'Everything is biodegradable, including you': Second Minnesota cemetery offers 'green' burial

Catholic Cemeteries executive director Joan Gecik describes how the new, 6-acre natural burial area at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights will be set up. The “green” burials will avoid the use of coffins, embalming fluid, cremations and individual grave markers. In May, Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda dedicated the section, where 15 plots have been pre-sold. Jasmine Johnson / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — A Catholic cemetery in Mendota Heights is among the first in the state to offer “green” burials, free of chemicals and concrete.

“It’s how I’ve always wanted to be buried,” Catholic Cemeteries director Joan Gecik said. “I just love the idea of being able to go back into the earth.”

Gecik was part of a focus group that began discussing green burial in 2017. They ended up setting aside 6 acres at Resurrection Cemetery, the largest of the five burial grounds managed by the corporation.

Modern burial typically involves chemically embalming bodies and burying them inside sturdy coffins surrounded by concrete. But burial doesn’t have to be complicated, Gecik said.

In a green burial, the body typically is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a wicker basket and placed in a grave dug by hand. The bodies deteriorate at a natural rate — about two years for flesh and 20 for bones.


Since Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda dedicated the land in May, Resurrection has pre-sold 15 plots.

“Everything is biodegradable, including you,” said Phyllis Strong, the first to reserve a spot along with her husband, Richard.

Resurrection’s green plots won’t use traditional grave markers. Instead, the names of the deceased will be engraved on a boulder, with each name’s placement on the stone marking the body’s approximate location. GPS coordinates will be provided to the family.

Without headstones, the cemetery can allow natural plants and flowers to grow. They’re working with Prairie Restoration to provide seed from native wildflowers and grasses for families to scatter over the grounds.

“There’s a whole move toward simple living, a move toward environmental concerns,” Gecik said. “It’s leaving a lighter footprint on the earth.”

Natural burials are cheaper, too. At Resurrection, they’ll cost families about $1,275 less than the more common burial.
The cemetery now has room for 44 natural burial plots but can grow to 300.

Two in the state

Today’s natural burials look much like burials prior to the rise of the funeral industry in the early 1900s.

Over the past two decades, dozens of U.S. cemeteries have been turning back the clock.


The California-based Green Burial Council has certified 71 natural burial sites since Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, S.C., opened what it calls a “conservation burial ground” in 1998.

Gecik plans to add Resurrection to that list, which includes just one other Minnesota site, Mound Cemetery in Brooklyn Center.

The trend makes sense for baby boomers, known as the “do-it-yourself” generation, said St. Paul funeral director Steve Willwerscheid, who offers natural funeral services.

“Now, they’re the do-it-yourselfers in death,” he said. “It’s the whole movement.”

Three days to burial

One drawback for going green is that decomposition shortens the time period between death and necessary burial.

If a body is refrigerated, a family may wait six days before holding a funeral, according to Minnesota law. But without refrigeration, the body must be embalmed, buried or cremated within three days.

That’s hard for families living far apart.

Natural burials also are less common in Minnesota because of its long winters. Bodies must be buried at least two feet deep, which is difficult to accomplish when the earth is frozen.


However, a plant-based alternative to embalming chemicals might soon be available for natural burials, thanks to manufacturers in England and Ireland.

Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapels in Robbinsdale recently tested a plant-based product for the first time at a woman’s request and it worked well, according to Catholic Cemeteries board member Dan Delmore.

“The funeral field is developing products for what families want,” he said. “I think it will continue to grow.”

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