Georgia's Second Green Cemetery Offers Lessons in Getting it Built
Families in central Georgia can soon choose to rest in eternal, green repose in their own region, thanks to planning and zoning commissioners who last month permitted the siting of the Summerland Natural Cemetery in Macon.
That's good news for families and the environment, of course -- but it almost didn't happen. The proposal for Summerland passed by a single vote, and that after months of multiple meetings, a deferred decision and the protest of some local dissenters who vowed to continue the fight against green goodnights taking place in this rural corner of Bibb County.
So, what happened to make such a good idea seem like such a bad one? As the founders of Summerland tell it, ignorance of what green burial is (and is not) -- and the advocates' lacking attempts to explain it -- played big roles and offer valuable insights to would-be natural cemetery builders.
First, some history. In the fall of 2007, Beth Collins and Jim Wood bought a 58-acre pine forest at the far eastern edge of Macon. Their goals were worthy: save local land from development, provide a place where people can reconnect with the natural world, and create a green cemetery on the property.
The agricultural zone in which Summerland rests allows for cemeteries but only with a special permit from the planning and zoning commission. And so Jim and Beth began the long application process, which included creating a business plan, surveying and mapping the land and, in the process, and piling up the fees. They even contacted some neighboring property owners, none of whom disapproved of the plan.
The day before the commission was to consider the Summerland petition, an article about the proposed "green cemetery" appeared in the Macon newspaper. Half a dozen neighbors who lived along the property where it crosses into the next county (whom Jim and Beth hadn't reached), arrived at the meeting angry and up in arms against the plan. Some argued that the cemetery would lower their property values; others found the green burial concept "repulsive" and contrary to their religious beliefs. Many of the opponents worried that rainfall filtering through gravesites would carry contaminants from corpses into underground wells that supplied their drinking water. The commissioners deferred their vote pending further investigation of the groundwater issue.
Faced with opposition they hadn't expected, Beth met with discontented neighbors to better explain the concept of green burial, while Jim dug into cemetery research. Trolling the Internet, he turned up published studies on cemeteries, like those by Australian geologist Boyd Dent, which, in this case, showed little cause for concern about groundwater contamination. Environmental/health officials and local drillers Jim interviewed concurred, particularly given the cemetery's hilltop location (which encourages the runoff of water) and long distance from both the water table and private wells. Still, to make sure contamination weren't a problem, he and Beth decided to limit burials to 75 per acre on ten acres of their highest ground (down from 300 burials on 25 acres) and to increase buffer areas between gravesites and both roads and neighboring wells.
And then went back to the commission. The vote at an April 14th meeting, in which one commissioner was absent, was deadlocked. A full commission met two weeks later and, with little evidence that groundwater contamination was an issue, granted Summerland its permit.
I talked to Jim at a home funeral conference earlier this year and have since corresponded with him and Beth. They're obviously pleased with the commission vote, but also believe their somewhat tortuous route to approval offers useful lessons for others looking to start green cemeteries in their own towns:
1) Educate first. Beth found that the much of the opposition to Summerland came from people who didn't understand the green burial concept. A presentation on green burial -- with pictures of existing sites and of actual burials, with some history showing that what we call green burial is really little more than a return to long tradition in this country -- might have brought many of them around.
2) Master the science. When neighbors voiced concerns about groundwater contamination from graves at that first meeting, the Summerland group had little evidence on hand to show that their site posed no such threat. Jim's subsequent research (much of it gained from local experts) helped turn the commission vote in his favor.
3) Meet the neighbors. Their understanding and, if possible, cooperation would have gone a long way to not just gaining favor with officials but with the very families who may one day want to pursue a green burial.
With the commission vote behind them, Beth and Jim are moving ahead to transform their forest into a natural cemetery. At the moment, they’re looking to apply for a cemetery license from the state board, develop a landscape plan (including a survey of the ground's native plantings), clear trails and establish policies and guidelines. They hope to open the land to burial next year. We'll follow their progress in this space.
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Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)