Maryrest, my first green burial cemetery.

Ann at the Saint Francis of Assisi green burial section at Maryrest Cemetery, Mahwah NJ   Photo Credit: Tom Bailey  

Ann at the Saint Francis of Assisi green burial section at Maryrest Cemetery, Mahwah NJ  Photo Credit: Tom Bailey  

Green Burial Naturally did not spring full-blown from my mind. The idea was an afterthought; I'd spent ten years with my husband Tom Bailey traveling on a sailboat, writing and taking photographs for sailing magazines, until in 2010 we returned to the US to try to get my aging parents out of the big house they raised me in and into different housing. As the time home expanded I looked for topics to write about and an internet search on recycling came up with the term "green burial." It was unfamiliar. With nothing else exciting on the horizon I began research.

I'd spent virtually no time in cemeteries of any kind and to get a feel for them we toured a half-dozen conventional cemeteries within easy reach in northern New Jersey then headed for the only nearby green burial cemetery in Mahwah. Maryrest is a Catholic cemetery with a dedicated green burial section. It's a hybrid cemetery because it incorporates both green and conventional burial.

The day was cold and clear. Maryrest's small hillside site is stuffed into a semi-rural community near the Ramapo Mountains. Like many odd-sounding New Jersey town names, Mahwah is a derivation of a Lenape word and means “place where paths meet.” We approached the gate diffidently but when no one challenged us sailed on in. 

Tom and I have now visited a hundred cemeteries but back then I was intimidated. What etiquette should I follow? Walk on graves or not walk on graves? Speak softly? Would people know we didn't belong there?  

My information packet for Maryrest didn’t include a map and as it was Sunday no one was around to answer questions. We followed the cemetery road through manicured lawns filled with orderly rows of polished granite headstones, looking for something that might be green burial. As a Catholic convert I can be buried in a Catholic cemetery. The rows of anonymous stones, curiously uniform in size and close together, called to my anti-class sense but were blah aesthetically. This made the contrast even greater when we stumbled upon the green burial section in a cut-off vale of ground beside a busy highway. On the flat above a quarter-acre of raggedy but pleasing woods was a wooden gazebo with wind chimes playing in the gusty winter wind. We parked on the cemetery road, climbed out into the freezing air and crossed a brown grass strip (natural burial discourages fertilizer or pesticide use by groundskeepers) to look down where falling trees had been left to lie, crisscrossed in a wild tangle.

I felt a breath of magic rush over me. It was a misbegotten place in some ways yet the idea that someone had been recently buried per their instructions in a tangle of anonymous trees rather than under trimmed grass was so antithetical to the rows of grey headstones behind me that I shivered. The wind chimes tinkled. Bird feeders hung empty of seed, the birds gone. A huge truck blatted up Route 287. But people lay below me unmarked and returning to nature. Along the berm we found a few boulders with names inscribed on them that appeared to be markers for the natural burials below. The hair rose on the back of my neck and it wasn’t from the cold. Something different than anything I’d contemplated lay below me.

I found out later that the graves were not in the woods but on the berm but that didn't cut into the sense that we'd stumbled upon something revolutionary; something I wanted for myself. On subsequent visits to Maryrest more names had been carved into the boulders. 

Maryrest began the quest that ended in compiling The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide. Like my introduction to green burial the name Green Burial Naturally is pure happenstance; when I needed to set up a website green burial was already taken. So I added what came Naturally.