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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Should natural burial grave markers be subject to standards?

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve  photos by Tom Bailey

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve  photos by Tom Bailey

Humans probably have marked the graves of their dead for as long as they've lived in social groups, but the rise of massive cemetery headstones occurred only in the last couple centuries in America. It's easy to evoke an image of a modern cemetery with just a few strokes; green grass and upright stones or elaborate statues carved from stone and engraved and you know what it is.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to memorialize a loved one or to be memorialized yourself. Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions for creating his tombstone, including engraving three accomplishments "because by these," he explained, "as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

We don't use polished granite or marble headstones in memory of people in green or natural burial grounds. It's not that rock isn't green, though one could argue that engraving uses energy. It's that we're creating a new landscape--meadow or forest usually--not something that looks like a cemetery, though that word means simply a piece of ground where burials are made, and we imbue it with our own concept of what it should look like. We are recycling ourselves back into nature and becoming a part of it.

According to the Green Burial Council which sets standards and certifies cemeteries, "Natural and conservation cemeteries must develop a plan for limiting the types, sizes, and visibility of memorial markers/features to preserve or restore naturalistic vistas in the cemetery landscape." 

Yet I was disturbed on recent tours of green burial cemeteries along the East Coast by the proliferation of large stones with elaborate engravings.

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

All the cemeteries I visited and those in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide put constraints on the kind of marker that's allowed on graves. Individual grave markers are usually limited to local stone that fits the landscape, must lay flat, not be polished or machine cut to shape. A few cemeteries impose size limits; Narrow Ridge Natural Burial Preserve in Washburn, Tennessee calls for grave markers of modest size, and at Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park in Austin, Texas markers must be less than 2 feet across. At Kokosing Nature Preserve in Gambier, Ohio graves are distinguished by unobtrusive markers. What struck me was how visible even a grave marker that fits the parameters can be.

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Is this a problem? Isn't stone natural, especially if it was dug up in the cemetery anyway? A hundred years from now when a natural burial cemetery has become a forest will it detract if someone walking through the forest sees gravestones? Won't it in fact be kind of neat?

Green Hills Cemetery

Green Hills Cemetery

People sometimes perceive antipathy among green burial cemeteries to memorials. I think it's important to let people mark graves. Yet after visiting cemetery after cemetery, the size and number of objects began to worry me. Often I got caught up in bending over stones to see what they said and realized at the end that I hardly noticed the landscape that was being so lovingly created. Is the instinct to mark our passing through this world becoming mixed up with a human instinct towards grandiosity? Not everywhere, and not everyone, but natural burial actually doesn't look natural. In 20 years or so when there's nothing left of a body underground, what's the point of a personalized stone if the meadow or forest is the true memorial?

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

One solution cemeteries have come up with is to prohibit markers on individual graves and go for group memorials. This is especially relevant where a burial ground is attempting to create a new landscape and prohibiting human traffic is part of the strategy for getting plants going or preserving the look of the place; this is often seen with meadows.

Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana doesn't permit individual grave markers and has erected a memorial wall with spaces for families to record the names of their dead and locate their graves in the section.

Cemeteries may designate such areas as "non-visitation," and anyone burying there is aware of the limitations. The Preserve at All Saints in Waterford, Michigan has both visitation and non-visitation sections, and non-visitation burials may be inscribed on a stone memorial wall. Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey, doesn't allow individual's graves in the Saint Francis of Assisi natural section to be marked but their names are inscribed on scattered boulders.

Steelmantown Cemetery

Steelmantown Cemetery

There's something to be said for uniformity, like Catholic cemeteries which limit the size of headstones in their conventional cemeteries as a way to indicate that all are equal in death. Truly small stones big enough to list the name and dates of the dead would allow for memorialization but not make the oh-so-human statement of "Here I am!"

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

 

 

Cool Spring--A Natural Cemetery

Chapel at Cool Spring Natural Cemetery  photos by Tom Bailey

Chapel at Cool Spring Natural Cemetery  photos by Tom Bailey

Cool Spring--what a lovely name for the last cemetery on the homeward leg of a tour of southern natural and green burial cemeteries....

Cool Spring Natural Cemetery is a 54-acre Roman Catholic Cemetery, open to all and operated by the Cistercian monks of the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, 65 miles west of Washington, DC. By the time we reached it, I had visited many hybrid cemeteries but only a handful of standalone natural burial grounds. Their rarer nature is a good argument for encouraging hybrids as a way to expose more people to the concept.

The road to Cool Spring winds along the Shenandoah River before heading uphill past shaded homes and emerging into the sun along corn fields. For much of the day we had driven through farmland, thinking as we went how crazy it would be for America not to support this Eastern model of farming with smaller farms, so unlike industrial farming in the big Western landscape. We pulled into a parking lot overlooking a patchwork of yellow and green land, a vegetation belt which hid the river at the base of long slopes, and a soaring outdoor chapel that invited visitors to meditate or rest after visiting the cemetery.

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I had contacted the cemetery to announce our visit and after parking we entered woods where the burial section called "Woodland Rest" is crowded with graves protected by the trees, marked with stones and curious naked metal stakes.

Woodland rest was pleasant but we had seen similar forested grounds elsewhere. So we followed a dirt lane past a sign to "Blue Ridge Meadow" and emerged into sunshine at the top of a rounded hill covered in long grass with at its base a disused barn and silo. Everything was soaked in a golden light. 

"Wow! Glad we saved this for last," said Tom.

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A trail followed the ridge at the tree line then carved downhill in spokes, like a bicycle wheel or sun rays. Flowers had spread throughout and a water meadow peeked through hedgerows before the river. I walked as many of the spokes as I could. Insects flew from the grass to greet me. There were graves EVERYWHERE. How do they do it? I wondered. A number of graves held two people, their last earthly shared home with a fabulous view, double mounded and grass covered, marked by rounded engraved gravestones and, irritatingly, those metal stakes. It was a treasure hunt in the tall grass and I didn't want to miss a grave though it was hot trudging uphill and down. Beyond the unseen Shenandoah lay the Blue Ridge Mountains for which the meadow is named. Above the ridge trail a simple wooden hermitage house with a porch tucked back into the woods is used by the monks for solitude and prayer.

 
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Cool Spring is aptly named a "natural cemetery." While often used as a general description of burial without embalming or vaults, in a shroud or biodegradable casket, natural also defines the second level of green burial after hybrid. 

According to the Green Burial Council which sets standards most green cemeteries adhere to whether they seek certification or not, a natural burial cemetery must be "designed, operated and maintained to produce a naturalistic appearance, based on use of plants and materials native to the region, and patterns of landscape derived from and compatible with regional ecosystems." As opposed to hybrids which are created within existing conventional cemeteries, they start out as natural burial cemeteries and end up creating whole land concepts either by restoring or rebuilding distressed places or maintaining existing landscapes.

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Cool Spring graves are fairly pricey as such cemeteries go but it obviously hasn't deterred customers, which belies the emphasis often given on cost as a reason to go green/natural. The integrity of the meadow setting is aided by the use of flat engraved river stones as markers, like these set out by the cemetery as examples, but this effect is marred by the 3-foot metal whips stuck upright in the ground at many of the graves. We found this at Green Hills in Asheville as well. Such intrusive markers are antithetical to the idea of letting graves be part of a natural landscape.

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Maybe it won't matter to me once I'm dead where my body lies, but I do like to contemplate beforehand and the idea of being someplace beautiful sure beats alternatives. As my husband said, Cool Spring isn't super-rustic, it has dignity and a beautiful setting for all its being in the country. I wouldn't choose to go as far from home as Virginia but if someone really wanted to bury me there I wouldn't object.

Synergy--home funerals and green burials

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Sometimes synergy manifests out of nowhere yet when it's examined, you see roots you missed before everything was pulled together.

Over the past year as I've reached out to sell The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide the market I thought would be there for it--cemeteries and funeral homes--never materialized. Instead, energy and excitement generated from an unexpected quarter: alternative afterdeath caregivers.

Anne Jungerman, home funeral guide and inspiration for Tulocay Cemetery's green burial project; Veronica, my roommate; and me, at the NHFA conference.

Anne Jungerman, home funeral guide and inspiration for Tulocay Cemetery's green burial project; Veronica, my roommate; and me, at the NHFA conference.

I understood quickly why these caregivers would be an appropriate audience; they could use the guide in their work, and cemeteries, though I thought they would put the book in their public spaces for bragging rights, wouldn't necessarily spread the word about other natural burial cemeteries.  

But it wasn't until the National Home Funeral Alliance biennial conference that I understood the profound connection between natural/home funeral care and natural/green burial.

It took my father's death for it to sink in that burial or cremation alone doesn't constitute afterdeath care. What happens between death and disposal (an unlovely term that encompasses both the above options)? 

By not talking about it our death-phobic culture has lost the language to define what happens after death. Because of this, the most foolproof way to get from death to disposition is to call your local funeral home, though even this act becomes difficult for someone who hasn't thought anything about death--where IS the local funeral home and do I just call up?

What will the funeral home do? It'll pick up the body and transport it to premises where it can be prepared for cremation, or washed, embalmed, made-up, dressed, laid out in a chosen casket, and driven to the cemetery for burial. Paperwork will be filed, a funeral ceremony designed and executed. All for a fee--you can argue the fee is too high but not argue that like any American business, the funeral home needs a profit to survive.

It makes sense to a green burial advocate that someone choosing green burial would want their body handled through this phase in an appropriate way and not embalmed before joining the earth. 

For those who address death ahead of time, the conventional route can be exited at some point or bypassed entirely. This is where home funeral guides come in. (I'm not talking here about death doulas, whose alternative to conventional care starts before death.) Home funeral guides help families arrange things after death so that some or all of the tasks are under their control. This may not be for everyone; the thought of physically caring for my father's body after his death didn't appeal, though I could imagine getting to that point myself, perhaps with my husband's body. My father was left in the care of a funeral director who is a strong advocate for green burial, and had the facilities to wash, keep him without embalming, to shroud him and transport him to the burial ground.

NHFA board for the new biennium.

NHFA board for the new biennium.

Yet these are actions that throughout human history have been performed by family or community, and we have allowed to become institutionalized. The NHFA website lists guides who will "work to empower families and friends to care for their own dead...The NHFA believes that families and friends can and should do as much as they are able, because this is what is most natural and healing."

The atmosphere at the conference was electric with caring, healing, excitement about the work of the caregivers and the supporters and advocates. This energy drew me into recognizing a conundrum: After caring for a dead body in a natural way are you really going to want to bury it in a conventional manner? Doubtful. An obvious alternative to conventional burial is cremation, but cremation is often a default solution as it's pretty readily available. If you don't want to burn up the body you've cared for in life and death, green or natural burial is the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, it's not readily available everywhere. I put together the cemetery guidebook because information on green burial cemeteries is time-consuming to track down. As a society we are no better informed about our cemeteries than we are about funeral homes and for the same reason. Home funeral guides who want to help families carry through the process to this conclusion need to have access to knowledge about it ahead of time. The Green Burial Council is also an excellent place to find out more information. If you know where cemeteries are, you can educate yourself on what their options really mean. A grieving family is unlikely to stumble upon green burial without prior knowledge. A home funeral guide in possession of options--and preferably with connections to make them happen locally--can best serve clients right to the end. 

 

In Raleigh, a Historic Oakwood Cemetery

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The last few decades have added green burial as a reason to choose a particular cemetery, along with location, family and looks. Maybe you're in the envious position of being near several green burial options. If one is a dedicated natural or conservation cemetery wouldn't you just choose that? Not necessarily. Even couples see things differently; take Robin Simonton and her husband.

Robin is executive director of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina and she purchased a plot in her own hybrid cemetery with a dedicated section called Mordecai's Meadow within the conventional grounds. Her husband wants to be buried in a nearby cemetery that has a separate natural burial section in the woods, across a pond from the conventional cemetery. Both are valid green burial options. For Robin, ties to Historic Oakwood outweigh the lure of greater levels of natural.

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Historic Oakwood's entrance is in a lovely old city neighborhood of Victorian houses. A granite gate gives onto the grounds near the site where the cemetery's presidents are buried. We drove in on a misty-cool summer morning and were met by Robin, who led us down narrow cemetery lanes with her little car looking like a bucking bronco from the back as we tried to keep up.

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Mordecai's Meadow is at the edge of the cemetery, bordered by a street. A tall hedge hides traffic and houses. Robin plans to add more plant cover but if one is looking for "natural" this is not it. Yet what strikes me standing on the grassy rectangle is that asking to be buried here is a conscious move to follow the principles of green--to really make sure your body is not inhibited from decomposing back into the earth, and that you take very little "bad" stuff to the grave. You're saying, "I like this cemetery but I don't agree with the general policies on burial vaults, caskets, embalming. Show me what else you can do." 

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When I asked Robin how the cemetery got started with green burial she credited neighbors with opening up the conversation. People who live along the street opposite the hedge have supported the cemetery's move to develop Mordecai's Meadow; many bought plots in a row under the hedge in the order of their houses. The name Mordecai pays tribute to the original landowners of this peaceful urban cemetery.

Robin has about 143 usable plots (trees and rocks render some areas unusable) with room to expand into a nearby section. She wants to work the kinks out. It's not a forest or a true meadow; she's constrained in how she lanscapes by a board that is skeptical about the upkeep of native plants. Not much money is available; green burial helps keep the cemetery going, as it does at other cemeteries I've visited, but Historic Oakwood performs 5 burials per week in the conventional section, a pretty good rate. Robin has to work within the budget and policy constraints of the cemetery board whose goals often differ from the benefits of green burial. She did her homework before trying to sell the concept; calling in experts and making sure she understood herself what it entails.

Like many cemeterians I have met, Robin expends alot of emotional energy on each green burial. Partly this is because family and friends are vested in the proceedings, and also because green burial requires more hands-on guidance than conventional burial. Robin attends each green burial and was startled at her first shroud burial to realize how little separated this body from the living, and how little it affected the mourners, who crowded close and stayed around rather than splitting immediately. Mordecai's Meadow's most recent interment is a young man who committed suicide; his parents heard about green burial and sought it out for him. It's his plastic flowers in this picture.

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Robin has sold over 60 plots. One customer wanting to purchase next to a famous person will eventually be laid to rest near a locally known chef. "She'll cook for all of us," said Robin. The chef's plot is also near Robin's, situated where she and I stand in the photo. (I don't say anything about her modesty as a pioneer in green burial.) She doesn't figure on burying her eventual neighbors, as they should have many years left on earth. 

Robin believes that green burial is a viable concept for Historic Oakwood Cemetery, that it fits with the organization's goals, especially that of offering customer alternatives. Green burial is a way for ecologically conscious people to give a bit back to the environment at their end. 

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Should natural cemeteries accept urns that include tree seedlings?

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Natural burial cemeteries are about a natural landscape and the trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, and animals that make it. But is that landscape created from plantings on graves?

I recently received a question from Isabelle Bolla at Bios Urn: "Does your book discuss places biodegradable urns can be buried? I know some green burial locations permit it, while others do not."

While I concentrate on full body burial and not cremains in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide, it was an interesting question because a Bios Urn is more than just a biodegradable urn; it's designed to turn the ashes of a person or pet into a tree. "Thanks to its design and manufacture, the urn provides proper germination and aids in growing a tree with a person or pet’s ashes."* The answer to Isabelle's question lies in whether a cemetery allows outside plantings.

I collected information from virtually all cemeteries in the US that practice natural burial to create the guide and this information allows me to see trends in many practical aspects, including planting policy. While regulations vary considerably the majority of cemeteries that do allow shrubs, trees or flowers on graves usually keep a list of acceptable plants. This is especially true where land is being restored or a particular landscape created, such as meadow or forest, though many of these don't permit customers to do planting of any kind.

Isabelle's question came not long before my second natural burial cemetery tour, so I took the opportunity of asking cemeterians whether they accepted urns containing seedlings. The first answer surprised me.

"What if the tree dies?" said Robin Simonton, executive director of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina. "How sad is it for the family to see that?" 

Sad for the family, and a potential nightmare for the cemetery. If a plant dies, who has responsibility? The cemetery clearly does if its staff plant and maintain the landscape. "Plantings as decoration are permitted with written approval," says Historic Oakwood's green burial guidelines. "Plantings are allowed from a list of noninvasive species native to the area" at Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, North Carolina. "A native tree or wildflower may be planted on certain sites but must coincide with overall restoration goals" at Greenhaven Preserve in Eastover, South Carolina. If one of these cemetery-approved, family-planted trees dies, does the cemetery have to replace it? Even if families are told they are responsible for watering and maintenance, in our litiginous society will they refrain from going after the cemetery? Wildwood Cemetery (a conventional cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania) says it is not responsible for watering any plantings or for deer damage. How does that work?

It is surprising how few cemeteries don't allow plantings. Almost alone is Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana, which stipulates "No decorations of any kind are permitted in the natural burial area. No trees or shrubs may be planted and no other plants seeded or set out on the graves." Greensprings Natural Burial Preserve in Ithaca, New York forbids any planting of trees and shrubs in its meadow areas but allows approved grasses and wildflowers. Even this is chancy, as Greensprings is attempting to cull non-native invasive perennials.

Other cemeterians I talked to expressed similar concern about being stuck with nurturing trees or other plants. Some, like Carolina Memorial Sanctuary in Mills River, North Carolina, which started out allowing planting of approved native plants are becoming stricter. Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, completely controls planting, which is decided on and done on plans by an advisor. Isabelle says Bios Urn encourages native plants but that's not the same thing as requiring an urn to conform to a cemetery's requirements, and regional differences as well as cemetery landscape preferences vary considerably. Bios Urn lists 6 pretty generic tree options for North America, Europe, South America and Asia on its website and I would bet that any of them might be considered non-native somewhere.

Bios Urn clearly offers customers the option of including their own seed and cemeteries could ask that urn companies consult with them but that adds a layer of complexity and work for places which don't necessarily have the extra time or interest to do that. The easiest solution might be to ban plantings and avoid the issue entirely, or as do Preble Memory Gardens in West Alexandria, Ohio and Mound Cemetery in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, encourage families to donate plants or trees to be planted in the cemetery in memory of their dead but considered property of the cemetery.

* https://urnabios.com/

Why don't all cemeteries have signs on their natural burial sections?

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve near Schenectady, NY photo by Tom Bailey

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve near Schenectady, NY photo by Tom Bailey

Green burial sections of hybrid cemeteries are generally lovely places. Why are they reluctant to put up signs?

I recently visited seven cemeteries on a two-day tour up the Hudson River. Though all are in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide, they are too far from home for individual day trips and my contact had been from a distance. Would it be overwhelming to see so many in a short time? Too much like If It's Monday this must be Schenectady? As it turned out, the back-to-back visits provided a perspective I wouldn't otherwise have gained.

All seven are what's known as hybrid cemeteries--working burial grounds that opened green burial sections. The sections vary in size from a few rows of plots to several acres, and most have room to expand. Why then aren't they all well advertised? Is it lack of marketing instinct?

According to Dick Hermance, cemeterian at Rosendale Cemetery in Tillson, New York, his green burials, divided between meadow and woods, outsell conventional graves. "Our green burial section is keeping the conventional cemetery alive," says Dick. Many of his customers who would seek conventional burial are choosing cremation instead. As seen here, Dick's green sections are well marked. When you visit Rosendale, an otherwise unremarkable municipal cemetery, there's no mistaking the burial options.

The meadows in Albany diocesan cemeteries Most Holy Redeemer (top photo) and St. Michael's Meadow at Calvary Cemetery are attractive and the diocese has no problem with making their presence prominent.

But another diocesan cemetery, this one St. Peter's Cemetery in Saratoga Springs, does not sign its meadow, though the brick apron which overlooks the meadow would be a logical place for a sign. It even has a lovely name--Peaceful Meadows Natural Burial Ground.

 

In Schenectady we visited Vale Cemetery, tucked into a rundown neighborhood and connected by a bike path to a large municipal park. Together they provide well-used green space for city dwellers. Here a prominent sign beside the path announces birding opportunities. Directly in front is The Dell, Vale's ample and well-designed green burial section along the banks of a gently-sloping basin abutting woods that separate off the park. Sign for it? Nope. I wrote to Bernard McEvoy, vice president of the cemetery, who replied "A sign for the Dell at Vale is being made up." They get about an inquiry a week, which is pretty good, but considering the section opened in 2013 one might be excused for thinking a good sign from the beginning would have helped bring in more business than the "8 lots sold and had 2 burials there."

Fultonville's green burial section, uphill and beside the historical cemetery, is labelled only with the letter E, its section designation on the cemetery map.  

Capping the trip was a visit to the Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery and its 2-acre Natural Burial Ground set back on a lane into woods well-marked by a carved sign.

Developing a natural burial ground requires work. It also needs vision, because land dedicated this way is unavailable for conventional burial and even with room to expand, space in these seven cemeteries is not infinite. 

Despite increasing visibility for green burial and its providers the Green Burial Council is the only organization with a large presence. It certifies providers, offers education and advocacy, and announces when cemeteries and businesses achieve certification but marketing help is not one of its missions. It's not a trade group.

Conventional cemeteries and funeral directors have trade organizations with overlap for green burial/green funeral providers. Some of this is a numbers game; as with anything you need enough bodies willing to go to meetings and lend a hand. Getting help from organizations with roots in the business could take more efforts to show that green burial can help them prosper, not simply hurt their business.