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Life after death in Swan Valley

The Meyers turned their 120 acres in Montana into a natural cemetery, where bodies can be buried with as few frills as possible.

 

Henry and Joan Meyer, both 88, found their 120 acres in Swan Valley, Montana, by accident. In 1951, the couple left New Jersey and drove west in their black 1936 Chevy, seeking solitude and open space, leaving behind the suburban surroundings of their childhoods. They wandered the country. “I had a roadmap, and I’d look at it, and every time I saw a big city, we went the opposite way,” Henry Meyer said.

When their car broke down near Swan Valley, at the edge of the Flathead National Forest, the man who came to their aid happened to be selling his land. They purchased it, built their house by hand and made a life on the unfamiliar landscape. Henry Meyer worked at a nearby sawmill. Over the decades, they created a home.

Then, in 2006, they expanded the definition of that home. That year, the Meyers designated their land as a natural cemetery — a nonprofit where people can bury their loved ones among fir trees, in pine caskets, simple shrouds or nothing at all. A friend digs the holes with his backhoe. The graves are marked with GPS coordinates, and only low-lying markers — stones or unobtrusive statues — are allowed. The business is called “Natural Cemeteries,” and the entire service costs $2,000. 

"The older folks that happen to die while we’re here, they were all taken into town” — Kalispell, 45 minutes away — “(to) one of the cemeteries,” Henry Meyer said. "I found out that I could be buried here, but there was no insurance that I wouldn’t be dug up and thrown away in the future, because there was nothing protecting the land. The only way I could do that was have an actual cemetery.”

Montana’s burial laws are “downright minimalist,” the Missoulian wrote in 2013. Natural Cemeteries is, too. The Meyers don’t actively seek out clients; instead, burials come naturally, from their community and the passage of time. They work slowly. When we spoke, they couldn’t remember exactly how many graves they’ve dug, but believe it’s under 20.

This kind of burial, usually called “natural” or “green,” is gaining popularity in the United States. Often a green burial is a commentary on life, along with whatever comes after: The practice is environmentally low-impact, compared to the manufacturing of caskets and use of chemicals, and it’s marketed as such. The Meyers hope that these simpler burial practices will help their land slowly revert to what it looked like before logging, the industry that made their income possible. With each grave, they plant a new native tree, in part to bolster wildlife habitat. “It’s really their land, too,” Joan Meyer said. The cemetery acts as a rampart against human development, as the dead prevent an overcrowding of the living. 

The Meyers’ cemetery is less about capitalizing on a new trend, though, and more about confronting death outside its often commercial, distanced façade. While each gravesite is unique and sometimes personalized, Henry Meyer sees the area as an enduring common space — one made special by the way each grave becomes a part of its specific landscape, unlike manicured, anonymous plots. It makes him feel close to the people who are laid to rest there. “I’m going to be buried on the same chunk of land,” Henry Meyer said, “and they’re going to be my future neighbor.” The cemetery is for all people, living and dead, who call the region home. –Elena Saavedra Buckley, former High Country News fellow 

Lauren Grabelle moved from New Jersey to Montana to heal the wounds created by being so isolated from nature in the most densely populated state. Her photography falls in the matrix where fine art and documentary meet, where she can tell truths about our relationships to other people, animals, nature, and ourselves. Follow her on Instagram. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.