How an intimate burial can make death human-sized

In burying a stranger, a writer learns that dying can be as small and personal as life.

The only person I’ve ever buried was a stranger.

It was a chilly afternoon in mid-November, the kind of weather you’d expect at a funeral. Crisp oak leaves rattled softly in a steady breeze. It wasn’t raining, but the ground was damp, the air thick with the smell of pine and wet dirt. Autumn on the dry side of the Cascades comes as an impossible relief, with the summer’s blazing heat and wildfires finally giving way to cooler weather.

That year, I was working as a garden manager for Ekone Ranch, a nonprofit land trust in rural eastern Washington, a few miles north of the Columbia River. The organization’s 1,138 acres of oak and ponderosa forest include a summer camp and a designated conservation burial ground, White Eagle Memorial Preserve — a cemetery you can’t see. Graves are lightly mounded, marked sparingly with rocks and pinecones, or not at all. There’s a legal limit to how close together bodies can be buried, but otherwise most of the land is fair game: You can choose to be buried under a dense canopy, or along the edges of open meadowland — or even near (though not too near) a canyon’s edge, where the landscape slopes steeply toward a perennial creek.


Natural or “green” burials have been marketed in the United States since the early 1990s. Lately, they’ve been getting more press, positioned by advocates as an answer to the polluting, profit-driven American funeral industry that Jessica Mitford first critiqued in the 1960s. But nature is not the opposite of capitalism. There is no shortage of products and profitable experiences aimed at making death greener. I’m not saying that natural burial is an answer to environmental catastrophe or that other ways to commemorate and dispose of the dead are less valuable. I’m talking about how one small cemetery makes death feel human-sized.

I met the woman I buried once before she died. It was mid-morning in early October, when the ranch’s horses had only just started to grow in their fuzzy winter coats. I was drinking coffee in the lodge, the main communal area. Jodie, the cemetery director, a serious and joyful woman with wispy reddish hair and a hearty laugh, was showing some people around. The woman was tall and underdressed for the weather, wearing a long, boxy dress. An older man, presumably her father, was dressed in black rain gear and a wide-brimmed felt hat. I waved a friendly hello, and they continued on their tour. I learned later that she was dying of cancer and had come to choose her gravesite. It was hard to tell how old she was, maybe in her early 40s. She looked sick — pale and exhausted.

As an employee of the ranch, I could add digging hours to my paycheck, or choose to have my labor put toward the purchase of my own plot — to dig my own grave over time. At the ranch, death is part of daily life. Pigs and chickens are killed regularly for meat. Injured horses are put down. Sometimes human acquaintances are buried; sometimes friends. Many employees have already bought their own plots, even young people who consider themselves healthy. The ranch’s program coordinator and her husband, for example, included an option to make contributions to their future burial site on their wedding registry, next to a fund to purchase a tiny home and another for a trip to France. “We realize this may sound a bit morbid,” their website read, “but we want to make sure we plan ahead and support an amazing place at the same time!” 

I’m not saying that natural burial is an answer to environmental catastrophe or that other ways to commemorate and dispose of the dead are less valuable. I’m talking about how one small cemetery makes death feel human-sized.

WHEN THE TIME CAME, Jodie instructed a few of us to start digging the woman’s grave. We went out to the spot she had purchased, a little clearing between two scraggly oaks, and switched off working. Alyssa, an artist who teaches crafts at the ranch in the summer, outlined the grave based on the measurements we’d been given. She started shoveling out the fluffy top layers of pine needles, oak leaves and decayed organic matter. The loamy layer below was relatively thin, quickly giving way to heavy, rocky clay. Oak roots dense enough to require a handsaw periodically interrupted our progress. The deeper we dug, the rockier the grave became, and at about three feet down, my pickax dinged and scraped against the first solid layer of basalt. Slowly, I chipped away at the final six inches of bedrock. Eventually, I gave the ax to Shannon, a former summer camper who often returned to the ranch to visit or do seasonal work. I sat down by Alyssa, a breeze cooling my warm, flushed face, layers of work jackets, vests and flannels strewn around the deepening grave as a conspiracy of ravens cackled above us. 

We’d just about finished the job when Jodie arrived, wearing a large knit sweater and fingerless gloves. She greeted us, chatted for a while and then jumped cheerfully into the grave. She lay down and closed her eyes, like she was trying out a mattress. Then she took a deep breath, opened her eyes and paused for a long time. “It’s perfect,” she said.

She lay down and closed her eyes, like she was trying out a mattress. Then she took a deep breath, opened her eyes and paused for a long time. “It’s perfect,” she said.

Jodie bases her level of involvement in burials on intuition — what any particular set of grieving people needs is always different. The best burials, she told me, are when people say, “Today was terrible, but it was also all these other things.” At one of her favorite funerals, a 3-year-old girl leapt into an empty grave before her grandmother’s body could be lowered in. The girl started imitating a dog, digging with all fours and barking at the sky. Her family laughed and later told Jodie how grateful they were that this moment was possible. I like the idea that joking about death can be its own kind of reverence, that any death is as small and personal as a life.

About six weeks later, the woman’s body arrived, wrapped in a sage-colored shroud, lying on a piece of plywood in the back of her brother’s old and impeccably clean pickup truck. He parked as near to the grave as he could. The brother, a clean-cut 30-something-year-old, was solemn and graceful as we unloaded the body, glad, it seemed, to have something to do with his hands. Four of us lifted the body just enough to clear the plywood and lower it onto a two-wheeled wooden cart. The woman’s body seemed longer now than she had been tall, heavy and not quite solid. We pulled the cart through the forest, Jodie and the woman’s family walking behind.

Once we reached the grave, we lifted the woman’s body again and lowered her down, dropping to our knees to settle her in the ground. The afternoon was quiet, the mood sad but focused, governed by the physical task of the ceremony. There were four mourners in attendance; nobody spoke for very long. I remember the father’s speech most distinctly. He was sitting in a canvas camping chair, wearing the same brimmed hat and worn jacket I’d seen him in before. He closed his eyes and told stories of his daughter’s life, but trailed off before he could finish them — as if his memory was a home-movie reel on fast-forward that he couldn’t pause or keep up with. After he finished, the woman’s brother and friend shoveled a bit of soil over her body. Her father grabbed a handful and opened his fist reluctantly, letting the dirt fall on top of his shrouded daughter.

After a few shovelfuls, the family was ready to leave. I moved in with the other staff members to finish the job, full of someone else’s grief. It still hadn’t rained, and it was hard not to relate to the weather. Heavy, textured clouds. A release looming in the near future. As we worked, Jodie walked the family back to her cabin, where she invited them in for tea.

Olivia Durif writes essays and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter at @oliviadurifEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor