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

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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. 

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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

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Duck Run is for ducks and humans.

  photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Updating the guide to reflect a growing green burial movement.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A natural burial symposium for towns.

  photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey

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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."

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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.

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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.

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

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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. 

 
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Ramsey Creek Preserve, America's first modern natural burial cemetery.

  photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey

When Billy and Kimberley Campbell set out in the mid-1990s to develop Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina they were pioneers in the US, though Britain had already begun its woodland burial movement. Billy was inspired by two things: the amount of money and effort expended on his father's funeral and conventional burial, and the Spirit Forests of New Guinea which were said to be protected from hunting and logging by the spirits of the dead buried nearby. The Campbells bought a run-down 36-acre farm and turned their vision into a reality. Ramsey Creek entered into an agreement with Upstate Forever Land Trust in 2006, which allowed the preserve to achieve certification by the Green Burial Council as the nation's first conservation burial ground, the highest and hardest level to attain, virtually assuring it will stay a burial ground and preserve forever. They also founded Memorial Ecosystems, a for-profit company which develops and maintains memorial preserves, including Ramsey Creek.

Today Ramsey Creek Preserve has 71 acres with room for 1500 burial sites. Burial in a shroud or biodegradable casket is permitted. Markers are accepted but not required, and must be of natural stone, and families are encouraged to plant native wild flowers or shrubs on the gravesite. The hilly preserve is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and preserves a section of Ramsey Creek.

Last summer I had a chance to visit this iconic place. It was the end of the day, with the late afternoon sun slanting through the trees over the top of the hill adding drama to the scene. These are photos from that day, taken by my husband Tom Bailey.

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Taking perpetuity out of grave rights.

 Sign on roadside barn near Duck Run Natural Cemetery.    photo by Tom Bailey

Sign on roadside barn near Duck Run Natural Cemetery.   photo by Tom Bailey

Americans believe in the perpetuity of their graves. Yet cemeteries don't sell plots of land, they sell burial rights. The ownership entity holds the property whether as a private for-profit or nonprofit corporation, a municipality or a religious organization. Since you don't own a plot, this means you have the right to be buried in the space in perpetuity--technically forever. The cemetery can't do anything else with the space, like bury someone new in it. In conventional cemeteries with embalmed bodies in long-lasting hydro-sealed caskets protected by concrete vaults perpetual rights make a certain sense. But for natural burial, which is about getting out of the way of the agents that would turn a human body back to the soil, isn't perpetuity a bit silly?

Granted the most difficult thing to overcome might be Americans' knee-jerk reaction to the idea of disturbing graves, but I decided to look at what is done elsewhere, and what may be underway in this country to change the equation.

The idea of perpetual grave rights originated here and became prevalent as burial moved out of communal churchyards and town burial grounds to cemeteries which sold plots to a general public. In much of the rest of the world, contracts for burial space are more like leases. When a lease is up, in some places you can renew it, in others your exclusive right to the plot ends and the ground can be reused. Remains (bones mostly) are either removed from the grave and placed in an ossuary or the grave dug deeper so that it can hold the bones at the bottom and a new burial above. Grave leases that include the right to erect a memorial will specify what happens to the memorial at the end.

 Perpetual care marker at Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, WI. Photo by Claire S. Bjork

Perpetual care marker at Forest Hill Cemetery, Madison, WI. Photo by Claire S. Bjork

Judging by our predilection for permanence in burial the renewable burial plot is on the cutting edge of afterdeath care options. However, two green burial cemeteries in the US and one in Canada offer graves that can be reused. I was curious what prompted them to go against the grain (out of roughly 135 cemeteries which I surveyed).

For two of them sustainable use of land is the primary reasons for not opting simply for perpetuity. Their arguments are especially poignant in light of one of green burial's most difficult issues: the fact that burial takes up so much space. This is the one argument that less-environmentally sound cremation has over it. 

Mountain View Cemetery is a 106-acre historic urban cemetery in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia with Glen Hodges as cemetery manager. "Mountain View is quite unique in that we have been practicing 'sustainable' interment for more than 100 years. Since shortly after establishing the cemetery in 1886, we have always allowed families to re-use existing burial space. With the family's permission we reopen an existing grave, remove the human remains, deepen the grave, place what is left of the human remains back in the bottom, cover it with a couple inches of soil and the site is then used for another casket interment. Of the 85 casket burials we do in an average year now, probably one-third involve some kind of re-use and a 3rd or 4th casket being interred in an existing grave."

Glenn Jennelle is general manager of Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, which offers what it calls "renewable" lots. 

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"Renewable lots are used in the UK and it works out well for them. They rotate on a 50 year basis. Think of the land that is saved by this way of burial. In setting up our own renewable options our owner and I thought 75 years would be more appropriate. If anything remains in the grave, mainly bone fragments, they would be left alone and then, our hopes are maybe a grandchild or great grandchild would want to be buried in the space. We have two folks interred this way and a few more renewable lots sold. It's something new and it takes time. We furnish headstones at no charge for this type of burial, and after 75 years they will be placed in the memorial walkways near the grave site."

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But from Hunter Mohring came an explanation that aligns renewable grave use with the part of green burial that most resonates with me--recycling the human body back into the soil. Hunter is administrative steward of The Meadow, a nature preserve and natural burial cemetery in the southern portion of the Valley of Virginia nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny Spine. The Meadow offers what it calls "successive sites." Hunter has sold over half of The Meadow plots as "successive" rather than perpetual. Reuse is the most natural thing to do yet as old as that idea is, it's too "new" in our current culture so The Meadow offers both successive and perpetual graves.

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What Hunter likes about the idea is that it is completely and directly aligned with the ideals of both "natural" and "sustainable." "When one's primary reason for using natural burial is to honor and participate in Earth's life cycles and contribute to the sustainability of all life, it seems counter-intuitive to lock in one use by one person forever, thereby petrifying and/or preventing the natural life-impetus embedded in the 32 square feet of land and the environment around it. All life depends on soil and all soil requires lots of dead organic material; one might think of soil as constantly hungry and thirsty. If it's not supplied with its needs, it can't play it's part in the nurturing of new seeds, new plants, new wildlife."

From a financial point of view, says Hunter, if the cemetery were to ever approach full and every grave was perpetual, the life cycle of The Meadow's 5 acres would stagnate. With no room for new burials any reason to operate the cemetery and all income for its maintenance would be removed. Typical operating procedures render a cemetery unsustainable.

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Will these few cemeteries be the start of a trend? Who knows. I hope so. Modern green burial is still a new concept and while its precepts and intentions are set, the way to get there isn't fixed which means there's room for tweaking. I feel we have to address the issue of perpetual grave use or risk being called too timid to do the best thing. Calling for cemeteries to offer renewable plots won't be enough if we don't also change our attitudes toward grave rights.

"Fifty years may seem short for rotating graves, but it is enough to allow the 'natural thing' to happen to a body and then free life to do its next natural thing," says Hunter. "Seems right and fair to me."

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Can plastics ever be suitable for green burial?

 Burial of my father at Steelmantown Cemetery   photo by Tom Bailey

Burial of my father at Steelmantown Cemetery photo by Tom Bailey

What if you bury your dead father naturally in a shroud, shallow enough so the soil can use his nutrients in a lovely forest setting. He's in a renewable plot and decades later when the cemetery opens the grave to put someone new in, there's nothing left but nice clean bones--and a plastic ziplock bag.

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Oops!

Turns out your father was autopsied and his organs placed in that bag so they could be sewn up with the body.

Unlikely? This circumstance came up at the National Home Funeral Alliance conference in September in a panel discussion with various experts including a medical examiner and mortuary board member on how to interface with the organizations and authorities that handle death. A suggestion was made that in this situation morticians use compostable or plant-based plastic instead of a standard ziplock bag. My hand shot up and I voiced my protest.

When I create an entry for a green burial cemetery in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide, I indicate that any burial container must be made of biodegradable material. According to Merriam-Webster, a biodegradable material must be "capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things (such as microorganisms)."

For something to biodegrade it needs to be food for things like bacteria and bugs. Living organisms that die (like humans) are food for other living organisms, and so are biodegradable. But manufactured substances are not automatically biodegradable. Plastic is a classic case in point. Though plastic is made from petroleum, a carbon-based substance which was formed from the bodies of dead organisms millions of years ago, it is not attractive as food and so will not biodegrade. If left in the air or in the sea it will eventually mechanically degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, but these won't become organic bits that are useful to other life.

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But what about plant-based plastic?

You may have picked up a drinks cup or bought a ketchup bottle or water bottle made of plant-based plastic. This simply means that the carbon compounds used in manufacturing come from plant material such as corn instead of petroleum. Environmentally this may be a better choice than pulling more oil out of the ground to make new plastics, and theoretically when it does break down it's not toxic. But it doesn't guarantee the biodegradability of the plastic, which is determined by the resin used and how readily the chemical bonds break down. Because plastics are often used as packaging, anything biodegradable must by definition not decompose under ordinary circumstances. Anything used to carry food or other consumer items, such as plastic bags and boxes, is particularly difficult as it would be mayhem if carrier bags degraded in sunlight or over time and spilled groceries unpredictably.  

Even biodegradable plant-based plastic is not particularly attractive to the decomposers, so it's also come to be known as compostable plastic. According to UrthPact, a company that makes Earth-friendly products from bioplastics or recycled plastic materials including compostable plastics, to be certified compostable a material must:

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  • Break down completely into organic matter
  • Break down 90% in 84 days
  • Be consumed by microorganisms in the compost at the same rate as natural materials such as leaves and food scraps

Vegetable-derived plastics like UrthPact's must be composted in a commercial compost system where higher temperatures and greater concentrations of bacteria are used. They will not break down easily even in a backyard compost pile. Compost piles also need just the right amount of air and water to work, and size matters--the larger the pile the more likely it is to work. Commercial composters recreate the conditions under which these plastics are designed to biodegrade. 

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But humans are not buried in compost piles, they are buried in soil. The same agents that act to decompose a human body underground also act on anything buried with the body. Initial decomposition in an unembalmed body is carried on by microorganisms in the body itself, which are then joined by organisms in the soil. A bag sewn into a body would have to be attractive to either or both types of organisms.

It seems cruel to deny natural burial to someone because they've been autopsied. So what's the solution if we want to be true to the principles of green burial but still reasonable? It makes sense to use a bag made of material that's already okay to bury--paper, or cotton, wool. Perhaps to be waterproof or even water resistant such a bag could be coated with something like beeswax, which though not easily biodegradable is at least "natural." The product would have to be readily available to coroners and morticians, but I think if you make it easy for someone they generally will do it.

The Green Burial Council states "All GBC approved caskets, urns and shrouds must be constructed from plant-derived, recycled plant-derived, natural, animal, or unfired earthen materials, including shell, liner, and adornments."

I asked for clarification, and the GBC agreed with the statement that "While the Green Burial Council is taking into consideration the use of new plastics, it will always stay true to its environmental aims and do so only after much consideration and research."

You really don't want to bury something that's going to last longer than your remains.

To paraphrase the bible, naked we came into this world and naked we shall return.

 

The Greening of American Death

 Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground   photo by Tom Bailey

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground  photo by Tom Bailey

It's not unusual for cemeterians to multi-task; the manager of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown researches odd stories of people buried in his grounds. The manager of Riverside Cemetery in Saddle Brook, New Jersey uses his cemetery as inspiration for his photography. Ed Bixby of Steelmantown Cemetery builds houses as his "real" job. Suzanne Kelly, chair of the Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Committee, doubles as a book writer which makes complete sense, given her subject matter.

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In 2014 I found the Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground when I was searching out green burial cemeteries for what ultimately became a guidebook. I contacted Suzanne as the person responsible for creating green burial at this otherwise conventional municipal cemetery in the Hudson River Valley, a hundred miles north of New York City. 

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Between our first contact and publication of the guide, Suzanne published a book, Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth.

Suzanne's inspiration for both green burial and her book came out of her dissertation. "I was thirty, working on my PhD, and preparing for some future life of the mind when my father suffered a massive and fatal heart attack at sixty-two," she writes in her introduction. Her PhD work examined the ways the female body is perceived in our culture, and as she grieved for her father this interest in the body shifted to include the dead body; what we think about it, what we do with it and why, and the implications these questions had for contemporary death care. Her academic interests focus now on the intersections of feminism, the body and the environment.

"Greening death begins with waking up to the matter of death itself," says Suzanne in her introduction, and what better manifestation of this than a green burial cemetery?

I visited Rhinebeck last summer on a tour of burial grounds up the Hudson River. Suzanne warned us that the town would be starting tree work, meaning lots of trucks and noise, so we scheduled the time for a lovely summer weekend when we could experience the peace of the place instead.

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The natural burial ground is at the back of the town cemetery, down a grassy path past a sign almost hidden in vegetation that was created by a neighbor from wood he pulled off the land. Suzanne met us at the intersection of the path with the cemetery ring road in a black pickup truck, the name of her farm, Green Owl Garlic, painted on the door. She was in the midst of a garlic harvest, dressed in a flannel shirt, shorts, and rugged shoes, and concerned about leaving her harvesters but happy to be able to talk about green burial.

In 2010 Suzanne was already contemplating how to create a natural burial ground when the Town of Rhinebeck invited her to chair its cemetery board. The town had received several inquiries about green burial. Though it was not Suzanne's ideal for green burial, which more compared to Greensprings, a 130-acre cemetery in upstate New York, which is looking for conservation burial status and agreement with a land trust, Rhinebeck offered the advantages of not having to find land or funding, thus being able to jump ahead on these usually difficult hurdles and get to the heart of recreating the land itself. 

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Like other cemeteries that use neglected woods for natural burial grounds, Rhinebeck's area is a bit raw. At 2.5 acres in a conventional cemetery of 8 acres it's too small to qualify as conservation. But the woods are borderless, extending into a much larger piece of undeveloped land that spreads down to the Hudson River. The town is following the slow process of restoration, hence the tree work, getting rid of dead trees and pruning the live trees. The cemetery has lots of land and there is a potential for future expansion.

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For Suzanne, the trend in the movement to eschew the word "green" in favor of "natural" is unfortunate, as she sees lots of virtue in an ancient association of the environment with the color. But the fact that green is generally linked with nature allows her to be comfortable with using both words. She also is a believer in our collective power to effect change and create a new vision for American death care.

"I'm moved by the desire to frame the movement both philosophically and practically, to give voice to the deeper meanings and promise at the heart of green burial advocacy--to tie us back to an earth from which we have been separated for too long and to understand what it will take to build momentum to overcome obstacles and meet potential." 

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Rhinebeck's Natural Burial Ground is a woods landscape, with tall trees arching over graves that have already been filled and those purchased pre-need. Standing on the edge of a gentle downhill slope it's easy to see it blending seamlessly into the larger parcel, giving a feeling of woods going on forever.

No pesticides are used in maintaining the burial ground, and plantings on graves are not allowed. Burial in a shroud is welcome and a flat fieldstone may be used to mark the grave. Rhinebeck is certified by the Green Burial Council as a natural burial ground, which means it meets all the requirements of green along with those of natural, including creating a new landscape for burial.

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Carolina Memorial Sanctuary--lest we forget the plants

 Carolina Memorial Sanctuary   photos by Tom Bailey

Carolina Memorial Sanctuary  photos by Tom Bailey

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Only a half-dozen green burial cemeteries in the US are certified conservation grounds. One of them is Carolina Memorial Sanctuary  in Mills River, North Carolina. It's also quite new, having opened up in 2016.

With over 125 natural burial cemeteries in the US, many of them certified as hybrid or natural, what makes conservation cemeteries so rare?

The Green Burial Council, which sets standards and certifies, requires them to "Operate in conjunction with a government agency or a nonprofit conservation organization that has legally binding responsibility for perpetual enforcement of the easement and must approve any substantive changes to operational or conservation policies that might impact the ecological objectives of the site." Land trusts are notoriously leery of the arrangement because the trust becomes responsible for the cemetery maintaining preservation standards and is financially liable if it doesn't. This kind of legal agreement goes well beyond simply specifying green burial on a cemetery deed. Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve on 130 acres of land in upstate New York has been working out the kinks to be certified for years.

Conserving Carolina holds a conservation easement on the Sanctuary property. That fact isn't obvious in a visit like my husband and I took. So what else is different about Carolina Memorial Sanctuary? It's also following another GBC requirement that to achieve conservation status a burial ground must "conserve or restore a minimum of 10 acres, or 5 acres if contiguous to other protected lands."

What do the verbs "conserve" and "restore" actually mean? According to Merriam-Webster conserve is to keep in a safe or sound state and would apply in a nature preserve when you have a landscape, such as a forest or meadow, that is already in a desired state. To restore is to bring back to or put back into a former or original state.

Carolina Memorial Sanctuary is fulfilling its conservation status guidelines through restoration.

I visited New Zealand several years ago where the residents actively restore forests to their original state by rooting out invasives like pinus radiata trees, an "exotic" species imported from California and used to rehabilitate previously farmed soils. I saw hillsides where whole groves of trees had been cut down to give native species a chance to grow back. Mass spraying by helicopters is also used. But the key will be whether native plants regrow or simply other exotics.

 
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Our tour guide at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary was Anthony Pranger, an Oklahoman who described himself as the cemetery's "outdoor employee." He is intimately familiar with the land and views it with affection. The 11+ acres, divided between burial and preserve as a conservation cemetery should be, include a number of different ecologies: meadow, creekside, semi-wooded and woodland for burial, and a wetland habitat which is part of the overall conservation effort and not used for burial. It must also preserve, enhance, or restore a historic native or natural community of the region. Carolina Memorial Sanctuary is actively restoring its land to a "natural community." In the past it was used for raising cattle.

The Sanctuary employs three techniques in restoring habitats: 1) removing non-native and invasive plant species; 2) uncovering and protecting desirable species; and 3) planting additional desirable species in areas where they may serve multiple functions (beauty, memorial of a loved one, shade, interest, education). A variety of techniques are used to manage invasive plants, including targeted herbicides, controlled burns, and manual/mechanical and biological controls.

"It's exciting to see the biodiversity of our unique location. I have personally verified over 80 different native plant species and am still discovering more. Watching what birds, insects, and other critters show up, seeing the landscapes change on a daily basis, and engaging the many naturalists who come with an interest in our project."

I asked Anthony to name the more "interesting" species: Sourwood, Sassafras, Persimmons (a smaller native shrub version, not the Asian kind you see at markets), Shingle Oak, Silky Dogwood, Bluestem grasses, Pink Muhly (another grass), St. John's Wort, Creeping Cedar (actually a large club moss rather than a "cedar"), and probably at least 10 different species of aster, including goldenrod, fleabane, and Rudbeckia.

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Joe Pye weed was flowering during my visit, doing its job of attracting swallowtail butterflies. It was a hot, overcast morning and I was grateful for the golf cart that Anthony drove us around in, though usually I would have resisted being separated from the landscape.

Carolina Memorial Sanctuary began as an offshoot from founder Caroline Yongue's work with the Center for End of Life Transitions. “Helping people prepare for death and assisting with afterdeath care showed me we were missing a vital element in Western North Carolina: a way to deal with the body that was environmentally friendly and would allow loved ones to participate,” Caroline said to me in an email. The Sanctuary is on land once owned by a Unity church which sits on the border. The church wanted a cemetery but didn't want to run one. The conservation burial ground is open to the public of all faiths. Burial can be in a biodegradable casket or simply a shroud, and families may participate in opening and closing the grave. “It’s not necessarily rustic, it’s just natural--not polished but very welcoming and comforting,” says Caroline. 

 photo by  Dan Bailey  via  Carolina Memorial Sanctuary

photo by Dan Bailey via Carolina Memorial Sanctuary

One of those buried on the grounds is an artist and teacher. He had cancer when he bought his plot, one of the first to do so at the Sanctuary. He decided to stop his treatments and "move on." Before burying his body his art students painted his body with colored clay.

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"We are still fairly young in terms of our time spent on this project," says Anthony, "but we are working towards building a public park made of native landscapes that is also a peaceful and natural place for reflection, grief processing, and dignified burial of friends and loved ones."

Being a new burial ground Carolina Memorial Sanctuary hasn't buried many bodies yet, but it has sold over 130 plots, including pets and humans, full-body and cremains.

One of those plots holds the cremains of a man who had his ashes scattered in places around the world, but wanted a last bit saved for burial in the Sanctuary. I can see why; it's exciting to think of one's remains becoming part of a newly growing landscape, actively tended by ardent naturalists.

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