Conservation

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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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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