Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery

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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Should natural burial grave markers be subject to standards?

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve   photos by Tom Bailey

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve  photos by Tom Bailey

Humans probably have marked the graves of their dead for as long as they've lived in social groups, but the rise of massive cemetery headstones occurred only in the last couple centuries in America. It's easy to evoke an image of a modern cemetery with just a few strokes; green grass and upright stones or elaborate statues carved from stone and engraved and you know what it is.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to memorialize a loved one or to be memorialized yourself. Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions for creating his tombstone, including engraving three accomplishments "because by these," he explained, "as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

We don't use polished granite or marble headstones in memory of people in green or natural burial grounds. It's not that rock isn't green, though one could argue that engraving uses energy. It's that we're creating a new landscape--meadow or forest usually--not something that looks like a cemetery, though that word means simply a piece of ground where burials are made, and we imbue it with our own concept of what it should look like. We are recycling ourselves back into nature and becoming a part of it.

According to the Green Burial Council which sets standards and certifies cemeteries, "Natural and conservation cemeteries must develop a plan for limiting the types, sizes, and visibility of memorial markers/features to preserve or restore naturalistic vistas in the cemetery landscape." 

Yet I was disturbed on recent tours of green burial cemeteries along the East Coast by the proliferation of large stones with elaborate engravings.

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

All the cemeteries I visited and those in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide put constraints on the kind of marker that's allowed on graves. Individual grave markers are usually limited to local stone that fits the landscape, must lay flat, not be polished or machine cut to shape. A few cemeteries impose size limits; Narrow Ridge Natural Burial Preserve in Washburn, Tennessee calls for grave markers of modest size, and at Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park in Austin, Texas markers must be less than 2 feet across. At Kokosing Nature Preserve in Gambier, Ohio graves are distinguished by unobtrusive markers. What struck me was how visible even a grave marker that fits the parameters can be.

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Is this a problem? Isn't stone natural, especially if it was dug up in the cemetery anyway? A hundred years from now when a natural burial cemetery has become a forest will it detract if someone walking through the forest sees gravestones? Won't it in fact be kind of neat?

Green Hills Cemetery

Green Hills Cemetery

People sometimes perceive antipathy among green burial cemeteries to memorials. I think it's important to let people mark graves. Yet after visiting cemetery after cemetery, the size and number of objects began to worry me. Often I got caught up in bending over stones to see what they said and realized at the end that I hardly noticed the landscape that was being so lovingly created. Is the instinct to mark our passing through this world becoming mixed up with a human instinct towards grandiosity? Not everywhere, and not everyone, but natural burial actually doesn't look natural. In 20 years or so when there's nothing left of a body underground, what's the point of a personalized stone if the meadow or forest is the true memorial?

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

One solution cemeteries have come up with is to prohibit markers on individual graves and go for group memorials. This is especially relevant where a burial ground is attempting to create a new landscape and prohibiting human traffic is part of the strategy for getting plants going or preserving the look of the place; this is often seen with meadows.

Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana doesn't permit individual grave markers and has erected a memorial wall with spaces for families to record the names of their dead and locate their graves in the section.

Cemeteries may designate such areas as "non-visitation," and anyone burying there is aware of the limitations. The Preserve at All Saints in Waterford, Michigan has both visitation and non-visitation sections, and non-visitation burials may be inscribed on a stone memorial wall. Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey, doesn't allow individual's graves in the Saint Francis of Assisi natural section to be marked but their names are inscribed on scattered boulders.

Steelmantown Cemetery

Steelmantown Cemetery

There's something to be said for uniformity, like Catholic cemeteries which limit the size of headstones in their conventional cemeteries as a way to indicate that all are equal in death. Truly small stones big enough to list the name and dates of the dead would allow for memorialization but not make the oh-so-human statement of "Here I am!"

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

 

 

Why don't all cemeteries have signs on their natural burial sections?

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve near Schenectady, NY  photo by Tom Bailey

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve near Schenectady, NY photo by Tom Bailey

Green burial sections of hybrid cemeteries are generally lovely places. Why are they reluctant to put up signs?

I recently visited seven cemeteries on a two-day tour up the Hudson River. Though all are in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide, they are too far from home for individual day trips and my contact had been from a distance. Would it be overwhelming to see so many in a short time? Too much like If It's Monday this must be Schenectady? As it turned out, the back-to-back visits provided a perspective I wouldn't otherwise have gained.

All seven are what's known as hybrid cemeteries--working burial grounds that opened green burial sections. The sections vary in size from a few rows of plots to several acres, and most have room to expand. Why then aren't they all well advertised? Is it lack of marketing instinct?

According to Dick Hermance, cemeterian at Rosendale Cemetery in Tillson, New York, his green burials, divided between meadow and woods, outsell conventional graves. "Our green burial section is keeping the conventional cemetery alive," says Dick. Many of his customers who would seek conventional burial are choosing cremation instead. As seen here, Dick's green sections are well marked. When you visit Rosendale, an otherwise unremarkable municipal cemetery, there's no mistaking the burial options.

The meadows in Albany diocesan cemeteries Most Holy Redeemer (top photo) and St. Michael's Meadow at Calvary Cemetery are attractive and the diocese has no problem with making their presence prominent.

But another diocesan cemetery, this one St. Peter's Cemetery in Saratoga Springs, does not sign its meadow, though the brick apron which overlooks the meadow would be a logical place for a sign. It even has a lovely name--Peaceful Meadows Natural Burial Ground.

 

In Schenectady we visited Vale Cemetery, tucked into a rundown neighborhood and connected by a bike path to a large municipal park. Together they provide well-used green space for city dwellers. Here a prominent sign beside the path announces birding opportunities. Directly in front is The Dell, Vale's ample and well-designed green burial section along the banks of a gently-sloping basin abutting woods that separate off the park. Sign for it? Nope. I wrote to Bernard McEvoy, vice president of the cemetery, who replied "A sign for the Dell at Vale is being made up." They get about an inquiry a week, which is pretty good, but considering the section opened in 2013 one might be excused for thinking a good sign from the beginning would have helped bring in more business than the "8 lots sold and had 2 burials there."

Fultonville's green burial section, uphill and beside the historical cemetery, is labelled only with the letter E, its section designation on the cemetery map.  

Capping the trip was a visit to the Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery and its 2-acre Natural Burial Ground set back on a lane into woods well-marked by a carved sign.

Developing a natural burial ground requires work. It also needs vision, because land dedicated this way is unavailable for conventional burial and even with room to expand, space in these seven cemeteries is not infinite. 

Despite increasing visibility for green burial and its providers the Green Burial Council is the only organization with a large presence. It certifies providers, offers education and advocacy, and announces when cemeteries and businesses achieve certification but marketing help is not one of its missions. It's not a trade group.

Conventional cemeteries and funeral directors have trade organizations with overlap for green burial/green funeral providers. Some of this is a numbers game; as with anything you need enough bodies willing to go to meetings and lend a hand. Getting help from organizations with roots in the business could take more efforts to show that green burial can help them prosper, not simply hurt their business.