Sunny Markham and her daughter Chrysta Bell Zucht are using green burial to create Countryside Memorial Park, a new cemetery around a handful of historic graves in Texas ranch land a half-hour east of San Antonio.
I visited Countryside in June with my husband Tom Bailey, winding through creek-drained green land past where a dead horse was being lifted off the side of the road, to a pretty stretch with a grove of trees on one side opposite open land surrounded by a fence with a sign saying "Beall Cemetery Est. 1854." Sunny and her cousin Susan Everidge, who used to work in the funeral home business and is now burial coordinator for Countryside, met us at the entrance. Sunny and I spoke when I set up Countryside's entry for The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide but this was our first meeting face-to-face.
I form mental pictures from descriptions of cemeteries but reality takes on its own charm. Green burial cemeteries vary significantly. In the guidebook the descriptive section and stories of how they came about are the most popular parts. With these visits Tom adds to our stock of photos.
Countryside Memorial Park is on land purchased by Sunny's husband and now in Chrysta Bell's name. He found graves in the grass belonging to a burial ground for early settlers, a type often called a pioneer cemetery found in many western states. When he died Sunny, a Breast Health Teacher and Massage Therapist and Chrysta Bell, a musician, followed on his wishes to set the cemetery up for green burial.
Certification labels originally created by the Green Burial Council are widely used for defining green burial cemeteries, yet they don't really cover cemeteries like Countryside which begin from a historic kernel that is no longer active. Hybrid, a conventional working cemetery offering green burial as an option either in individual graves scattered on the property or in a separate section, doesn't fit here. The essence of "green" is the same whether a cemetery is hybrid, natural or conservation. The historic graves are probably old enough at Countryside to have no embalming with toxic chemicals and no burial vault concrete or otherwise. Burial is available in a shroud or casket made of biodegradable non-toxic materials, and there's limited use of heavy equipment and pesticides for landscaping. No conventional burial is practiced here; Sunny stressed that, and was concerned that early on they allowed a few polished headstones.
Natural cemeteries go further to develop a new burial ground and create or preserve a landscape, either forest or meadow, but Countryside is somewhere in between. In springtime Countryside's 1.5 acres are clearly meadow, covered in wildflowers, though in early summer it was hot in the sun, rain was less and the grass browned off around a new grave (this is the natural cycle for the region; a conventional lawn cemetery would have to irrigate to keep grass green).
This small acreage is really not enough to create a new landscape even with room to expand sideways.
Like other green burial cemeterians, Sunny takes a personal interest in what's included on her property. Here she's propping up a statue of St. Francis of Assisi which someone had set near the tree's base. It's in the non-standard kernel that contributes to the burial ground's character.
The names on the historic grave markers under the old oak trees are versions of Chrysta's name--Beall, Bell--but there's no relationship.
Three hundred plots have been surveyed, and Countryside has 8 full-body recent green burials along with cremains and the historic burials for about 2 dozen all together. The newest graves are along the front fence and not under the old oaks. The land is mowed to maintain the meadow and fenced to keep out the neighborhood cattle.
Each grave is surveyed and given GPS coordinates. Going forward people who want markers may include a flat fieldstone. Sunny is learning to engrave them, which will add one more personal touch to this green burial ground. If you live in Texas or visit San Antonio and are interested in green burial, consider going to Countryside. Like me, you'll find green burial comes alive at the places that offer it.
photos used in this essay are courtesy of Tom Bailey, Sunny Markham and Susan Everidge.