Open Letter in Favor of Green Burial in Bibb County, Georgia
The fight for a green goodnight in Macon, Georgia, continues.
You may remember my blog entry from earlier this year, in which I reported on the efforts of Jim Wood and Beth Collins to site a green cemetery on a fifty-seven-acre pine forest on the eastern edge of Macon. Despite some local opposition and after numerous appearances before county planning and zoning commissioners, Jim and Beth finally gained the permit to open and operate Summerland Natural Cemetery.
Last month, however, the Bibb County board of commissioners passed amendments to the county cemetery code that would effective ban green cemeteries -- and thus Summerland itself -- entirely from Bibb County.
Below is the letter I sent to the commission, asking that it reconsider its action.
Heading this blog is a photo of Summerland, courtesy of Beth Collins.
Back with a post in January.
December 22, 2008
To: Board of Commissioners, Bibb County, Georgia In Re: Ordinance Amending Bibb County Code, Chapter 20, Cemeteries
Dear Commissioners: I am writing to ask that you reconsider your recent amendments to the Bibb County Code that pertain to cemeteries (Chapter 20).
Josh Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance has already spoken to the more egregious provisions of the ordinance. I won’t repeat them here, but will confirm Slocum’s well-articulated arguments, particularly in regards to the ordinance's requirement that remains be buried in a "leak-proof casket or vault." There is, as he notes, no such container. My own research found that the elements in the environs of the grave will eventually degrade any casket and likewise open cracks in any burial vault. Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission has acknowledged as much, prohibiting funeral directors from making claims to the contrary. Your requirement for leak-proof burial containers thus can’t be met, and, as such, effectively prohibits any new cemetery, green or otherwise, from being sited in Bibb Country.
What I would like to address more directly is your ordinance's seeming bias against green burial. For the last half decade I have studied the natural cemetery, as both a concept and as an actual environment, and found it to be asset to any community.
For one, the green cemetery -- that is, a natural environment in which the minimally-casketed, unembalmed dead are laid to rest in vaultless graves -- is a good use of land. Returned directly to the earth here, one's remains renourish soil, encourage the growth of vegetation and help restore land to ecological health. The result is more nature preserve than mere graveyard. In some natural cemeteries local residents treat them as such, going there for nature walks, reflection and for peaceful communion with the natural world. In the best of schemes, the natural cemetery -- by dint of its cemetery designation -- not only preserves good land from being developed into yet another strip mall or housing subdivision but works to ensures that it stays green forever. A natural cemetery in Macon wouldn't just offer families a beautiful place in which to be laid to rest: it would allow them to preserve a slice of ecological Georgia.
The natural cemetery is certainly preferable to a regular cemetery. A typical 10-acre cemetery contains enough coffin wood to construct more than forty homes, enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a small backyard swimming pool, many thousands of tons of concrete and metal and the residue of untold gallons of poisonous weed killer. As I see it, the standard cemetery functions less as a bucolic resting ground for the dead than a landfill of largely non-biodegradable and hazardous materials. Not so the natural cemetery.
In the end, the natural cemetery asks us to see death in a new light. Death is no longer the mere endpoint of a life; it's part of a larger natural cycle -- of growth and decline, of decomposition and rebirth -- that makes life on this planet possible. Instead of working to short-circuit that cycle at literally all costs -- as our modern funeral practices do, with chemical embalming, bullet-proof metal caskets, and concrete burial vaults, all of which will only delay, not halt the inevitable -- green burial says, let's let Mother Nature follow her natural course. To the benefit of the earth, of families, and, not coincidentally, our pocketbooks.
Green burial argues that our best last act may be the simple one of using what remains of our physical existence to fertilize depleted soil, push up a tree, preserve a bit of wild from being developed, and, in the process, perpetuate the cycle of life that turns to support those we leave behind. That, I contend, is lasting, noble legacy to a life well lived.
I ask that you make that possible for the families of Bibb County.