Historic Oakwood Cemetery

Pine Forest--More than Clark Wang's resting place

All photos in this article are by   TOM BAILEY

All photos in this article are by TOM BAILEY

Travelling to new cemeteries is always an adventure, even when I bring my copy of The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide which I have been known to forget. Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest, a half-hour from Durham, North Carolina, was no exception. Tom and I had to wend our way through quiet suburban streets to find it. Luckily it was a damp, overcast morning, before the summer heat made its way into the day.

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Pine Forest is a newish conventional cemetery that's certified by the Green Burial Council as a natural burial ground, with a woods parcel on the far side of a pond dedicated to green burial. Most people would recognize the cemetery as the resting place of Clark Wang, the subject of
A Will for the Woods, an iconoclastic documentary of the movement. But manager Dyanne Matzkevitch seemed puzzled that people think it came about just because of Clark. When I asked her if he had been the inspiration, she said yes but "We buried people there before he died."

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Nevertheless, the way to reach the Garden of Renewal is via the Path of Clark's Reflection, which wends its way between the pond and a dense woods where a standpipe draining the pond sizzles the air with the sound of running water. 

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My first meeting with Dyanne was at a screening of the documentary in New York City. At first encounter I wouldn't have pegged her as a natural burial advocate, but then I'm not sure anyone I've met in the field would pass as an archetype. Like most natural burial cemeterians Dyanne is dedicated to her work and her vision. She has gone slower than instinct tells her because skeptical owners think her odd for her passion, and are reluctant to expand until they see how it goes. Dyanne jumps at the chance to emphasize, as others have done to me, that with cremation on the rise, it's really green burial that's helping to save full body burial as a cemetery option. Natural burial is actually alot more work than conventional; funeral homes often don't know how to play their part, and sometimes people want to do it themselves, which is difficult. It's also, she says, a more emotional experience.

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My first and lasting impression of Dyanne's woods was of lots of burials, many of the mounds more fancifully decorated than might be expected for natural burial but a surprising percentage of burials here, both natural and conventional, are of children. The Garden of Renewal is also a way of preserving land that the cemetery owns.

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Clark's grave is marked by a stone engraved with a feather and "A will for the woods." He was only 50 when he died, a psychiatrist diagnosed with lymphoma who decided to take control of his afterdeath disposition and chose green burial. At the time there were no such options available to him. In answer to his plea for green burial space Dyanne opened her garden, and in the two years until his death, buried a number of bodies and sold plots. Between then and now she has patiently leant a hand to others in the area starting up green burial, especially Robin Simonton, who credits her with helping when she developed Mordecai's Meadow in Historic Oakwood Cemetery in downtown Raleigh.

Beside the door of the cemetery office are a number of small, engraved stones ready to go on burial plots. Their smallness, Dyanne says, encourages people to be creative.

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There are also ducks and geese in mixed flocks that call the cemetery grounds home.

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The woods are a lush place, a cool damp resting spot where a more recent burial than Clark's bears the inscription, "I went to the woods."

The woods are a lush place, a cool damp resting spot where a more recent burial than Clark's bears the inscription, "I went to the woods."

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In Raleigh, a Historic Oakwood Cemetery

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The last few decades have added green burial as a reason to choose a particular cemetery, along with location, family and looks. Maybe you're in the envious position of being near several green burial options. If one is a dedicated natural or conservation cemetery wouldn't you just choose that? Not necessarily. Even couples see things differently; take Robin Simonton and her husband.

Robin is executive director of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina and she purchased a plot in her own hybrid cemetery with a dedicated section called Mordecai's Meadow within the conventional grounds. Her husband wants to be buried in a nearby cemetery that has a separate natural burial section in the woods, across a pond from the conventional cemetery. Both are valid green burial options. For Robin, ties to Historic Oakwood outweigh the lure of greater levels of natural.

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Historic Oakwood's entrance is in a lovely old city neighborhood of Victorian houses. A granite gate gives onto the grounds near the site where the cemetery's presidents are buried. We drove in on a misty-cool summer morning and were met by Robin, who led us down narrow cemetery lanes with her little car looking like a bucking bronco from the back as we tried to keep up.

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Mordecai's Meadow is at the edge of the cemetery, bordered by a street. A tall hedge hides traffic and houses. Robin plans to add more plant cover but if one is looking for "natural" this is not it. Yet what strikes me standing on the grassy rectangle is that asking to be buried here is a conscious move to follow the principles of green--to really make sure your body is not inhibited from decomposing back into the earth, and that you take very little "bad" stuff to the grave. You're saying, "I like this cemetery but I don't agree with the general policies on burial vaults, caskets, embalming. Show me what else you can do." 

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When I asked Robin how the cemetery got started with green burial she credited neighbors with opening up the conversation. People who live along the street opposite the hedge have supported the cemetery's move to develop Mordecai's Meadow; many bought plots in a row under the hedge in the order of their houses. The name Mordecai pays tribute to the original landowners of this peaceful urban cemetery.

Robin has about 143 usable plots (trees and rocks render some areas unusable) with room to expand into a nearby section. She wants to work the kinks out. It's not a forest or a true meadow; she's constrained in how she lanscapes by a board that is skeptical about the upkeep of native plants. Not much money is available; green burial helps keep the cemetery going, as it does at other cemeteries I've visited, but Historic Oakwood performs 5 burials per week in the conventional section, a pretty good rate. Robin has to work within the budget and policy constraints of the cemetery board whose goals often differ from the benefits of green burial. She did her homework before trying to sell the concept; calling in experts and making sure she understood herself what it entails.

Like many cemeterians I have met, Robin expends alot of emotional energy on each green burial. Partly this is because family and friends are vested in the proceedings, and also because green burial requires more hands-on guidance than conventional burial. Robin attends each green burial and was startled at her first shroud burial to realize how little separated this body from the living, and how little it affected the mourners, who crowded close and stayed around rather than splitting immediately. Mordecai's Meadow's most recent interment is a young man who committed suicide; his parents heard about green burial and sought it out for him. It's his plastic flowers in this picture.

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Robin has sold over 60 plots. One customer wanting to purchase next to a famous person will eventually be laid to rest near a locally known chef. "She'll cook for all of us," said Robin. The chef's plot is also near Robin's, situated where she and I stand in the photo. (I don't say anything about her modesty as a pioneer in green burial.) She doesn't figure on burying her eventual neighbors, as they should have many years left on earth. 

Robin believes that green burial is a viable concept for Historic Oakwood Cemetery, that it fits with the organization's goals, especially that of offering customer alternatives. Green burial is a way for ecologically conscious people to give a bit back to the environment at their end. 

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Should natural cemeteries accept urns that include tree seedlings?

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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.

* https://urnabios.com/