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Cynthia Calvert
Texan offers first green cemetery for natural burials
By: CYNTHIA CALVERT, Greater Houston Weekly Editor December 17, 2003
Russell will opt instead for a "green burial" which will mean a simple hand-dug grave along the shores of Lake Livingston in the Ethician Family Cemetery.

Russell is the founder of the state's first green cemetery, a physical extension of his church philosophy. Russell is the founder of the Universal Ethician Church, an ecumenical, interfaith ministry. Every Saturday evening, about an hour before dusk, Russell leads simple church services, outdoors on a rocky peninsula that juts into the lake. "In our church, no one gets paid, not even me," he says. "We don't even pass a collection plate."

At the end of October, Russell's parents completed the deed transfer of 81 acres to his church. There are 12 family plots available, each with space for up to 12 burials. Later, more plots can be added but the entire cemetery is really devoted to church members. Russell says non-members may be annointed into the church after death.

In a bucolic setting of natural splendor, Russell shepherds the fledgling cemetery where to date, no burials have occurred. Two family plots are spoken for, with 10 more available for "assignment." Russell says the plots are not for sale.

"If humans don't return to the ways God intended, then we're all doomed. We have strayed from the concept of dust to dust, the way burials happened for tens of thousands of years," he says.

Embalming is a relatively new practice, which Russell traces back to Civil War times, when it was developed to preserve the bodies of dead soldiers.

By using a green cemetery, people have the opportunity to practice the ultimate in recycling-themselves.

"This is a perpetual wilderness. The bodies of the departed are able to become part of the endless chain of life. They become part of the fertility of the earth by being buried in the forest, among the trees, birds and wildflowers."

If you drive out to the cemetery, don't expect to see rows of manicured plots. There are no yardmen, no leaf blowers, no pesticides or lawnmowers. It is, and will remain, natural. Russell has identified more than 650 species of plants. On the morning of our interview, an American Bald Eagle flew by.

Russell, whose cemetery is the largest in the U.S. and third in the country, says he hopes those who can will visit the property and choose their future resting site. "My mother has had a good time deciding which tree she will be buried under. She wants to be buried in a pink quilt her mother made."

Deceased persons can be simply put straight into the ground or be placed on simple pine boards. Some green burials use biodegradable cardboard boxes or shrouds or even a simple pine box.

To help with costs, Russell asks for a donation to the church, based on ability to pay. "Today one funeral can cost around $10,000. For half of that, you could have an entire family plot. $5,000 for the first funeral and the next 11 are free," he jests. You can even have family pets buried in the plot. Homeless veterans are buried for free.

Russell admits the notion of green funerals is unusual. "I'd say I've been known to tilt at windmills."

And is this legal? Yes. Russell worked for two years researching Texas law, which he says is basically liberal. "If you use an impermeable casket, you must be buried 18 inches deep. If you use something permeable, like a shroud, it must be 24 inches deep. But out here, I'd recommend deeper than that. We have a lot of wildlife roaming around. We wouldn't want a varmit running off with Grandpa's leg." Texas law is also more tolerant regarding church tenants.

Cemeteries must be platted by law also. The cemetery was originally supposed to be subdivision which developers had already surveryed and platted. But the residential community never happened. "There were to be 248 homes built here and there were three and a half miles of road out here, which I have turned into beautiful trails with my tractor."

Russell and his wife lived in British Honduras (now Belize) in the late 60s. They owned one of the few vehicles in the region and were often asked to provide a vehicular escort for local funerals. "We often would take their dead to the grave yard, and you know where that would be? In the rain forest. The families would dig the grave with their hands or with simple tools and the body would be laid to rest among towering trees, with incredible orchids dripping down, with parrots flying overhead and with monkeys chattering. It was unbelievable beauty. We had a dream through the years to do a similar thing here in America."

A green burial gives a person the chance to make a lasting legacy to the earth, Russell says. "Rich folks may give money to buildings that can be torn down but to contribute back to the natural way of life can never be replaced or taken away.

We must live on this planet in peace and we need to try to get along. Everyone wants to feel they've left the world a positive legacy. To know you've saved that part of creation, that you've left something to future generations, is a wonderful thing."

And I'd say Russell will do just that.

For more information about the Ethician Family Cemetery, visit his Web site at www.cemeterygroup.org e-mail Russell at ghr@cyberclone.net

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