Natural Burial

My father gets a gravestone.

photo by Tom Bailey

photo by Tom Bailey

This past August marked two years since my father's death and his natural burial at Steelmantown Cemetery. I was never comfortable with deciding on a stone to define his grave; sometimes resentful that the decision was being left to me, other times ambiguous about the wisdom of marking the spot at all. It would have been easier if I’d known his wishes but the question never came up before his death.

Then my brother and my niece and nephew came in from Texas wanting to visit the cemetery, full of enthusiasm. Kate missed the funeral and for the others, it was an opportunity to pay respects again. We drove down to south Jersey on a cool, cloudy day, very different from the intense heat of that other August. We've had a very wet summer and the woods look and sound different this time.

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I love the moss-covered paths at Steelmantown; the moss is like something laid by leprechauns or wood fairies, intensely green especially in cloudy light, and soft to the touch. My niece and nephew were enchanted, too. 

But the woods and winding moss-covered paths effectively hid my father's grave. Last year Tom and I set a small rock on as a place-holder. It was a distinctive stone--brick shaped and sized out of a creamy material. But the S-curves of trail all look alike. Ed keeps a book with the exact positions of graves but he wasn't there. Could the blueberry plants have grown enough, the leaf mould piled high enough, to hide the stone? Finally I realized that the Disney-effect of the curves made the place seem larger, and I had to head farther into the cemetery.

"Found it!" I yelled.

"Are you sure?"

"Yep." Luckily I had a phone photo to prove it; here's the curve in that tree, there's the two trunks across the path. This is it! 

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Kate had no idea what to expect, and it's fun to watch someone come to green burial for the first time. The mounded plots along the paths, the uncut stones marking chosen but unfilled graves, the birds flitting in the oaks, didn't jibe with her ideas of a cemetery. For her grandfather though, she realized, it was a good fit. 

Did we really almost lose his grave though? This time I agreed that a more definitive marker is necessary. Ed Bixby's assistants pile stones at the entrance to the cemetery paths, rocks dug up during trail making and grave digging, that can be used by families as grave markers. They fit the definition of "natural field stone" permitted by Steelmantown. 

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We chose a largish brownish stone already colonized by light-green lichen, and James wheeled it back to the grave in a wheelbarrow. Kate and James wanted it to stand up, but I think the forest will bring it down in the not too distant future.

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We piled little stones on top and patted it.

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"So what do you want to say on the stone?" I asked as we walked back toward the cemetery guide, for this is the number one question that kept me from finishing the marker. Choosing a stone is, well, kind of random. But setting words to it is public.

"How about Pa, engineer, father, grandfather, painter, husband," said Kate.

"How about Ed Hoffner, a pretty good man?"

Too many words!

"I'd be happy if it just said, 'Edward "Pa" Hoffner'," James admitted.

As for me, I like the lichen, and the fact that when the particles that made up my father's body are finally all scattered to the forest the unengraved stone would look like it had always been there.

I gave them the contact information for Ed's stone engraver. As of yet they haven't done anything about adding words. We do, however, have a gravestone.

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And the photographer gets photographed on the boardwalk at Ocean City (New Jersey!) after the cemetery trip.

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Death and cakes in Nyack.

Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom in Nyack, NY     all photos by Tom Bailey except where otherwise noted

Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom in Nyack, NY    all photos by Tom Bailey except where otherwise noted

It was a double pleasure to head off to Nyack, New York on a sunny August afternoon; first, I would be able to attend my third Death Cafe, and second I would visit Dying To Bloom, Kerry Potter-Kotecki's "Natural Burial Boutique," the only shop I know of that offers the chance to browse through and purchase objects of use or interest around green burial.

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I met Kerry at the National Home Funeral Alliance conference last September, where any image I had of a burial shopkeeper was pleasantly turned out. The common thread between us, as between everyone who reads this blog, is our interest in green burial and green funerals. We already knew each other through social media, and Kerry carries copies of The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide on her shop shelves. In her element she shone. Her success was obvious in the number of guests--two dozen men and women crowded her picturesque shop to talk death--and in the media representatives on hand. Members of WRCR AM radio, a representative from Oprah, and a summer intern for Science Friday came to gather ideas for stories and to support Kerry.

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Kerry opened her shop "because I am passionate about supporting Green Burial. We need to take an objective view of our current practices and consider what is best for our environment and our soul. To me the answer is simple - return to nature.

"The name Dying To Bloom started with a radio show I hosted to promote conversations about death and funeral/burial choices. Its dual meaning is literally dying to bloom as in natural burial, and as a symbol for taking advantage of the opportunities you have in life and to blossom before you die."   

Kerry grew up in Rockland County, a triangular-shaped designation that borders New Jersey and a long stretch of the Hudson. Nyack is on the western bank of the river, near the Tappan Zee Bridge. I know more about the eastern side of the bridge, which is where Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has Riverview Natural Burial Grounds. Nyack is built on the cliffs that line the western bank. 

"On a local level my shop just had to be in Nyack. it's an artsy, open-minded town with a creative vibe. There are artist studios, yoga studios, cafes, theaters and now a Natural Burial Boutique."

photo credit www.facebook.com/pg/Dyingtobloom

photo credit www.facebook.com/pg/Dyingtobloom

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Sooo--why a Death Cafe? As deathcafe.com says, "At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives."  

"I was actually slightly hesitant about holding my first Death Cafe because I did not want to frighten people away from my business. Ironically that is also why I decided I should host Death Cafes--they were started to alleviate fear and unease in discussions on death.  So far each meeting has been unique, respectful and inspiring!"

This was the seventh Death Cafe at Dying To Bloom and most people came wanting to talk about death in the crowded circle around caskets and candles. Each Death Cafe takes on the spirit and meaning of the people who happen to gather for that particular day, and a number of cancer survivors set an urgent, determined tone to the need to address after death care. Coupled with that were several young women whose eagerness wasn't colored by sadness. One of the questions that came up was how to get young people interested in natural burial, not always easy to do.

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Kerry's commitment to green burial goes beyond her shop to dreams of finding land in Rockland County for a green burial cemetery. She opened the Green Cemetery Fund through the Rockland Community Foundation to collect tax deductible donations. "Rockland has a large senior population. We are only 40 minutes from Manhattan and a cemetery here could serve the Tri-State area." 

On Kerry's counter, presided over by friends and family, including her daughter, sits a box inviting people to contribute to her dream. If you are interested in helping, go to http://www.rocklandgives.org/donationspage.html. The Green Cemetery Fund is listed there.

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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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My father joined an ecosystem at Steelmantown Cemetery.

photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey

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When my father died suddenly on an August day I was lucky to have an interest in green burial, acquaintance with Bob Prout (a local funeral director known by the New Jersey funeral industry as their green guru), and experience with Steelmantown Cemetery, a lovely natural burial ground in the southern part of the state. Driving my father two hours to be buried added unfortunate fossil fuel to the equation, but made sense because my mother's family lives just ten minutes away on the ocean side of the Garden State Parkway.

Ed Bixby bought Steelmantown after finding his infant brother's burial place in the overgrown and unwanted historic cemetery. He acquired another 8.5 acres of Pine Barrens and developed it all as a natural burial cemetery, where his Eco Trail winds through oak woods and connects to a section of Belleplain State Forest that had been landlocked.

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It was 92 degrees and just after midday when our funeral party arrived at Steelmantown. The air sang with heat as we gathered on the path; thirty people including mourners and Ed's gravediggers. Bob, wearing a tie, and Ed, in his boots, gathered us in.

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Bob suggested that I ask people to take their flowers out of the cellophane they were crinkling, then gave an eloquent synopsis of what would happen next.

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I was anxious how people would react to a shrouded body so I was grateful for his introduction. Then as a gravedigger and Ed took hold of the handles on the wagon-wheeled cart on which my father lay, covered in a flag and wildflowers, Bob suggested I help push from the back.

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So began the slow procession over the winding moss-covered path, lumpy with tree roots. The wagon wheels creaked out a melody and the sweat trickled down my back. We halted by a mound of dirt with shovels sticking out that covered the plot we purchased for my mother.

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I envisioned a natural burial as being loose and spontaneous, but Bob had prodded us into a structure for which I was grateful. It was capped by the military honor guard folding the flag and playing gorgeous taps while a Monarch butterfly looped restlessly over the open grave.

 

 

 

 

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Six people lowered my father's shrouded body in a big muslin cloth into the grave and let the muslin fall over him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took turns tossing flowers and pine boughs to join those that lined the grave bottom. Ed and his father passed out shovels. My 21-month-old grandnephew in his sun suit was so excited. "Big shovel," he cried out as he helped his mother throw in the sandy soil.

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I didn't speak myself, and as others read or told stories I let the sun filtering through the woods dry the sweat on my upturned face and I felt the listening weight of all those trees.

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It seemed much longer going back to the sheds with the empty cart.

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Ed piles fieldstones dug up from his property and we chose a long flat gray one that would reach across two side-by-side graves. Bob and his assistant were shedding their ties. I invited them all to join us at my cousin’s house for a meal but they wanted to get home before the end of weekend traffic rebuilt.

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That night I thought about a cousin who was buried just the weekend before in a conventional memorial park in a painted metal casket in a concrete vault under an Astroturf temporary covering — and I realized that my father was not alone.

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As soon as he went into the ground, he was joined by the beetles, the worms, the bacteria, tree roots. The night crickets and owls. The wild blueberries that had been pulled back to admit his body and would be replanted. It was an extraordinary realization that he had joined an ecosystem. And because he couldn't move it would come to him. It would recycle the nutrients in his flesh and bones and weave them into life.

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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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Ramsey Creek Preserve, America's first modern natural burial cemetery.

photos by Tom Bailey

photos by Tom Bailey

When Billy and Kimberley Campbell set out in the mid-1990s to develop Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina they were pioneers in the US, though Britain had already begun its woodland burial movement. Billy was inspired by two things: the amount of money and effort expended on his father's funeral and conventional burial, and the Spirit Forests of New Guinea which were said to be protected from hunting and logging by the spirits of the dead buried nearby. The Campbells bought a run-down 36-acre farm and turned their vision into a reality. Ramsey Creek entered into an agreement with Upstate Forever Land Trust in 2006, which allowed the preserve to achieve certification by the Green Burial Council as the nation's first conservation burial ground, the highest and hardest level to attain, virtually assuring it will stay a burial ground and preserve forever. They also founded Memorial Ecosystems, a for-profit company which develops and maintains memorial preserves, including Ramsey Creek.

Today Ramsey Creek Preserve has 71 acres with room for 1500 burial sites. Burial in a shroud or biodegradable casket is permitted. Markers are accepted but not required, and must be of natural stone, and families are encouraged to plant native wild flowers or shrubs on the gravesite. The hilly preserve is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and preserves a section of Ramsey Creek.

Last summer I had a chance to visit this iconic place. It was the end of the day, with the late afternoon sun slanting through the trees over the top of the hill adding drama to the scene. These are photos from that day, taken by my husband Tom Bailey.

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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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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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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.

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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