Wisconsin’s original green cemetery

More than a decade before the Farley Center was founded,  Selena Fox built one of the nation’s first natural cemeteries.
Selena Fox releasing remains
Photo courtesy of Selena Fox, Image used with permission from deceased's family
Selena Fox releases cremains onto a designated section of Circle Sanctuary’s 200-acre prairie preserve in Barneveld.

More than a decade before the Farley Center was founded — and just 20 miles down the road — Selena Fox built one of the nation’s first natural cemeteries. Fox is the founder and director of Circle Sanctuary, a nature spirituality church nestled on a 200-acre preserve in Barneveld. In 1995, Fox set aside 20 acres for scattering ashes. Fifteen years later, the church completed the local requirements for full-body burials. Fifty-eight people have chosen Circle Cemetery for their final rest, returning their remains to nature — a practice revered as sacred by the Circle Sanctuary community.

“We’re basically saying, ‘Live life green — and in death, be green,’ ” Fox says. While many spend time and resources keeping their bodies free from toxins — eating organic and buying greener household cleaners and personal products — at end of life, their bodies are often embalmed. Modern embalming — which caught on during the Civil War to preserve fallen soldiers’ bodies on the journey between the North and South — involves injecting formaldehyde, methanol and glutaraldehyde into corpses. In traditional cemeteries, treated wooden or metal caskets are encased in steel or concrete burial vaults to protect against the elements and keep the ground level, making it so one’s carbon footprint grows, even in death.

Circle Cemetery offers a natural alternative to conventional death practices. Bodies are buried in natural materials such as linen shrouds or untreated wooden boxes and placed 4 feet deep in an oak grove where the soil is alive with microorganisms that aid in decomposition. Cremains are either interred or spread on the prairie. Unlike some green cemeteries, Circle Cemetery does allow granite grave markers in order to respect mourners’ choices and preserve historical value.

“It’s taking an ancient human burial practice and combining it with something that’s very much needed today, which is intentional preservation of green space and ecological restoration,” Fox says. “It’s designed to have the body break down through natural processes and the container that holds it to return to nature, feed the roots of the trees, to be part of the soil.”

Circle Cemetery

Circle Cemetery, which also accommodates full body burials, was one of the first green cemeteries in the country. (Photo courtesy of Selena Fox)

Fox is a senior minister at Circle Sanctuary, which hosts full moon circles, celebrates seasonal Wiccan holidays, holds workshops and organizes a national event called Pagan Spirit Gathering (all online since the pandemic). The politically active group organizes Lady Liberty League to support civil rights and religious freedom for Wiccans, Pagans and other nature religion practitioners worldwide. The church honors the divine through nature preservation, so Circle Cemetery is a natural extension. Fox performs funeral rites for those who choose Circle Cemetery — not necessarily sanctuary members, but anyone who practices a faith or philosophy that respects nature. The cemetery also has a “microlithic” stone circle — a miniature version of megalithic ceremonial sites such as Stonehenge.

“Greening the end of life is a really important thing to consider,” Fox says, adding that she appreciates the growing green burials movement for raising awareness of choices. “We really should take a look at what happens to our body after death.”

Read more about green burials here.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"