Natural Burial 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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I haven't marked my father's grave.

All photos in this blog are by  Tom Bailey

All photos in this blog are by Tom Bailey

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It's been almost two years since my father died and I buried him in a grave at Steelmantown Cemetery, a natural burial ground in southern New Jersey. Ed Bixby keeps a supply of field stones dug up during maintenance of the cemetery for use as grave markers, but at the time of my father's death it was all the family could do to hold ourselves together through grief and the logistics of death. Getting him safely in the ground was the priority, though before leaving the cemetery we picked out a stone that would go across two graves, as my mother will one day be buried in the plot that lies next to him.

I fully intended to have the engraver pick up the stone and finish it; we even had a tentative wording picked out. But first the stone seemed awful big for the purpose, even if my mother would be memorialized too. Then family dynamics deteriorated and talk of what to say evaporated. I knew where he was buried; the rest of the family is scattered across the country and wouldn't be able to find the plot on their own. Finally I decided in a huff that if no one else was interested in the stone then why should I make an effort? As time went on family relations smoothed out and we talked about it again. I even went so far as to pick out a new stone, just for my father. 

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All these things, though probably pretty common in the stages of grief and reaction to death, seem petty. Yet my father's grave still has no stone, even though we are all talking to each other again. Why? And does it matter?

Mostly what drives me to worry about the stone is guilt. I feel like I should mark my father's grave. Yet I'm not sure it would matter to him. My husband's choice of words would have been "Ed Hoffner--A Pretty Good Man." He wasn't without ego but he wasn't into fuss. He was the kind of man who figured out how to make pockets on the backs of his pants by sewing on pieces of cloth, because it was the easiest way to get it done and he didn't mind how it looked.

Memorialization is a personal matter but it's also a collective choice. Green burial cemeteries choose to forgo polished cut stone grave markers in favor of markers that resemble what comes out of the earth, either stone or plant, and in some cases opting for group memorials instead of individual grave markers. It's important for those of us who choose green burial to understand what we're comfortable with, and then to make an appropriate memorial within the bounds of what the collective cemetery allows. After all, even conventional cemeteries have carefully laid-out rules about memorialization.

Like anything else, choosing how to memorialize someone can be fraught with uncertainty if done when death occurs. If you haven't planned ahead of time, it's okay. The earth always takes time to settle, and the person you are thinking about is not going away.

Ultimately, of course, the forest will entirely reclaim my father's grave and his remains, because that's the idea of a place like Steelmantown, a forest as a memorial. Beyond his grandchildren no one's likely to visit the grave. So whether I follow through on a stone to get rid of the final niggle of doubt, I don't know. Perhaps it will happen when my mother dies, because then, I think, it will really seem like he is gone

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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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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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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.