June 30, 2023

This is one of an ongoing series highlighting environmental justice work cities nationwide are tackling in collaboration with FUSE. View the full series >>

With a unique approach to furthering sustainability, the City of Durham seeks to reimagine land use in its only historically Black public cemetery Beechwood, which is quickly running out of space for its Black residents. To preserve the generations of families already buried in Beechwood, the City is looking for alternatives to traditional burial that are environmentally sustainable, affordable, and space efficient. Erica Xavier-Beauvoir was brought on in 2022 as a FUSE Executive Fellow to support the City in exploring various options to support Beechwood’s enriching legacy while keeping Black families dignified. As a death doula and natural burial consultant, Erica has extensive experience helping improve narratives in diverse communities by empowering and educating those seeking burial options. 

Traditional burials are environmentally harmful in several ways. Firstly, the embalming fluid used to preserve bodies temporarily for viewings are usually a mix of formaldehyde, methanol, sodium borate, sodium nitrate, glycerin, coloring agents, and water. The toxic chemicals can negatively affect the water and natural environment surrounding the cemetery. Caskets buried in the earth within a cement vault are also damaging as they don’t break down with the soil, interrupting the natural composition of the Earth’s materials and composting process needed to regenerate the earth. 

While there is a high level of government buy-in for natural burial options in the City, the next integral step is educating Durmites on what green burial is and what it will look like. Erica is currently considering different ways to improve equitable information sharing. “We have to get better at sharing the same information across communities and educating the community on green natural burials — where to receive the service, what to ask for,” Erica shares, “Starting with education allows people to decide as to how they want to be buried and on their terms.” 

A death café, or what Erica likes to term “meetings at the crossroads,” is a relatively new concept that helps normalize the conversations around burials and transitioning. It is an event meant to create a sacred space to discuss — in the community — the idea of burial rituals and how to integrate them into communal honoring by using the land in various ways, such as through community events, arts, culture, and even meditation events. “It’s a beautiful way of creating community and allowing folks to ask questions normally they wouldn’t ask or they wouldn’t know to ask, and possibly removing the stigma around conversations associated with wills and planning desires,” Erica explains, “So when that moment happens, they’re comfortable enough to have done prior work and family and friends are well-informed, so things are seamless and peaceful.”

A lot of times when we think about burials, we think of them being this separate thing — a separate place where we go here to give honor and reverence to our loved ones. And it’s separate from the community when, in fact, we should think about it as a part of the shared space that doesn’t necessarily have to be this somber, silent place. It could be an active, beautiful place attached to the community. And there are examples of that across the United States. It’s just about creating a different narrative around burying someone and leaving them in that land, not necessarily caring and cultivating a community within that land.

Erica Xavier-Beauvoir

A top priority for Erica, as she dives into her work with the City, is being mindful of keeping the process culturally sensitive for families. In thinking about how life and death were celebrated ancestrally, Erica points to rituals like dance, music, and storytelling. “They didn’t spend much money on fancy caskets, and still, we shouted, we cried, we laughed, we enjoyed, and we created a sacred, dignified ritual for them. And on top of that, we could build generational wealth by buying land with the money saved from the burial itself,” Erica notes. The saved costs are another benefit of natural burials, including lower-income families. A complete traditional burial package typically starts around $10,000. On the other hand, a natural burial, like a woven casket decorated with flowers, would cost less than $5,000. 

In shifting to green, natural burials, the City recognizes the need to change some of its local ordinances around burials as they are currently stricter than state and federal laws, specifically around the use of vaults and grave upkeep. “What we can’t do is create a situation where now the groundskeepers are overburdened because of the various things that are happening on top of the grave with green burials,” Erica explains, “So there has to be some sort of ordinance about upkeep and making sure that burial sites are taken care of and beautified on top of the grave.” The City is currently working on several policy updates that will go into effect later this year. This will make Beechwood the first green natural hybrid city cemetery in the area by August 2023 and the first physical green natural burial by the end of the year when expansion is completed. 

Erica hopes her work with the City lays a foundation for sustaining future generations and inspiring conversations around land preservation. “Discussing green natural burial options helps the land stay healthy and fruitful for future generations. As more people transition, one thing every community should be thinking about is land use and promoting green natural burials to sustain the community land,” Erica shares, “This is a part of community and city planning. Burials should be a part of a strategic plan; we have transportation — we even have where the bike lanes will be. But there isn’t a lot of conversation around land conservation. How are burials going to look? Are we going to create a different city cemetery? What is that cemetery going to look like? Is it going to be a conservation space? Is it going to be green and natural? Questions like these should integrate into every government’s plan.”

Learn more about the progress of Erica’s project on the City of Durham’s website.