Monday, April 20, 2015

Natural Path Sanctuary Visit

This weekend, on April 18, in honor of the upcoming Earth Day, the Gene and Linda Farley Center for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability (AKA "The Farley Center") had an open house.  You could tour the Farley family's home that has now become a meeting space and central office of operations (yet still looks very much as it looked when I was Linda's hospice social worker in 2009, complete with the same family furniture, chotchkes, and books that I recall seeing at that time), the CSA farm on the property, and the Natural Path Sanctuary, also on the property, which is the area's green cemetery.

Gene and Linda were two amazing family physicians who championed many important issues related to social justice and sustainability.  The Farley Center, on their beautiful 43 acre property in rural Verona, Wisconsin, is the perfect tribute to their two beautiful and amazing souls.  I only rarely meet such open, friendly, embracing people; it's a loss to our world that they are no longer physically in it.  Make no mistake, though, they are still very much alive in other ways in our world.

Here's a peek at the inside of the house.  I'm not positive, but I think the older guy with the white beard might be Gene in this photo:

Isn't the house cool?  Every room is surrounded by windows, and there are large and small pieces of art scattered throughout.  Every view is an expansive one of forest or prairie; what a beautiful homestead.

Part of the open house on April 18 was a tour of the Natural Path Sanctuary; a place I have been meaning to tour for at least a year now.  My dad and daughter came with me; it was a super beautiful day in Wisconsin; warm for April and sunny.

First, Shedd Farley, one of Linda and Gene's sons, who now operates the Sanctuary, called us together for the tour.

We marched down a hill together to the welcoming burr oak tree that sort of serves as the greeter for the cemetery.  Not only does it greet, it invites you to sit beneath its expansive branches and stay a while.  It is a natural gathering place for all, so several natural seating spaces have been created or brought there.

From there, we trudged up what was a fairly steep hill; or so it felt that way to me, because my daughter decided she'd already had enough of walking and I left the Ergo baby carrier with my sister, who is having a new baby in the summer.  So I got to lug an extra 33 pounds on my frontside most of the tour.  Hey, at least I got my workout, right?

At the top of the hill, was an invitation to rest and reflect.

These benches are purchased by various people interested in the cemetery, and are scattered throughout.  Many family members wish to put them right on or near the graves of their loved ones, but the Sanctuary has decided to allow benches only to be on the paths. They can be on the path near a loved one's buried remains, however.

The sanctuary will bury your cremated remains or your whole, un-embalmed body in a biodegradable shroud or coffin (wood with no metal; cardboard).  Once all three phases of the cemetery are open, they will theoretically have 2,700 graves total, but this is unlikely to be the actual high number, as some of the theoretical spaces are on steep inclines that would be nearly impossible to bury a body in or are other complicated spaces too close to trees.

This is another burr oak that many people ask to be buried directly underneath, but the Sanctuary will not compromise the life or root structure of a valuable tree (box elders are not as worried about), so you can be buried somewhat near it, but not directly underneath it.  Along those lines, your loved ones cannot plant flowers that are not considered native to the Wisconsin prairies or forests.  Family cannot leave plastic flowers or other unnatural materials at your graveside.  One family apparently left a bunch of plastic flowers, and the former director of the cemetery simply took the spouse aside and told him that they would be removed the next day, but could stay for the day as it appeared placing them on the grave was helpful in the loved one's grieving process.

I love that; there is space for grief here in this serene, gorgeous natural environment.

We entered the forest portion of the Sanctuary.

There are many beautiful, somewhat meandering pathways there.  Many even much more beautiful than this one.

We were led to two recent grave sites.

On the left, is one from about two weeks ago, containing the shrouded remains of an older woman.  Her son-in-law dug the entire grave himself in about seven and a half hours.  Graves for bodies at Natural Path Sanctuary are dug eight feet by four feet by three feet deep.

On the right, there is a grave from about two months ago when the ground was still rather frozen, containing the body of a 30 year old man in a simple coffin his friend made for him.  It took a crew of about six or seven a total of about eight hours to dig this grave.

Over time, the graves settle as their occupants decompose.  Shedd just comes along to even out/re-grade the soil as needed; sometimes Nature does it herself.

The main point is that most processes are left up to nature after a burial at Natural Path Sanctuary.  

And I love that.  To me, that feels as it should be.

People are allowed to use simple wooden markers or engraved stones as grave markers.  Here is an example of one the former director, Kevin Corrado, made last year.  He said he used a dremel tool to carve the name and dates into the wood, and then used a natural hickory nut stain on it, stating he felt "all back to nature-man" while he was making it.  He said the stain faded very quickly, but it was a neat process.  Here's Kevin talking about it (he's kind of laughing about how his "back to nature-man" staining efforts faded so quickly):

Quick sidebar:  I think Kevin is super cool because he was a social worker at the same place I'm a social worker at now.  We didn't quite overlap in terms of our time working there, but I have heard his name for years in the social work community.  Every interaction I have had with him has been very pleasant.  I really like the guy.  Turns out I had also worked with his wife, who was a parish nurse in a struggling part of Madison where I used to do home visits.  What a wonderful couple.  I want to be like them when I grow up.

Anyhow, we soldiered on, my dad sometimes carrying my daughter, me sometimes carrying my daughter, who wanted to try to nap on our chests instead of be put down to stand on her own when we stopped to listen to our guides.  She would talk loudly, precluding anyone from hearing the guides, when her wish to be held was not granted.  For the comfort of everyone else, I mostly just held her.

Along the way, I saw just the kind of spot I want for myself.  Shaded, yet somewhat sunny, carpeted in natural foliage in a forested part of the Sanctuary.  No extra plants need be planted.  No marker needed unless you, my family, want one for a time (wooden one, please, in that case).

Kevin, the former director and social worker, said he'd never really shown anyone the spot he'd picked for himself and his wife, but showed it to us all on the tour:

It was both kind of a joke and also a death-positive, death-doesn't-have-to-be-so-taboo act.  I admired it incredibly while laughing along with everyone else.  (By the way, his spot's a bit too sunny for me, thanks.)

This pretty much concluded the tour, which took us about an hour.  We took our time, soaked it all in, heard a lot of information about the Sanctuary as well as its history (initially, Linda Farley wanted to donate her body to science, but it was not accepted, so her family got permission to bury her body in the family's home's front yard - I always tell people who think they want to donate their bodies to HAVE A BACK UP PLAN, because the donees don't always need or want every body!  Linda's story is a perfect example of that).

My dad's still not sold that he'd want his body buried this way.

I'm now more than sold; it has to be this way for me.  Hopefully there will still be spots here when I die (which I hope will be several decades from now!!); Verona is my original hometown, so it would mean a lot to me.

To me, the best use of a dead body is to sustain life for as long and as well as it can, in a safe and sanitary way for the living.  What better way than to be buried in a green cemetery, where your remains can sustain plants and underground living things?  I love the concept that many cultures endorse that you are never truly dead until everyone who remembers you or knows of you/your works is also dead.  We don't live on through our graves; we live on through the good we do on Earth.


  1. Lovely account of your visit to the Natural Path Sanctuary, Kristin. I've posted it to my facebook page,
    Do you do work in after death care?

    1. Ann, I don't, but I would like to someday. My work is all in pre-death care of those at end of life or their families/caregivers.

  2. Lovely account of your visit to the Natural Path Sanctuary, Kristin. I've posted it to my facebook page,
    Do you do work in after death care?