Green Burial Council

Duck Run is for ducks and humans.

photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey

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The 113 acres that hold Duck Run Natural Cemetery are set in prosperous Virginia farmland in the beginnings of the Shenandoah River Valley, overlooked by the Alleghenies, Massanutten Peak, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Duck Run is the brain child of Kenny Kyger, owner of Kyger Funeral Home, who approached the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors for permission to open a green burial cemetery after noting a trend in the funeral business. Duck Run is Virginia’s first natural cemetery certified by the Green Burial Council.

Tom and I arrived along with the first guests for a memorial service, and we tried to be discrete in the open landscape. We walked along the edge past bee hives and cornfields to the top of a hill where a bench invited me to take in the breeze and meditate on the view of fallow fields covered in wildflowers beyond the cemetery.

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A path of stones on the slope below the bench memorializes people whose ashes are scattered in the meadows. In the distance the gathering produced sounds of laughter and the glad sight of children running in the sun. People in summer clothes hauled tubs of food from their vehicles.

They gathered on the far shore of Duck Run's central feature--a large pond edged by cattails. Perhaps it was a watering hole for cattle when this was a broken down dairy farm, just old buildings and ruined foundations. Water makes a good rallying point for life--and death.

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We walked to the main buildings through an arbor where new grape vines are being trained. Everything planted here at Duck Run is edible, though sometimes this leads to tussles with the wildlife who also find it appealing.

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At the barn we found ducks gathered outside the front door waiting for Glenn Jennelle, Duck Run's general manager. Maintenance equipment fills the first floor but the loft is a sweet-smelling woodshop where biodegradable caskets suitable for natural burial will be built to sell through the funeral home. Glenn opened the loft doors and showed us how the property runs to the far corners of the corn fields. We peered down at the gathering of ducks.

"I raised them so I guess I'm their mother," Glenn says.

Glenn points out graves which are all but hidden in long grass. Kyger and Jennelle got the license to open a cemetery in 2012 and then spent two years figuring out just what they wanted. They didn't look at other burial grounds for fear of being tempted to copy before putting their own stamp on the place. One of their innovations is to offer both perpetual care lots and renewable lots, which revert back to the cemetery 75 years after burial. 

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Most customers so far have not been locals. They come from Richmond, from Maryland and the coast. The people moving below our vantage point are here for a memorial service for a guy who was buried two weeks ago. It was sad, Glenn said, there were no mourners. He was 51. At least he's getting a party now.

I remark on the river out of sight and Glenn sighs and breaks into my romance of the Shenandoah, taken from memories of the folk song "Oh Shenandoah" which I learned in elementary school. The river, he says, is incredibly polluted. DuPont released heavy metals in the 1930s and 40s from an upstream facility. Cows add to the problem with their manure and by stirring up contaminated sediment when they walk into the water.

Yet the light, the sense of space magnified by the grandeur of the mountains, makes this a place one would want to be buried in.

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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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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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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.

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. 

Labels don't tell all at Countryside Memorial Park.

Ranch road running alongside Countryside Memorial Park, La Vernia, Texas  photo by Tom Bailey

Ranch road running alongside Countryside Memorial Park, La Vernia, Texas photo by Tom Bailey

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). 

 
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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.

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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.

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photos used in this essay are courtesy of Tom Bailey, Sunny Markham and Susan Everidge.