Hybrid cemetery

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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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.