journey in ways that wouldn’t happen if they weren’t there … but I can be there for people [now] in a way that I couldn’t as a hospice nurse.”

Humphries started Seasons of Life and also ramped up her volunteer efforts educating others about death and dying, which is how she crossed paths with Reppen. Both women volunteer with two key groups: Community Conversations on Death and Dying (which hosted public “death café” meetings twice a month in pre-COVID-19 times at a west-side coffee shop); and Walking Each Other Home, a group that teaches how to prepare bodies and conduct home funerals.

“I think the biggest barrier to home funerals is fear. For instance, there’s a myth that the body’s going to start decaying right away, or that the body is infectious,” Humphries says. Neither is true. Walking Each Other Home educates families on their physiological, legal and emotional options and provides practical help such as renting home funeral kits with items like re-freezable ice packs to cool the body. The group also serves a larger purpose of teaching people they have more agency in death than they may realize.

“I think people are so used to giving up their ability to make their own decisions or even think about those decisions that they don’t even consider it,” says Humphries, who was forced to put that experience and autonomy to the test as recently as November 2020.

Right before Thanksgiving, Humphries got a call that her sister had been rushed to an emergency room in Atlanta, thousands of miles from where she’d hoped to die with family in Madison, and far sooner than anyone had expected the aggressive cancer to take her. Emergency room doctors feared she wouldn’t make it another 48 hours.

“If we’d been at all intimidated by the medical process, she would have died in that hospital in Atlanta,” Humphries says. Instead, “They got her stabilized and we flew her home under a beautiful, starry sky and brought her right here to my house and slid her into bed.”

Then they snuggled into bed with her. Lit candles and her favorite rose-scented incense. Played music and read poetry, reminisced over photographs, combed her hair and applied rose oil, washed her face and massaged her feet. Loved ones were invited in to say their goodbyes before she lost consciousness. All of this was according to her sister’s wishes, which they’d openly discussed in life — and that’s the key.

Green Burial5

The cemetery’s unassuming entrance (Photo by Larry Chua)

“What death doulas do is they come into the space of the dying person and help them find a peaceful place, a safe place where things aren’t scary,” Humphries says. “Just honoring each person’s choice. Because death is not a medical event. Death is a human event.”

That’s not to say it isn’t wretched, or that end-of-life workers somehow have a Zen-like disposition that protects them from the howling pain of grief.

“We were all angry,” Humphries says. “But anger is an opportunity, too. Anger is powerful and it brings a lot of wisdom. And I think when people are allowed to actually dive into that … I’ve never seen anybody who was allowed to feel their anger not come out on the other side. All of the feelings we have about death and dying and illness, all of the ways we can’t control life, are important gifts to us. They help us learn and grow and become bigger people.”

Helping people deal with complex emotions is what the Rev. Susan Shands does as the department manager of Spiritual and Grief Services for Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care. Shands oversees a team of 12 spiritual and grief counselors with mixed backgrounds in counseling, social work, ministry and chaplaincy. They visit with dying people and their loved ones at home, hospitals or care facilities, and at Agrace’s two inpatient facilities in Fitchburg and Janesville.

“Our job is to acknowledge and validate and come alongside people in their anger and rage and fear, not try to dissuade them out of that, because those are valid and right emotions to have. They’re appropriate for the circumstances,” Shands says. “The reality is that death is not Hallmark. It’s not Hollywood moments where everything comes together at the end and it’s tied up in a neat bow. Our effort is to try to hang with families even through those tough and messy times.”

Filled grave at Nature Path

Photo by Larry Chua

Despite the significant strides made by the modern hospice movement, talking openly about death is something we still struggle with in this country. Shands welcomes community conversations like those that Reppen and Humphries are cultivating. She supports empowering patients with choices in how they live while dying and where their bodies go after. There are no rules or absolutes — each of us is a unique combination of our personalities, family systems, cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, age and circumstance. But as a society, we share a communal avoidance of talking about death. Why?

“We culturally have a huge deficit in our ability to sit with discomfort,” Shands says. “I think it’s still taboo in our country to be really open and honest. There’s this narrative of winning and fixing and saving. The expectation is ‘I’m going to do everything I can to stay alive.’ ”

In part to counter our tendency to look away from death, Agrace has long practiced the tradition of a final processional when a patient passes. Following the lead of a patient or their loved ones — maybe it’s “Ave Maria” and formal dress, maybe it’s AC/DC and a Packers jersey — staff and friends line the halls as the deceased is covered in a handmade quilt and wheeled out of the building.

“The same door that they came in, not trying to hide or disguise the fact that a death has occurred,” Shands says. “That is a core value of ours. Being open and upfront and transparent when the time and circumstances are right can be liberating and freeing for families. It gives everybody permission to not hide, to not be embarrassed or ashamed by tears, and really gives everybody that opportunity to rally together and support grieving families.”

entrance to Farley Center

Entrance to Farley Center (Photo by Larry Chua)

Agrace hosts grief support group meetings that are open to the community, regardless of whether their loved one was served there. Since COVID-19, those meetings are mostly virtual — and they’ve also seen more demand. So many of us are grappling with loss right now, compounded by unprecedented isolation from community, says Shands. Some are facing our own mortality for the first time — but that doesn’t have to be the case. There is comfort to be found both in the conversation and in community itself.

“I’ll go with kind of a Brené Brown sense of interpreting this and say just how courageous it is to be vulnerable. Both facing death itself, or facing grief and dealing with loss, to allow yourself to go there and allow other people around you to be open and honest about these things is a courageous and countercultural act,” she says. “And the benefit is that you get to have more real, authentic, intimate relationships with your loved ones now, when it really counts.”

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor at Madison Magazine.

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