2019 is an update year for The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide

Hoffner family at Steelmantown Cemetery  photo by Tom Bailey

Hoffner family at Steelmantown Cemetery photo by Tom Bailey

I’m standing over my father’s grave at Steelmantown Cemetery with my brother and my father’s grandchildren. We’re smiling. Should we be? This is a place of death. It’s also a place of natural burial, where new graves soon blend in with the forest floor (can you tell what is new ground cover here?) and the bodies they hold become part of the web of life. We’re probably stepping on leaves that contain my father’s molecules.

Yuck? No. Good.

Green burial is also about bringing family and friends into a closer circle of intimacy with dead loved ones. We have a complex relationship with death that can be unravelled and simplified if we wish.

The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide is a project I began in 2015, continued with publication in early 2017, and added to with a print edition later that year. I’ve made updates to the digital editions and now in 2019 with more cemeteries offering green burial and burial numbers at existing grounds continuing to rise, I’ve begun an arduous update process.

If you want to learn more about natural burial there’s no better way than through the cemeteries that offer it. The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide is a good place to start.

My father gets a gravestone.

photo by Tom Bailey

photo by Tom Bailey

This past August marked two years since my father's death and his natural burial at Steelmantown Cemetery. I was never comfortable with deciding on a stone to define his grave; sometimes resentful that the decision was being left to me, other times ambiguous about the wisdom of marking the spot at all. It would have been easier if I’d known his wishes but the question never came up before his death.

Then my brother and my niece and nephew came in from Texas wanting to visit the cemetery, full of enthusiasm. Kate missed the funeral and for the others, it was an opportunity to pay respects again. We drove down to south Jersey on a cool, cloudy day, very different from the intense heat of that other August. We've had a very wet summer and the woods look and sound different this time.


I love the moss-covered paths at Steelmantown; the moss is like something laid by leprechauns or wood fairies, intensely green especially in cloudy light, and soft to the touch. My niece and nephew were enchanted, too. 

But the woods and winding moss-covered paths effectively hid my father's grave. Last year Tom and I set a small rock on as a place-holder. It was a distinctive stone--brick shaped and sized out of a creamy material. But the S-curves of trail all look alike. Ed keeps a book with the exact positions of graves but he wasn't there. Could the blueberry plants have grown enough, the leaf mould piled high enough, to hide the stone? Finally I realized that the Disney-effect of the curves made the place seem larger, and I had to head farther into the cemetery.

"Found it!" I yelled.

"Are you sure?"

"Yep." Luckily I had a phone photo to prove it; here's the curve in that tree, there's the two trunks across the path. This is it! 


Kate had no idea what to expect, and it's fun to watch someone come to green burial for the first time. The mounded plots along the paths, the uncut stones marking chosen but unfilled graves, the birds flitting in the oaks, didn't jibe with her ideas of a cemetery. For her grandfather though, she realized, it was a good fit. 

Did we really almost lose his grave though? This time I agreed that a more definitive marker is necessary. Ed Bixby's assistants pile stones at the entrance to the cemetery paths, rocks dug up during trail making and grave digging, that can be used by families as grave markers. They fit the definition of "natural field stone" permitted by Steelmantown. 


We chose a largish brownish stone already colonized by light-green lichen, and James wheeled it back to the grave in a wheelbarrow. Kate and James wanted it to stand up, but I think the forest will bring it down in the not too distant future.


We piled little stones on top and patted it.


"So what do you want to say on the stone?" I asked as we walked back toward the cemetery guide, for this is the number one question that kept me from finishing the marker. Choosing a stone is, well, kind of random. But setting words to it is public.

"How about Pa, engineer, father, grandfather, painter, husband," said Kate.

"How about Ed Hoffner, a pretty good man?"

Too many words!

"I'd be happy if it just said, 'Edward "Pa" Hoffner'," James admitted.

As for me, I like the lichen, and the fact that when the particles that made up my father's body are finally all scattered to the forest the unengraved stone would look like it had always been there.

I gave them the contact information for Ed's stone engraver. As of yet they haven't done anything about adding words. We do, however, have a gravestone.


And the photographer gets photographed on the boardwalk at Ocean City (New Jersey!) after the cemetery trip.


Death and cakes in Nyack.

Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom in Nyack, NY     all photos by Tom Bailey except where otherwise noted

Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom in Nyack, NY    all photos by Tom Bailey except where otherwise noted

It was a double pleasure to head off to Nyack, New York on a sunny August afternoon; first, I would be able to attend my third Death Cafe, and second I would visit Dying To Bloom, Kerry Potter-Kotecki's "Natural Burial Boutique," the only shop I know of that offers the chance to browse through and purchase objects of use or interest around green burial.

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I met Kerry at the National Home Funeral Alliance conference last September, where any image I had of a burial shopkeeper was pleasantly turned out. The common thread between us, as between everyone who reads this blog, is our interest in green burial and green funerals. We already knew each other through social media, and Kerry carries copies of The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide on her shop shelves. In her element she shone. Her success was obvious in the number of guests--two dozen men and women crowded her picturesque shop to talk death--and in the media representatives on hand. Members of WRCR AM radio, a representative from Oprah, and a summer intern for Science Friday came to gather ideas for stories and to support Kerry.


Kerry opened her shop "because I am passionate about supporting Green Burial. We need to take an objective view of our current practices and consider what is best for our environment and our soul. To me the answer is simple - return to nature.

"The name Dying To Bloom started with a radio show I hosted to promote conversations about death and funeral/burial choices. Its dual meaning is literally dying to bloom as in natural burial, and as a symbol for taking advantage of the opportunities you have in life and to blossom before you die."   

Kerry grew up in Rockland County, a triangular-shaped designation that borders New Jersey and a long stretch of the Hudson. Nyack is on the western bank of the river, near the Tappan Zee Bridge. I know more about the eastern side of the bridge, which is where Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has Riverview Natural Burial Grounds. Nyack is built on the cliffs that line the western bank. 

"On a local level my shop just had to be in Nyack. it's an artsy, open-minded town with a creative vibe. There are artist studios, yoga studios, cafes, theaters and now a Natural Burial Boutique."

photo credit www.facebook.com/pg/Dyingtobloom

photo credit www.facebook.com/pg/Dyingtobloom

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Sooo--why a Death Cafe? As deathcafe.com says, "At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives."  

"I was actually slightly hesitant about holding my first Death Cafe because I did not want to frighten people away from my business. Ironically that is also why I decided I should host Death Cafes--they were started to alleviate fear and unease in discussions on death.  So far each meeting has been unique, respectful and inspiring!"

This was the seventh Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom and most people came wanting to talk about death in the crowded circle around caskets and candles. Each Death Cafe takes on the spirit and meaning of the people who happen to gather for that particular day, and a number of cancer survivors set an urgent, determined tone to the need to address after death care. Coupled with that were several young women whose eagerness wasn't colored by sadness. One of the questions that came up was how to get young people interested in natural burial, not always easy to do.

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Kerry's commitment to green burial goes beyond her shop to dreams of finding land in Rockland County for a green burial cemetery. She opened the Green Cemetery Fund through the Rockland Community Foundation to collect tax deductible donations. "Rockland has a large senior population. We are only 40 minutes from Manhattan and a cemetery here could serve the Tri-State area." 

On Kerry's counter, presided over by friends and family, including her daughter, sits a box inviting people to contribute to her dream. If you are interested in helping, go to http://www.rocklandgives.org/donationspage.html. The Green Cemetery Fund is listed there.

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(Burr)ied in the Maine woods.

In the woods at Burr Cemetery       all photos by Tom Bailey

In the woods at Burr Cemetery      all photos by Tom Bailey

At the end of a week's camping and visiting in Maine my husband and I stayed a night at Bradbury Mountain State Park, a stone's throw from Burr Cemetery in Freeport, Maine that has a green burial section that's pretty and peaceful, if not remarkable.

Maine is a state of rocky and sandy coasts, cold ocean, charming towns and small cities for tourists and residents, and vast wooded spaces. Burr Cemetery is at the edge of a microcosm of those forests. It is one of currently three grounds in the state that offer green burial.

With 2 acres of green burial sites set aside in a 6.5 acre conventional cemetery Burr is considered a hybrid burial ground. It has a core of historic marble headstones dating from the 1800s, along a winding country road not far from Route 1 and minutes from downtown Freeport, best known for LL Bean and outlet stores but also not far from the islands and harbors of Casco Bay. The green burial area is marked as many areas are by a native boulder, at the head of a trail leading into the graves and also into Frost Gully Woods, a small parcel owned by Freeport Conservation Trust that's open to the public but otherwise landlocked.

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By now I've visited a number of such cemeteries and didn't expect to find much new, but Burr is in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide and I feel a special affinity for grounds I get to visit personally.

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At this time of year the woods are wet enough to host colorful mushrooms and the trees have reached their peak of summer greenness undifferentiated by spring or fall colors. From the sunny grass of the conventional cemetery the woods promise shade, which even in this northern state is welcome on a hot day. The trail leading to Frost Gully has the virtue of expanding the feeling of being in the woods and adds a vista into something just beyond reach. Chris Stilkey is current president of DC Stilkey & Son, a family-owned cemetery management business. A decade ago the company opened Lighthouse Crematory and Remembrance, Inc connected to the office building at the back of Burr to offer "green" cremation using an efficient crematory and purchasing renewable Maine green energy to offset the CO2 produced. The green burial section is another venture to be accountable both to the environment and to customer's wishes to be sensitive to it.

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For me, the visit stood out because I realized for all the criticism of hybrid cemeteries as enterprises that only partially meet the goals of "natural," a small conventional cemetery like Burr is a pretty stable platform on which to build. A significant number of natural cemeteries exist as the brainchild of one person, and it's hard not to wonder about the security of their future. How dependent they are on the vision of the founder.  

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Each time I visit a green burial cemetery I see a manifestation of a movement that didn't even exist in this country before the mid-1990s. We can wax nostalgic about how America used to bury its dead, unembalmed and in simple caskets, but it's the modern trend that gives us options. Modern green burial is a deliberate choice; to be closer to the earth and to our loved ones at death, to think about the consequences of what is done with our bodies after we die. A place like Burr, small as it is, confirms that others out there are dedicated to the vision as well.

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Pine Forest--More than Clark Wang's resting place

All photos in this article are by   TOM BAILEY

All photos in this article are by TOM BAILEY

Travelling to new cemeteries is always an adventure, even when I bring my copy of The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide which I have been known to forget. Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, a half-hour from Durham, North Carolina, was no exception. Tom and I had to wend our way through quiet suburban streets to find it. Luckily it was a damp, overcast morning, before the summer heat made its way into the day.


Pine Forest is a newish conventional cemetery that's certified by the Green Burial Council as a natural burial ground, with a woods parcel on the far side of a pond dedicated to green burial. Most people would recognize the cemetery as the resting place of Clark Wang, the subject of
A Will for the Woods, an iconoclastic documentary of the movement. But manager Dyanne Matzkevitch seemed puzzled that people think it came about just because of Clark. When I asked her if he had been the inspiration, she said yes but "We buried people there before he died."

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Nevertheless, the way to reach the Garden of Renewal is via the Path of Clark's Reflection, which wends its way between the pond and a dense woods where a standpipe draining the pond sizzles the air with the sound of running water. 


My first meeting with Dyanne was at a screening of the documentary in New York City. At first encounter I wouldn't have pegged her as a natural burial advocate, but then I'm not sure anyone I've met in the field would pass as an archetype. Like most natural burial cemeterians Dyanne is dedicated to her work and her vision. She has gone slower than instinct tells her because skeptical owners think her odd for her passion, and are reluctant to expand until they see how it goes. Dyanne jumps at the chance to emphasize, as others have done to me, that with cremation on the rise, it's really green burial that's helping to save full body burial as a cemetery option. Natural burial is actually alot more work than conventional; funeral homes often don't know how to play their part, and sometimes people want to do it themselves, which is difficult. It's also, she says, a more emotional experience.


My first and lasting impression of Dyanne's woods was of lots of burials, many of the mounds more fancifully decorated than might be expected for natural burial but a surprising percentage of burials here, both natural and conventional, are of children. The Garden of Renewal is also a way of preserving land that the cemetery owns.


Clark's grave is marked by a stone engraved with a feather and "A will for the woods." He was only 50 when he died, a psychiatrist diagnosed with lymphoma who decided to take control of his afterdeath disposition and chose green burial. At the time there were no such options available to him. In answer to his plea for green burial space Dyanne opened her garden, and in the two years until his death, buried a number of bodies and sold plots. Between then and now she has patiently leant a hand to others in the area starting up green burial, especially Robin Simonton, who credits her with helping when she developed Mordecai's Meadow in Historic Oakwood Cemetery in downtown Raleigh.

Beside the door of the cemetery office are a number of small, engraved stones ready to go on burial plots. Their smallness, Dyanne says, encourages people to be creative.


There are also ducks and geese in mixed flocks that call the cemetery grounds home.

The woods are a lush place, a cool damp resting spot where a more recent burial than Clark's bears the inscription, "I went to the woods."

The woods are a lush place, a cool damp resting spot where a more recent burial than Clark's bears the inscription, "I went to the woods."


I haven't marked my father's grave.

All photos in this blog are by  Tom Bailey

All photos in this blog are by Tom Bailey


It's been almost two years since my father died and I buried him in a grave at Steelmantown Cemetery, a natural burial ground in southern New Jersey. Ed Bixby keeps a supply of field stones dug up during maintenance of the cemetery for use as grave markers, but at the time of my father's death it was all the family could do to hold ourselves together through grief and the logistics of death. Getting him safely in the ground was the priority, though before leaving the cemetery we picked out a stone that would go across two graves, as my mother will one day be buried in the plot that lies next to him.

I fully intended to have the engraver pick up the stone and finish it; we even had a tentative wording picked out. But first the stone seemed awful big for the purpose, even if my mother would be memorialized too. Then family dynamics deteriorated and talk of what to say evaporated. I knew where he was buried; the rest of the family is scattered across the country and wouldn't be able to find the plot on their own. Finally I decided in a huff that if no one else was interested in the stone then why should I make an effort? As time went on family relations smoothed out and we talked about it again. I even went so far as to pick out a new stone, just for my father. 


All these things, though probably pretty common in the stages of grief and reaction to death, seem petty. Yet my father's grave still has no stone, even though we are all talking to each other again. Why? And does it matter?

Mostly what drives me to worry about the stone is guilt. I feel like I should mark my father's grave. Yet I'm not sure it would matter to him. My husband's choice of words would have been "Ed Hoffner--A Pretty Good Man." He wasn't without ego but he wasn't into fuss. He was the kind of man who figured out how to make pockets on the backs of his pants by sewing on pieces of cloth, because it was the easiest way to get it done and he didn't mind how it looked.

Memorialization is a personal matter but it's also a collective choice. Green burial cemeteries choose to forgo polished cut stone grave markers in favor of markers that resemble what comes out of the earth, either stone or plant, and in some cases opting for group memorials instead of individual grave markers. It's important for those of us who choose green burial to understand what we're comfortable with, and then to make an appropriate memorial within the bounds of what the collective cemetery allows. After all, even conventional cemeteries have carefully laid-out rules about memorialization.

Like anything else, choosing how to memorialize someone can be fraught with uncertainty if done when death occurs. If you haven't planned ahead of time, it's okay. The earth always takes time to settle, and the person you are thinking about is not going away.

Ultimately, of course, the forest will entirely reclaim my father's grave and his remains, because that's the idea of a place like Steelmantown, a forest as a memorial. Beyond his grandchildren no one's likely to visit the grave. So whether I follow through on a stone to get rid of the final niggle of doubt, I don't know. Perhaps it will happen when my mother dies, because then, I think, it will really seem like he is gone


Duck Run is for ducks and humans.

photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey


The 113 acres that hold Duck Run Natural Cemetery are set in prosperous Virginia farmland in the beginnings of the Shenandoah River Valley, overlooked by the Alleghenies, Massanutten Peak, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Duck Run is the brain child of Kenny Kyger, owner of Kyger Funeral Home, who approached the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors for permission to open a green burial cemetery after noting a trend in the funeral business. Duck Run is Virginia’s first natural cemetery certified by the Green Burial Council.

Tom and I arrived along with the first guests for a memorial service, and we tried to be discrete in the open landscape. We walked along the edge past bee hives and cornfields to the top of a hill where a bench invited me to take in the breeze and meditate on the view of fallow fields covered in wildflowers beyond the cemetery.


A path of stones on the slope below the bench memorializes people whose ashes are scattered in the meadows. In the distance the gathering produced sounds of laughter and the glad sight of children running in the sun. People in summer clothes hauled tubs of food from their vehicles.

They gathered on the far shore of Duck Run's central feature--a large pond edged by cattails. Perhaps it was a watering hole for cattle when this was a broken down dairy farm, just old buildings and ruined foundations. Water makes a good rallying point for life--and death.


We walked to the main buildings through an arbor where new grape vines are being trained. Everything planted here at Duck Run is edible, though sometimes this leads to tussles with the wildlife who also find it appealing.


At the barn we found ducks gathered outside the front door waiting for Glenn Jennelle, Duck Run's general manager. Maintenance equipment fills the first floor but the loft is a sweet-smelling woodshop where biodegradable caskets suitable for natural burial will be built to sell through the funeral home. Glenn opened the loft doors and showed us how the property runs to the far corners of the corn fields. We peered down at the gathering of ducks.

"I raised them so I guess I'm their mother," Glenn says.

Glenn points out graves which are all but hidden in long grass. Kyger and Jennelle got the license to open a cemetery in 2012 and then spent two years figuring out just what they wanted. They didn't look at other burial grounds for fear of being tempted to copy before putting their own stamp on the place. One of their innovations is to offer both perpetual care lots and renewable lots, which revert back to the cemetery 75 years after burial. 


Most customers so far have not been locals. They come from Richmond, from Maryland and the coast. The people moving below our vantage point are here for a memorial service for a guy who was buried two weeks ago. It was sad, Glenn said, there were no mourners. He was 51. At least he's getting a party now.

I remark on the river out of sight and Glenn sighs and breaks into my romance of the Shenandoah, taken from memories of the folk song "Oh Shenandoah" which I learned in elementary school. The river, he says, is incredibly polluted. DuPont released heavy metals in the 1930s and 40s from an upstream facility. Cows add to the problem with their manure and by stirring up contaminated sediment when they walk into the water.

Yet the light, the sense of space magnified by the grandeur of the mountains, makes this a place one would want to be buried in.


Updating the guide to reflect a growing green burial movement.


It's been a busy time in the green burial movement. Symposiums, town meetings, articles in big and small newspapers, and a bunch of new cemeteries to add to The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide. To update the 2017 digital editions I've added 17 cemeteries. An additional eleven are not quite ready to open, decided their operations weren't a good fit for the guidebook or simply didn't answer my query. Only one had to be removed, and that was because the owner died and though existing contracts are being honored there will be no new contracts for plots sold. Considering the book had 126 cemeteries as of last fall, this is a 21% increase in cemeteries. Not bad!

Another measure of green burial's health is the attitude of the people involved. My impetus for writing the guidebook came from research for a more general book starting five years ago, when it took at least a month to open a dialogue with a cemetery and complete an entry. I recently completed the process with Chassell Cemetery in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from start to finish over three days last week! I think cemeteries are more eager to promote themselves and their options as they see public interest soar. I'm also more efficient with understanding what's needed, and comments from readers help focus on what is useful and of interest.

2017 was a time for expanding my firsthand knowledge of the cemeteries. Burial grounds with green options exist in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia. This is up two. Last year my husband and I toured up the Hudson River Valley and down through the coastal states of the South, checking places out, taking lots of photos and using the book as a guide ourselves. Where possible we met with the people who run the cemeteries. The photo at the top of this article shows me with Glenn Jennelle, manager of Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

Responding to criticism by a judge in a book contest who really liked it, I've made the tables of content interactive in all regions and the complete guide. This means readers can navigate to features through clicks, and not just scrolling. As ever, Tom Bailey partnered the guide, both as photographer and book designer.

Thanks to all of you who read my blog and help spread the word about green burial, especially by creating community.

If you previously purchased a digital guide, look for an email containing a link to download a free update. This applies to people who bought the bundle. The print edition will not be updated at this time.

If you haven't already purchased a guide, there's no time that's not a good one to do so.




My father joined an ecosystem at Steelmantown Cemetery.

photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey


When my father died suddenly on an August day I was lucky to have an interest in green burial, acquaintance with Bob Prout (a local funeral director known by the New Jersey funeral industry as their green guru), and experience with Steelmantown Cemetery, a lovely natural burial ground in the southern part of the state. Driving my father two hours to be buried added unfortunate fossil fuel to the equation, but made sense because my mother's family lives just ten minutes away on the ocean side of the Garden State Parkway.

Ed Bixby bought Steelmantown after finding his infant brother's burial place in the overgrown and unwanted historic cemetery. He acquired another 8.5 acres of Pine Barrens and developed it all as a natural burial cemetery, where his Eco Trail winds through oak woods and connects to a section of Belleplain State Forest that had been landlocked.

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It was 92 degrees and just after midday when our funeral party arrived at Steelmantown. The air sang with heat as we gathered on the path; thirty people including mourners and Ed's gravediggers. Bob, wearing a tie, and Ed, in his boots, gathered us in.

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Bob suggested that I ask people to take their flowers out of the cellophane they were crinkling, then gave an eloquent synopsis of what would happen next.

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I was anxious how people would react to a shrouded body so I was grateful for his introduction. Then as a gravedigger and Ed took hold of the handles on the wagon-wheeled cart on which my father lay, covered in a flag and wildflowers, Bob suggested I help push from the back.

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So began the slow procession over the winding moss-covered path, lumpy with tree roots. The wagon wheels creaked out a melody and the sweat trickled down my back. We halted by a mound of dirt with shovels sticking out that covered the plot we purchased for my mother.

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I envisioned a natural burial as being loose and spontaneous, but Bob had prodded us into a structure for which I was grateful. It was capped by the military honor guard folding the flag and playing gorgeous taps while a Monarch butterfly looped restlessly over the open grave.





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Six people lowered my father's shrouded body in a big muslin cloth into the grave and let the muslin fall over him.








We took turns tossing flowers and pine boughs to join those that lined the grave bottom. Ed and his father passed out shovels. My 21-month-old grandnephew in his sun suit was so excited. "Big shovel," he cried out as he helped his mother throw in the sandy soil.

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I didn't speak myself, and as others read or told stories I let the sun filtering through the woods dry the sweat on my upturned face and I felt the listening weight of all those trees.

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It seemed much longer going back to the sheds with the empty cart.


Ed piles fieldstones dug up from his property and we chose a long flat gray one that would reach across two side-by-side graves. Bob and his assistant were shedding their ties. I invited them all to join us at my cousin’s house for a meal but they wanted to get home before the end of weekend traffic rebuilt.


That night I thought about a cousin who was buried just the weekend before in a conventional memorial park in a painted metal casket in a concrete vault under an Astroturf temporary covering — and I realized that my father was not alone.


As soon as he went into the ground, he was joined by the beetles, the worms, the bacteria, tree roots. The night crickets and owls. The wild blueberries that had been pulled back to admit his body and would be replanted. It was an extraordinary realization that he had joined an ecosystem. And because he couldn't move it would come to him. It would recycle the nutrients in his flesh and bones and weave them into life.


A natural burial symposium for towns.

photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey


It was one day past a messy February snowstorm and we gathered trepidatiously in the parking lot of the Chiltonville Congregational Church in Plymouth Massachusetts. How would the weather affect the event? Would the promise of the Natural Burial Symposium overcome the psychological barriers for those travelling in? 

As it turned out, though a number of people cancelled about 75 did show, filling the sanctuary and the dreams of Denise Stowell, a retired jacquard woven fabric designer who began the project to help protect the Pine Barrens around her hometown from clear cutting and ended up with a day-long Symposium designed to appeal to town planners, landowners, and a general public that might benefit from the idea of natural burial but not have been exposed to it.

"We are the fastest growing town in the state," says Denise, "and with the nuclear power plant shutting down in 2019 there's a big push for revenue. Plymouth appeals to retired folks and an enormous development called Pinehills is drawing new people here. The town is quickly running out of burial space and is planning a new cemetery. We wanted to get out as much information as possible so we can understand the laws and regulations that need to change to allow new cemetery plans to include green burial. There's a lot to consider for the selectmen and other town planners. Most people don’t recognize the potential of natural burial so we are trying to explore the idea in multiple ways, and have conversations on working together for a meaningful end of life experience and a more sustainable future."


Southeastern Massachusetts Pine Barrens Alliance, or SEMPBA, the symposium's host, is an environmental organization and the day sought to explore the possibility to preserve and protect land, which as we know goes hand in hand with green burial, especially the level known as "conservation burial" which requires partnership with a land trust or other conservation organization.

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Almost 50% of those who attended came from the general public, which meant the conversation reached well beyond the group of already dedicated green burial people. The symposium's modest registration fee included a homemade lasagna lunch. Along with Frank Mand, also a SEMPBA volunteer, the agenda included Maura and Madison White, who spoke of the healing process of burying their beloved father/husband naturally. Eva Moseley, who at 87 is a tireless advocate for changing burial practices. Members of Green Burial Massachusetts Carol Coan and Joan Pillsbury who are working to bring green burial to the eastern and western parts of their state. Heather Massey, who brought the intimacy of a home funeral to us and Ruth Faas from Mourning Dove Studio who brought her cardboard coffins to show. Candace Currie discussed green burial at Mount Auburn, currently the only cemetery in the state to be certified by the Green Burial Council. Local conservationist James Rassman presented the prospects for intersecting land preservation and open space with green burial. The unexpected star of the day, Nate Horwitz-Willis, Director of Public Health for the town of Plymouth, became an enthusiastic advocate for green burial while doing research for his talk. Ted Bubbins, Cemetery Superintendent, took many questions. Rich Vacca, the town's Conservation Planner, was there with positive support. We need more professionals like them to help towns understand the nature of what we are doing and not dismiss green burial because of outdated ideas of impact and resistance.

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Denise had asked me to talk about cemeteries in the Northeast and their ownership structure, but Ed Bixby was unable to get to Plymouth so instead I showed photos of my father's burial at Steelmantown Cemetery, the natural burial ground in southern New Jersey which Ed owns and manages. Like Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, Steelmantown is a Pine Barrens region of pines and oaks and the landscape and its needs are similar. 

Candace Currie and I spoke about the Green Burial Council, which is currently the only organization that offers standards and certification for burial grounds.


I asked about plans to ride the momentum created by the symposium. "We want to meet with Plymouth officials to discuss what needs to change to allow green burials," said Denise. SEMPBA members will also be at the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts annual meeting on April 21st to present "Another Way: Our journey into the green burial movement through the door of conserving the globally rare coastal pine barrens of Southeastern Massachusetts.”

SEMPBA is planning a more informal gathering this spring to continue the public conversation and give updates on any progress. A number of people who showed interest for the February event were working on a weekday and unable to devote the time. A new website page will offer information about green burial, including from the symposium speakers and organizations represented.


"It was a fabulous day and we had a great time!" said Denise.


My husband Tom and Denise both have Finney ancestors in the Chiltonville burial ground behind the church. Next time we are together in the neighborhood we plan to look for common tombstones.