Back to the Land

Environmental and cultural concerns spark an interest in natural burials—and CALS soil scientists are lending their expertise

When Jerry Kaufman’s family was selecting his final resting place, they knew which one they didn’t want: The cemetery behind the strip mall.

“My father was a planner,” says daughter Ariel Kaufman. “He wasn’t a strip mall person. It just didn’t feel right.”

Jerry Kaufman, a UW professor emeritus of urban and regional planning who died in 2013, was a holistic thinker. His work involved looking at seemingly incongruent places and systems that affect our daily lives and figuring out ways to make them work together. After retiring in 2001 after 30 years on campus, he continued to serve as board president of the Milwaukee-based urban agriculture nonprofit Growing Power, a position he held for some dozen years.

Fittingly, when Kaufman died, he was interred in the Natural Path Sanctuary at the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability near Verona. Burial sites there are incorporated into a 25-acre nature preserve located near a training center for beginning farmers featuring a community-supported agriculture program.

“The center has these other activities that are part of life—the peace, justice and sustainability work and the community food program,” says Ariel Kaufman. “It’s not like death is separate from life. They fit together.”

Natural Path Sanctuary fits because it’s a place for natural burials—no embalming, no metal or concrete enclosures. Remains are placed in biodegradable shrouds or bare wood caskets and buried just three to four feet below the surface, a depth at which there’s still significant biological activity.

“What goes into the ground is returned to the ecosystem quickly,” says Stephen Ventura, a CALS professor of soil science who chairs the sanctuary’s board of directors. “Traditional burial puts a lot of toxic chemicals into the ground and a lot of concrete and metal. People are starting to realize that it’s not sustainable. And while cremation avoids some of that, it also has a significant impact because of the large amount of fossil fuel required.”

Since Ventura’s academic work focuses on using geographic information systems (GIS) to make land use decisions, the creation of Natural Path Sanctuary has provided a teaching opportunity. Early on, seniors in a CALS soil science capstone class helped evaluate the land and map the areas best suited for burial. More recently, students in Ventura’s GIS class developed a management information system to keep track of burial sites.

It’s not just environmental concerns driving the interest in natural burials, Ventura says. “Not all cultures believe that bodies should be preserved forever. And for many families, it offers a more personal connection with the departed—a way to be involved
at the end. Families can participate in the digging if they choose.”

Jerry Kaufman’s family chose to prepare his grave themselves. It was January, and there was snow on the ground and roots to contend with, but it wasn’t a problem. Everybody pitched in—family and friends from campus and beyond. Kaufman’s Growing Power “family” was on hand, and they’d brought picks and shovels.

“As farmers, they knew how to work the ground, but it was more than that,” says Ariel Kaufman. “It was an act of love. It is the final caring act we can do for someone—to find them their final resting place.”