Farley Center offers a natural option for funerals

The Farley Center's cemetery is designed to feel more like a park. (Gretchen Christensen/Madison Commons)The Farley Center's cemetery is designed to feel more like a park. (Gretchen Christensen/Madison Commons)

The Natural Path Sanctuary offers a unique service to Madison and Dane County: green burials. A green burial generally involves only a raw wood casket or a shroud – no embalming, metal caskets or cremation. 

The sanctuary’s director Shed Farley said that “eventually, it will be the way that people choose. Everything will revert to the earth anyway, but it will either be toxic or non-toxic. Here, you’re feeding other life.”

The sanctuary – part of the– lies on 25 acres of land in the town of Springfield, and it looks more like a nature preserve than anything else. The only grave markers allowed are unpolished stone, wood or native plants. This consideration is partly aesthetic and partly environmental. 

“We don’t want it to look like a cemetery. We’d rather have it look like a park…. And everything leaves a footprint. Even digging a 4x8 hole leaves a footprint. The goal is to keep it as small as possible,” Farley said

Many people think that cremation is the most environmentally friendly method, but Farley said that’s not actually the case. 

“You’re burning tremendous amounts of fuel, and releasing toxins into the air as well.”

The idea has drawn some positive attention, and the natural and sustainable practices appeal to many people.  The sanctuary is the only cemetery in Dane County, and one of only two in Wisconsin, that offers only green burials. 

“People are usually surprised, but thrilled that this is an option.  I’m hearing it too often,” Farley said.

The services themselves will cater to any faith and any level of involvement that the family wishes to have.  Families are allowed to help dig the graves if they care to, and they are certainly encouraged to help fill them in. 

Rather than a hydraulic lift lowering the body into the ground, the pallbearers (whom Farley will supply in part or whole if the family needs them) do it by hand using ropes.

“It becomes a lot more personal and intimate that way.  It’s a great way for a final goodbye,” Farley said

Sarah Fulleman, whose mother Donna was buried at the sanctuary, agreed.

She said that, when she and her relatives discussed it with her mother, “[We knew that] Natural Path Sanctuary would be a good choice because she was an environmentalist, and believed in the natural cycle of life – it made sense to her, and it made sense to us.” 

Of the service, she said “it was different than I expected, but it felt really right to us.”

There are, of course, some people who aren’t completely sold on the idea.  

“A lot of people say ‘I’m going to have a conventional burial.’  I tell them, ‘not unless you’re getting buried here, you’re not.’  This is as conventional as it gets, historically speaking,” Farley said.