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Grief Without a Grave: Green Burial and Accessibility

Do natural burial cemeteries have an accessibility issue? It's complicated.

Visiting the gravesite of a lost loved one can serve as a calming adaptive strategy when experiencing grief, especially in the acute stage. It gives friends and family members a place to go and a way of connecting with their deceased loved one when grief seems unbearable. It is also an opportunity to bring flowers or mementos to the gravesite as a way to express one’s love and to care for the grave. Oftentimes, visiting a gravesite will become a comforting tradition during important times of the year, such as birthdays and holidays. The gravesite can become a psychological lifeline for those left behind. But what if the grave is located in an area that is hard to reach for those with mobility challenges? What if the natural landscape of the burial ground creates barriers for some of us?

Cremation and full body burials in the woodland areas of a natural burial ground might pose a few obstacles. These include the ecology of the area (tree density and habitat), the logistics of the burial (navigating slopes and drainage waterways), and the gravesite’s accessibility. My focus for this essay is on access (or the lack thereof) to graves in more remote burial locations. Does not having access to the gravesite of a loved one during a burial service or afterward due to mobility challenges impact grief?

The grieving process is messy and deeply personal for everyone. In this article, M. Katherine Shear, the Founding Director of Columbia University’s Center for Prolonged Grief, describes Complicated Grief as “a chronic impairing form of grief brought about by interference with the healing process. We use the term ‘complicated’ in the medical sense to refer to a superimposed process that alters grief and modifies its course for the worse.”

Support through community gathering during a burial or memorial service is an important ritualistic aspect of adapting to loss. Grieving in the presence of others during a graveside ceremony or visiting a gravesite after the ceremony may help with the acceptance of the loss, underscoring that grave accessibility is a salient point of consideration for anyone exploring a more remote gravesite at a natural burial ground.

When asked about accessibility at green burial grounds, Lee Webster, funeral reform advocate and author of Changing Landscapes: Exploring the Growth of Ethical, Compassionate, and Environmentally Sustainable Green Funeral Service shared her thoughts: “I have concerns that remote burials are, if not intentional, at least ignorant of the fact that reducing access, whether financial or physical, is the opposite of what this movement represents. As we are changing cemetery practices to be more environmentally responsible, I believe we have a duty to intentionally change cemetery culture to be more inclusive in all ways, and that includes the mobility challenged. That doesn't mean that spaces for the rugged and wild should be eliminated; it just means that we need to be deliberate and honest with families and individuals who are choosing burial space about who they might be excluding, and what that might look like in 20, 50, 100 years” (L. Webster, personal interview, February 13, 2023).

Changing cemetery culture to be more inclusive is an ongoing, slowly evolving process in the green burial movement, and a worthy endeavor for all public cemeteries. Increasing access can create a sense of freedom, the freedom to grieve and the freedom to heal. Grief is difficult enough for someone who has experienced a loss. The last thing any cemetery wants to do is make that grieving process more difficult.

In a natural burial ground, there are typically three areas where burials take place: in the meadow, in the ecotones, or in the woods. All three areas might pose some challenges for someone with mobility concerns. In the meadow areas, the ground may be rough and uneven, but generally easy to access. Electric golf carts are often used to transport people to a gravesite if someone is unable or prefers not to walk. The ecotone is the region where two ecosystems come together. These areas are along a tree line or at the edge of a forest. Harder to access gravesites would be those located within woodland areas, particularly if there is no pathway or established trail near the gravesites.

An opportunity to have your body buried in the woods under a canopy of trees can be hard to come by, even if you choose a natural burial at a “green” cemetery. Not all natural burial cemeteries offer full body burials in the woods, and the options might be very limited for those that do.

There is a case to be made for choosing a gravesite regardless of whether or not it is easily accessible. It depends on how you experience and envision grief. If it brings you comfort to visit the gravesite of a lost loved one, or if you imagine others visiting your gravesite after your own death as part of their healing process, then accessibility matters to you and should be taken into consideration when you select your own burial location.

Not everyone is concerned about grave visitations during the burial itself, or many years into the future when the mobility status of their loved ones are impossible to predict. If you have the option and the resources to be buried wherever you want—be it meadow, ecotone, or woods— then you should have the right to your burial location of choice. Facing death, or even just the idea of death when making end-of-life plans, might be a less anxious experience for those who know that they have chosen just the right location for their body after they die. Choosing one’s own burial site may not, on the surface of it, seem like a gratifying endeavor, but it is a privilege imbued with reverence and import that many people are denied.

If Covid has taught us anything about death, dying, and bereavement, it’s that distance and isolation complicates the grieving process. Watching a burial service from a distance due to the inability to physically access a gravesite is going to be harder on some than others. Education is key. It’s critical to be as informed as possible about the burial location you are choosing and initiate a dialogue with the cemetery staff about potential physical barriers for yourself and your loved ones. Balancing one’s own burial preferences with the needs of others can be challenging, but both matter, and it’s worth giving your options careful thought and consideration.

The desire to have a place to go to memorialize someone who has died is common. That place might be a gravesite, or a memorial tree, or a special location where cremated remains (ashes) were scattered. But that place does not necessarily have to be a physical space. Since the pandemic, online memorial spaces have become increasing popular, creating access to virtual grieving spaces for those living near or far away from friends and family members who have died. That space, be it physical or virtual, can be a psychological lifeline for someone who is navigating the grieving process. Grief without a grave to visit is not a known determinant of prolonged grief, but grief in isolation without a support network is difficult. Our access to community connections is perhaps the most important form of accessibility we can embrace when experiencing loss.

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