Greening America's Cemeteries

This column originally appeared in the February, 2013 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

Cemeteries respond to interest in natural burial.

Green Burial entered the American vernacular in 1998 with the opening of Ramsey Creek Preserve near Greenville, South Carolina.  In the 15 years since there has been much discussion regarding death care in America and green alternatives to conventional burial.  News articles tend to follow a formula with a cliche headline on death and burial.  Articles often include a quote from Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council (created in 2005) or James Olson, spokesman on green burial for the NFDA.  Most cite statistics on the volumes of hardwoods, steel, and concrete buried each year in America's cemeteries.  Many will mention Jessica Mitford's American Way of Death or a quote from the more contemporary and journalistic views in Grave Matters by Mark Harris.  Almost every story cites survey statistics to demonstrate growing public interest in green burial including the 2007 AARP poll indicating 21% of respondents were curious about or considering green burial and the 2008 Kates-Boylston survey finding 43% of respondents would consider a green burial.

A great many news stories on green burial originate from local TV and newspaper media announcing a green cemetery or a green burial at a local cemetery.  Many dozens of existing municipal, religious, and private cemeteries have opened new sections of property dedicated to varying "shades of green" burial services.  There is also the growing number of newly opened green cemeteries entirely committed to green burial such as Greenhaven Preserve near Columbia, South Carolina.

The Green Burial Council (GBC) characterizes three tiers of cemeteries in its green burial standard for cemeteries: Hybrid, Natural, and Conservation.  A Hybrid rating might include an existing traditional cemetery that would allow a burial without a vault or grave liner in any type of casket or burial shroud.  Riverview Cemetery established 1882 in Portland, Oregon is one such Hybrid cemetery allowing green interments in nearly every area of the cemetery.  While the GBC lists 20 such Hybrid cemeteries in North America and Canada on its web site, there are countless municipal cemeteries located in both rural and urban settings across America that have no strict requirements on the use of a burial vaults or caskets.  For most Americans, this "lighter shade of green" burial sans vault and with an eco-friendly casket is available nearby.

A Natural Burial Ground takes it up a notch in defining non-toxic practices to protect the environment.  The GBC uses several criteria including the cemetery's policies on burial vaults, caskets or shrouds, embalming, use of chemicals in lawn care, grave opening/closing techniques, and land status.  Land status must also guarantee adherence to green practices through deed restriction, conservation easement, or other irrevocable legally binding agreement in perpetuity.  The GBC lists a dozen cemeteries at this level.  At the highest standard, Conservation burial grounds are those that demonstrate a legally binding responsibility for perpetual stewardship of the land and are adjacent to land of ecological significance such as a park, wildlife corridor or critical habitat area.  There are four such cemeteries in the U.S. that have achieved the Conservation burial ground level as defined by the GBC including Honey Creek Woodlands (Conyers, GA), Foxfield Preserve (Wilmot, OH), Ramsey Creek Preserve (Westminster, SC), and White Eagle Memorial Preserve (Goldendale, WA).

The Green Burial Council has contributed much to an international conversation on green and natural burial by defining standards. But there are far more practitioners than there are certifications when it comes to greening America's cemeteries.  Inquiries for a "back to nature" burial are growing ever more common among America's cemeteries.   Graham Garner, warden/manager of the 17 acre West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Friends South Western Burial Ground established in 1861, tells us that while they have not actively promoted green burials, they have had five such burial requests already--a significant number because sometimes a year will go by with no burials.  This cemetery, home to roughly 4000 grave sites, is the final resting place for Quakers (and others) seeking a simple "environmentally aware" burial.  Two families used simple wooden caskets, and three used cloth burial shrouds.  Graham explains they do not have vault or casket requirements, but they do have some restrictions on headstones.

A very new burial ground by contrast is the Natural Path Sanctuary that opened June, 2011 in Verona, Wisconsin.  Kevin Corrado, coordinator for the sanctuary, explains that while they prefer shrouded burials they will accept caskets made from "unfinished non-precious woods" and free of non-biodegradable materials.  Conventional practices including burial vaults, embalming, and grave markers are not allowed. All graves in the wooded sanctuary are dug and closed by hand.

In 2012, the Catholic Sentinel reported that Mount Calvary in Portland, Oregon became the second Catholic cemetery in the nation to offer a dedicated area of the cemetery for green burial.  Tim Corbett, superintendent of Catholic cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Portland, explains that he first started hearing about green burial six years ago.  He views this movement as a way for people to leave a natural legacy adding that if everyone opted for a green burial, he'd have 500 acres of endowed forest.  The St. Francis green burial section of the cemetery has space for 120 graves and will re-forest the area as interments are made.

The Green Burial Council and the Centre for Natural Burial each list more than 30 green burial sites in the U.S.  If we include all private, municipal, and church operated cemeteries offering green burial options there may already be more than 200 cemeteries in America where people can opt for a green burial.  Trend or fad, I'm optimistic that awareness on green burial continues to spread throughout America, more options are becoming available, and that our industry is changing for the better when it comes to protecting our natural habitat.