How one Ohio family found peace in natural burial

By H.L. Comeriato, TDS Staff Reporter

Photos by H.L. Comeriato

Jeremy Ferrato loved blackberries.

Now, they grow rampant near his gravesite at Foxfield Preserve.

“Right around his birthday, it’s just covered in briars,” says Melissa Ferrato, Jeremy’s older sister. “There are so many little coincidences like that. They just let me rest my head a bit more easy.”

At conservation burial grounds across the country, Americans are increasingly embracing natural burials like Jeremy’s.

The process — which is often deeply personalized — ties the loved ones of the deceased to a vibrant ecological community, and returns the dead to the earth.

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At the Preserve’s conservation burial ground, the lower prairie brims with life.

A handful of butterflies float against a bright, cloudless sky. Native prairie grasses sway in the wind. Mounds of fresh earth dot the landscape.

Eventually, the prairie swallows every grave at Foxfield, where cement vaults, metal caskets and traditional chemical embalmings are forbidden.

Over time, the mounds flatten, and the human bodies, tucked lovingly in graves beneath them, begin to decompose — nourishing the earth as part of a delicate, protected ecosystem.

‘That’s what I want.’

The summer before he died, Jeremy sat at the kitchen table with his mother and sisters.

“The four of us were just talking about how we would want our bodies to be treated [when we die],” says Ferrato.

Someone mentioned a UK-based company that specializes in pressing cremains into custom 12-inch vinyl records.

Another person mentioned tree burials — where cremains are deposited into biodegradable urns or pods that also contain the seeds of a tree.

“As your body decomposes, it feeds the tree,” says Ferrato. “My brother was like, ‘God, I think that’s amazing. That’s what I want.’”

When Jeremy died in 2014, Ferrato and her family were upended by grief. He was just 35 years old, and his death felt unfair and unexpected.

In the days afterward, Jeremy’s family gathered to discuss his wishes. It was then they recalled the kitchen-table conversation from a few months earlier.

After a serendipitous encounter with a friend who had just attended a burial at Foxfield, the family made arrangements to visit.

“It’s really meaningful to me when stuff like that happens,” Ferrato says. “It feels like a divine coincidence.”

What is Foxfield Preserve?

When Foxfield Preserve was established in 2008 as a subsidiary of The Wilderness Center — a nonprofit nature center and land conservancy in Wilmot, Ohio — it was the state’s first conservation burial ground.

Sara Brink, who manages Foxfield, says Ohio is now home to nine natural or hybrid burial grounds, which the Green Burial Council certifies based on a set of distinct criteria.

Hybrid cemeteries, such as Calvary Cemetery in Dayton and Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, offer specific sections for green burials. 

Natural burial grounds, such as the Heritage Acres Memorial Sanctuary in Cincinnati and the Canton Cemetery Association, occupy the second tier of green burial classifications. 

These cemeteries meet all the requirements for a natural burial as outlined by the Green Burial Council: no chemical embalming or concrete vaults are permitted, and burial containers and shrounds must be fully biodegradable.

But conservation burial grounds like Foxfield take that philosophy one step further, Brink says, by including an ecological relationship and conservation plans that embrace human burials as part of the natural lifecycle.

Unlike the modern funeral industry — worth an estimated $20 billion in 2014 — Foxfield doesn’t profit from funerals or burials.

Because the Wilderness Center is a nonprofit organization, burial costs are utilized to bolster the Center’s conservation and education efforts.

The financial, social and environmental benefits of natural burials

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, modern burials — including cement vaults, caskets, embalming, transportation and other funeral services — can cost between $7,000 and $10,000 on average. 

Without the added costs of embalming and expensive containers, natural burials at Foxfield are typically priced between $1,800 and $6,500.

The relatively low cost of natural burials could be a major benefit for many families across the United States, where crowdfunding funeral costs has become commonplace.

In terms of conservation, Brink says social and financial partnerships between cemeteries and land trusts and conservancies just make sense: “This is a way for conservation organizations to preserve more land, to bring more people into the actual conservation of a property. It’s a multi-use approach and it brings this intimate connection to a place that you’re trying to conserve.”

“There’s no other way that you can really get people to care this deeply about a parcel of land that you are trying to protect,” Brink adds. “From a social conservation standpoint, we just think this is absolutely something that the conservation organizations across the country should be pursuing and embracing.”

Often, people who bury loved ones at Foxfield continue to visit and support the cemetery and Wilderness Center.

Seven years later, Ferrato still trudges through the briars to reach her brother’s grave. 

Since he died, Ferrato has built lasting community with the people she met while planning her brother’s internment at Foxfield — including Brink.

“Having Jeremy’s body buried there has created so much support, and continues to create a lot of support for me specifically, and my whole family,” Ferrato says. “I have [fewer] questions like ‘Why did this happen?’ I am more surrendered to [the idea] that there’s a divine plan and that it’s okay.”

Natural burials are often both emotionally intense and cathartic

The act of participating in a natural burial — the wrapping or shrouding of the body, the closing of the grave by hand — is an act of deep care, Brink says. 

Though the intimacy of the burial process may be intense for those closest to the deceased, it often allows families and loved ones to remain more spiritually and psychologically present during and after the funeral ceremony and burial.

Often, people are encouraged to toss earth over a shrouded body or casket as part of the burial ceremony — an ancient custom among many different cultures and religions.

“When you’re there and you’re grieving this, it feels like there’s nothing you can do,” Ferrato says. “But being able to pick up a shovel — there was an action involved.”

“So much of [the modern burial] experience is so far outside of your control,” Brink says. “As hard as it is to place that first shovel full of dirt — and it is hard — the finality of that, I think, really does help [people] process [a loved one’s death].

For centuries, death care was considered domestic work, and was most often performed by women within their own families and communities. 

Brink says returning to similar traditions and death rituals can be beneficial both for the environment, and for people mourning the death of a loved one.

“That is so powerful to be able to give somebody that experience,” Brink says. “To give them one final thing that they could do for the person that they love.”

What does a natural burial look like?

It rained the day they buried Jeremy.

His family held an ordinary funeral with an open casket, where Ferrato held her brother’s hand, and came to accept that her best friend had truly left his body.

Jeremy was never embalmed. At the cemetery, his pine box lay in an open grave, his friends and family huddled at the edges.

“We mostly had people take turns telling stories about [him],” Ferrato says. “That was really special to me.”

“It didn’t feel — it wasn’t casual,” she says. “That’s not the right word. But there was something that felt more like we [were] returning his body back to the earth in a real way.”

Like many who bury a loved one at Foxfield, Jeremy’s family and friends closed his grave themselves, passing a single shovel back and forth.

“My mother, God bless her heart, she put a shovel full in,” Ferrato says. “And then we just took turns. The winds picked up just as we were finishing. It started to rain.”

Back at the Wilderness Center, Jeremy’s family and friends ate fancy jams and jellies in his honor. 

“It was a treat. It was like a picnic. We were so close to nature — it felt like you could feel that love and that care. It just felt really good,” Ferrato says. “To me, it was just perfect for my brother.”

H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.

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