The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide

Updating the guide to reflect a growing green burial movement.

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It's been a busy time in the green burial movement. Symposiums, town meetings, articles in big and small newspapers, and a bunch of new cemeteries to add to The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide. To update the 2017 digital editions I've added 17 cemeteries. An additional eleven are not quite ready to open, decided their operations weren't a good fit for the guidebook or simply didn't answer my query. Only one had to be removed, and that was because the owner died and though existing contracts are being honored there will be no new contracts for plots sold. Considering the book had 126 cemeteries as of last fall, this is a 21% increase in cemeteries. Not bad!

Another measure of green burial's health is the attitude of the people involved. My impetus for writing the guidebook came from research for a more general book starting five years ago, when it took at least a month to open a dialogue with a cemetery and complete an entry. I recently completed the process with Chassell Cemetery in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from start to finish over three days last week! I think cemeteries are more eager to promote themselves and their options as they see public interest soar. I'm also more efficient with understanding what's needed, and comments from readers help focus on what is useful and of interest.

2017 was a time for expanding my firsthand knowledge of the cemeteries. Burial grounds with green options exist in at least 40 states and the District of Columbia. This is up two. Last year my husband and I toured up the Hudson River Valley and down through the coastal states of the South, checking places out, taking lots of photos and using the book as a guide ourselves. Where possible we met with the people who run the cemeteries. The photo at the top of this article shows me with Glenn Jennelle, manager of Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, Virginia, the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

Responding to criticism by a judge in a book contest who really liked it, I've made the tables of content interactive in all regions and the complete guide. This means readers can navigate to features through clicks, and not just scrolling. As ever, Tom Bailey partnered the guide, both as photographer and book designer.

Thanks to all of you who read my blog and help spread the word about green burial, especially by creating community.

If you previously purchased a digital guide, look for an email containing a link to download a free update. This applies to people who bought the bundle. The print edition will not be updated at this time.

If you haven't already purchased a guide, there's no time that's not a good one to do so.

 

 

 

Synergy--home funerals and green burials

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Sometimes synergy manifests out of nowhere yet when it's examined, you see roots you missed before everything was pulled together.

Over the past year as I've reached out to sell The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide the market I thought would be there for it--cemeteries and funeral homes--never materialized. Instead, energy and excitement generated from an unexpected quarter: alternative afterdeath caregivers.

Anne Jungerman, home funeral guide and inspiration for Tulocay Cemetery's green burial project; Veronica, my roommate; and me, at the NHFA conference.

Anne Jungerman, home funeral guide and inspiration for Tulocay Cemetery's green burial project; Veronica, my roommate; and me, at the NHFA conference.

I understood quickly why these caregivers would be an appropriate audience; they could use the guide in their work, and cemeteries, though I thought they would put the book in their public spaces for bragging rights, wouldn't necessarily spread the word about other natural burial cemeteries.  

But it wasn't until the National Home Funeral Alliance biennial conference that I understood the profound connection between natural/home funeral care and natural/green burial.

It took my father's death for it to sink in that burial or cremation alone doesn't constitute afterdeath care. What happens between death and disposal (an unlovely term that encompasses both the above options)? 

By not talking about it our death-phobic culture has lost the language to define what happens after death. Because of this, the most foolproof way to get from death to disposition is to call your local funeral home, though even this act becomes difficult for someone who hasn't thought anything about death--where IS the local funeral home and do I just call up?

What will the funeral home do? It'll pick up the body and transport it to premises where it can be prepared for cremation, or washed, embalmed, made-up, dressed, laid out in a chosen casket, and driven to the cemetery for burial. Paperwork will be filed, a funeral ceremony designed and executed. All for a fee--you can argue the fee is too high but not argue that like any American business, the funeral home needs a profit to survive.

It makes sense to a green burial advocate that someone choosing green burial would want their body handled through this phase in an appropriate way and not embalmed before joining the earth. 

For those who address death ahead of time, the conventional route can be exited at some point or bypassed entirely. This is where home funeral guides come in. (I'm not talking here about death doulas, whose alternative to conventional care starts before death.) Home funeral guides help families arrange things after death so that some or all of the tasks are under their control. This may not be for everyone; the thought of physically caring for my father's body after his death didn't appeal, though I could imagine getting to that point myself, perhaps with my husband's body. My father was left in the care of a funeral director who is a strong advocate for green burial, and had the facilities to wash, keep him without embalming, to shroud him and transport him to the burial ground.

NHFA board for the new biennium.

NHFA board for the new biennium.

Yet these are actions that throughout human history have been performed by family or community, and we have allowed to become institutionalized. The NHFA website lists guides who will "work to empower families and friends to care for their own dead...The NHFA believes that families and friends can and should do as much as they are able, because this is what is most natural and healing."

The atmosphere at the conference was electric with caring, healing, excitement about the work of the caregivers and the supporters and advocates. This energy drew me into recognizing a conundrum: After caring for a dead body in a natural way are you really going to want to bury it in a conventional manner? Doubtful. An obvious alternative to conventional burial is cremation, but cremation is often a default solution as it's pretty readily available. If you don't want to burn up the body you've cared for in life and death, green or natural burial is the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, it's not readily available everywhere. I put together the cemetery guidebook because information on green burial cemeteries is time-consuming to track down. As a society we are no better informed about our cemeteries than we are about funeral homes and for the same reason. Home funeral guides who want to help families carry through the process to this conclusion need to have access to knowledge about it ahead of time. The Green Burial Council is also an excellent place to find out more information. If you know where cemeteries are, you can educate yourself on what their options really mean. A grieving family is unlikely to stumble upon green burial without prior knowledge. A home funeral guide in possession of options--and preferably with connections to make them happen locally--can best serve clients right to the end. 

 

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/

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.

The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide goes to print!

In the next few weeks I will be publishing The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide in a print edition. This applies to the complete edition; the regions Northeast, South, Midwest and West will still be available only in PDF for the moment. Though personally I like the flexibility of the digital format for updating, I've talked to people who don't feel comfortable with the digital book and businesses that want to display a physical copy. And handling a galley proof of the printed guide myself, being able to flip through the pages, reminds me of how much I like a physical book. It encourages browsing; the mechanics of a digital book don't. 

Just five months ago The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide went public, capping several long years of research and outreach into the vision, the dreams, the businesses and the people of green burial, ending finally with my burying my own father in a natural burial cemetery. In May the guide won the 2017 Green Book Festival Wild Card award, and I've given talks and interviews and posted about it. It's not perfect, but just as the field evolves and changes with more people get ting involved and learning about it, I hope to keep the guide adapting to the future. 

Please let me know if what you see is of benefit, if it answers your questions, and if things are afoot in your region that I don't know about. When I hear from readers it connects us up to a giant web--like the ecosystem we wish to be buried in.