A Walk in the Woods

Touring Eloise Woods, the natural burial park that gives Austin environmentalists something to smile about

Touring Eloise Woods, the natural burial park that gives Austin environmentalists something to smile about

I recently took a tour of a local cemetery and can’t wait to go back. There were no graves, headstones or upright crosses in sight. No vases of roses, only patches of wildflowers. It was a literally a forest.

This is exactly the point of natural burial grounds. Ellen Macdonald, owner and caretaker of Eloise Woods in Cedar Creek, says that being able to stand anywhere on the grounds and not see grave markers is what natural cemeteries strive for.

Located about ten miles past Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Eloise Woods is all tall pines and large cedar trees. A hand-painted sign attached to a gate bears its name and beyond that a dirt road leads through the woods towards two work sheds. Standing between them, Ellen explained that a family was coming later to buy a plot.

 Macdonald had been considering an environmentally inspired name, but felt the metaphor of her grandmother’s life continuing through the life of the woods was a more appropriate fit.   

Maps in hand, we got started with the tour. She explained that the name “Eloise” comes from her grandmother, a nature lover who died unexpectedly around the same time she was founding the burial ground. Macdonald had been considering an environmentally inspired name, but felt the metaphor of her grandmother’s life continuing through the life of the woods was a more appropriate fit.   

I found out that buried among the trees and wildflowers are 19 pets and 10 people; the latest person was buried just the day before. The family was Hindu and preformed the ceremony without any assistance. Ellen was prepared to help, however, explaining that she had done research and sought out advice on their specific funeral customs.

Interestingly, she founded Eloise Woods partially from her interest in different funeral rites, offering a more natural setting for those that already specify no embalming or casketing.

The first person buried here was a Jewish woman from Dallas who chose Eloise Woods particularly because of the completely natural setting. There are Jewish cemeteries in the area, but she loved with the idea of woods. Hers is a peaceful, unobtrusive spot that looks more like a personal garden patch than grave, now covered with dried rose petals that were put there recently when the family came back to memorialize the first anniversary of her burial.

Ellen’s down to earth manner indicates a comfort with her surroundings and the business of death. Before opening Eloise Woods, she earned her PhD in neuroscience, which she reflects was sort of a wrong turn for her. 

“I don’t really think like a scientist,” she laughs. Despite having no background in 'burying people,' she became obsessed with the idea of natural burial after seeing an episode of Six Feet Under that dealt with it.  Plus, she’s always been an outdoors person; more a pioneer dragging up brush and clearing space than a gardener manicuring bushes.

Despite having no background in 'burying people,' she became obsessed with the idea of natural burial after seeing an episode of Six Feet Under that dealt with it. 

We came upon a large clearing that featured a lacquered wood bench displaying the word 'Tabasco' across the back. To the side was a well-tended patch of colorful flowers marked off by wooden logs. The spot is named 'Tabasco’s Garden' after of the dog who is buried there, whose owner bought the entire lot. Its obvious Tabasco was beloved and the amount of time his owner has spent preparing his lot is admirable, however Ellen points out that it's not necessarily in keeping with the natural burial guidelines.

Understanding of the many ways people grieve, she is allowing him to keep what he has already done but he cannot add more unless it is native material.

Her standards come from the Green Burial Council (GBC), a national information source for all types of natural burial. According to the GBC, there are three different types of burial grounds each with different 'leaf' rating. Eloise Woods is a Natural Burial Ground (Two Leaf Rating) meaning, among other things, that there is an established endowment set up for long term maintenance. 

All burial containers must be nontoxic or nonhazardous to the land and no embalming is permitted unless by GBC approved formulas. Ellen offers literature selling biodegradable containers and has on hand several burial shrouds she has sewn herself.

There is very little signage in the woods, and the plots are marked out according to GPS coordinates. The paper maps are very detailed; however, she doesn’t always dig according to that.

“I work with the lay of the land,” she says, suggesting it might be more ecological to dig a little off the grid. She is careful about what areas she clears for plots and has added plants that grow thick to add privacy where there may not be much. She invites families to do this as well so long as they stay within the list of plants native to the area, a list of which she provides each family.

While seemingly an easy concept, being buried completely naturally can take some understanding. It means not pulling weeds around a marker, cutting back vines or placing a stone that is unnatural to the area. We notice at one plot a large, beautifully engraved rock that is not actually 'allowed.' Not surprisingly, being hands off after being so hands on during the actual burial can be a difficult adjustment-if only because people’s inclinations are more in line with the conventional cemetery protocol.

“I have people come out here to get information and then I never hear from them again,” she says but has never experience outright negativity towards what she does. If people disagree, they just don’t show up. Most people who come to the woods end up loving it, and she has sold 40 plots so far.

After we finish the tour, I find I don’t want to leave just yet and wander around by myself. When I do head back, I pass Ellen with the family on their way to look at plots. Big smiles are on their faces, not a common sight in a traditional cemetery.

But then again, Eloise Woods is anything but.

Austin Photo Set: News_sarah_natural burial_april 2012_1
Courtesy of Simple Earth