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.