by Lee Webster
Often when I begin talking about conventional cemeteries requiring a vault, I see blank faces in the crowd. I ask if they have ever noticed anything underneath the casket the last time they attended a graveside service. Still blank. I nudge them with memories of green astroturf and a curtained casket skirt. Nothing. I back up even further, explaining that the casket they saw was going to be lowered into a concrete box and have a lid placed on it once they left. Blank becomes confused becomes disbelieving.
So much of what goes on during standard burials is hidden—the opening of the grave, the removal of the soil, the setting of the vault, the filling in—that most people have no idea what they just failed to experience but certainly got to pay for. It’s difficult to persuade someone toward a more eco-friendly, affordable path when they don’t know how the one they are already on works. So I get to work explaining the story of how vaults came to be and why we thought we needed them, in contrast to green burial best practices that skip the vault entirely.
Hearing about grave subsidence and the reduced occurrence at three and a half feet as opposed to five helps them visualize both. Learning about how vaults keep the ground flat for mowing tends to leave them scratching their heads when they think about the environmental cost of all that concrete as opposed to throwing some dirt on top of the grave if it begins to divet. But when we get to talking about promises made to keep the deceased protected when they know that concrete eventually cracks and lets the water in, most people have already turned the corner on common sense. When they hear about the early marketing claims to keep the living safe from ghouls, they are with me all the way.
That’s when I tell them about Wilbert Haase.
He looked a little like the villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he was an entrepreneur for his time. While others rigged up coffins to maim grave robbers, or soldered metal coffin cages to keep out vermin, in 1880 at the tender age of 18 his father, Leo, started a company that manufactured concrete vaults for the first time, replacing these inventions and the simple use of wood or brick to line the sides of the grave. Wilbert took over the firm in 1913, continuing to improve the product, but it was in 1930 when he took a trip to Egypt to see King Tut’s tomb that the light bulb went on. Using asphalt to line the concrete, he finally had the “waterproof” vault he was looking for. The Wilbert Company today is the top seller of vaults in America. A list on their website enumerates the many famous people who have been buried in their vaults, though you may want to think about the death dates of Betsy Ross and Myles Standish…
But what was the point? they ask. I remind listeners that in today’s cemeteries, especially municipal ones, it is essential that the space be utilized to maximum capacity, as taxpayers are the ones footing the bill for land used for burial that is also taken off the tax rolls. I remind them that for most people, burial choice has everything to do with sense of place, being near loved ones who can visit or at least imagine the setting. And I suggest that perhaps, even though we all want to see more conserved land used in this way, having more availability and access for more people is important, too.
This doesn't mean that we are stuck with cemeteries as we know them, In fact, natural burial grounds that employ best conservation practices provide a sustainable model that can maximize land use while still remaining financially viable. Certainly the curtailing of pesticide and herbicide spread is beneficial to the community. Graves may use less of a footprint, making more space available for burial. Since grave plots are largely a real estate transaction, the value doesn't need to change because of what is or isn't put into the grave—it's still location, location, location. The only people losing money when a vault is not involved is the vault company and the sellers. The family pays less for the funeral, leaving them free to donate it it to further care of the property, including different kinds of perpetual care and, if we're lucky, maybe less lawn mowing.
The more you know…
Lee Webster is an author, researcher, and public speaker on funeral reform including home funerals and green burials, and former president of the GBC and other nonprofits. She writes from the foothills of the NH White Mountains.