No natural cemetery on par with Ramsey Creek has taken root in Pennsylvania – at least not yet. Two days ago, though, a German company consecrated a three-acre woodland graveyard in the heart of the Pocono Mountains where cremated remains may be buried beneath select maple, beech, birch and other mature timbers that populate the EcoEternity Forest at Pocono Plateau.
"We're providing families with a green place where they can return the ashes of their loved ones,” says Axel Baudach, the founder of the German-based EcoEternity (“FriedWald” in German), which oversees some two dozen green cemeteries in his home country. When they do, families not only "help preserve a forest but establish a relationship to it that is not just about death but life."
As in Germany, the foresters who manage the Pocono Plateau have blazed walking trails through the new cemetery and identified trees suitable for urn burial, typically those that are mature, healthy and easily accessible. On the morning I trekked the grounds with Axel, scores of trees had been marked with blue bands (which you can see in the photo above), so families may easily spot approved urn sites when they tour the grounds, either at time of need or in advance.
When families are ready to inter their "ashes," foresters trench out a hole roughly a foot deep along the drip line of the tree, creating an opening broad enough to accommodate the biodegradable urn the company supplies families. The urn, which is pressed from cornstarch, will quickly degrade. Families may bury their own urn (as long as it will biodegrade) or simply pour ashes into the gravesite. Trees can be marked with simple plaques the size of an index card; no headstones or groundmarkers are allowed.
When I asked Axel how many sets of ashes a single tree can accommodate, he strode the drip line that circumscribes one of the banded trees, each of his fifteen strides, he told me, marking a potential urn site. Burials are offered in three packages. Up to fifteen urns may be buried around a "Family Reunion Tree" ($4,500 for all burials). Groups of friends (up to fifteen) -- neighbors, parishioners, or, as Axel said, members of the local soccer or bowling team -- can find final rest under a "Friendship Tree" ($4,500). An individual can choose to add her urn to a dozen-plus others that surround a "Community Tree" ($500). The cost of interment is an additional $250 (with a ceremony families can plan and conduct themselves) or $175 (without ceremony).
Unlike some other green cemetery schemes, EcoEternity does not own its forest -- and, thus, its cemetery and graves. The company leases those three acres from the Methodist Church, which owns some 750 acres here and on them runs various camps and retreats. Axel's group leases the cemetery property for 100 years; he can't say for sure what will happen to the cemetery when the lease is up, although, certainly, the Church is a good and solvent owner, which is committed to the long-term stewardship of the land. Also, along those lines, the Church agrees to hew to certain eco-friendly practices in its contract with EcoEternity, including not logging the land. A forester, who manages the cemetery property, is hired and paid by EcoEternity.
As Axel sees it, his cemetery scheme is "a win-win for everybody." Families gain a natural environment for that final rest and a welcome wood to visit in life. The church gains some revenue from very gentle use of its land (and one that's in keeping with a Christian dust-to-dust philosophy of life and death). EcoEternity grows a green burial movement that speaks to the needs of families who choose cremation and earns a bit of green in the process.
Axel admits that translating his German-born approach to burial to an American audience presents special challenges. He finds, for one, that his company has to "explain what a forest is" to a trans-Atlantic public that's more estranged from the natural world than are its German counterparts, who tend to regularly venture into their forests for hikes and walks. "We need to motivate Americans to come into their forests and see them for the peaceful places they are." Axel has also been struck by the number of Americans who hold onto their loved ones ashes at home, with no plan to return them to earth or sea. He's hoping his woodland cemeteries will inspire them to plant those ashes in a more natural home.
In the next post, we'll look at modern German funeral and burial practices and why Axel chose to move beyond them. We'll also investigate how the EcoEternity Forest compares to the natural cemeteries springing up in this country.
I'm on the road next week, giving a presentation on green burial at the biannual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in Seattle. Back with a post on July 4th.
Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
Ramsey Creek Preserve was the lone natural cemetery in this country when I began reporting on the green burial movement almost a decade ago. Now there are ten, and like prices at the gas pump, that number is headed inexorably upward.
Just look at the list below.
Here, by state, are the efforts I know about to grow green cemeteries throughout North America. They’re in various stages of development. Some are poised to open; others are still in the exploratory phase. All involve folks who are passionate about creating space for a sensible, natural return to the elements in their own corner of the planet.
Want to know more? Want to join their efforts? Beam me up an e-mail -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- and I’ll put you in touch with the forces that are driving your project of interest.
Next week: I'll report on a company that's opening woodland cemeteries that allow for the burial of cremated remains only.
The photo above is the ultimate in memento mori. How could you forget your mortality with this image wallpapered onto your living room ceiling?
California • Humboldt
Colorado • Denver area
Connecticut • Northwest part of state
Georgia • Central Georgia • Milton
Hawaii • Maui
Illinois • Southern Illinois
Indiana • Bloomington • Northeast Indiana (greater Chicago area) • Indianapolis
Iowa • Cedar Rapids
Kansas • Lawrence
Kentucky • Lexington • Winchester
Michigan • Ann Arbor • Detroit area • Lansing area
Minnesota • Minneapolis
Missouri • Rocheport
New Hampshire • Monadnock region
New Mexico • Santa Fe
New York • Tarrytown • Hudson Valley area
Ohio • Cleveland • Cincinatti
Oregon • Portland • Eugene
Pennsylvania • Lehigh Valley • Philadelphia
Texas • Central Texas • Houston • Dallas • Austin • Big Bend
Virginia • Roanoke • Culpeper
Wisconsin • Milwaukee • Barneveld
In Canada: • Vancouver Island • Paisley • Nova Scotia
Mark Harris, author Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
As I listened to the funeral director offer bromides about the brother of an elderly friend at the wake I attended this week, I found myself thinking -- inexplicably -- about the "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode of the late, lamented Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Chuckles is the clown who appears on the news show Mary writes for in her eponymous sitcom. In this famous episode from 1975, Lou Grant tells the newsroom that Chuckles, outfitted as Peter Peanut in the city parade, is killed by a rogue elephant that "tried to shell him." The clip above is from Chuckles' service at the funeral home (whose slumber room of thirty-plus years ago, a dead ringer for the one I sat in yesterday, suggests that funerary décor never goes out of style).
Moore's famous segment is both hysterical and poignant. It came to mind, I think, because its fictional pastor manages to do what my director hadn't: capture in brief the humanity, the essence of the deceased. In this case, Chuckles' pastor moves one mourner to both laughter and tears, those perfect expressions of celebration and loss.
Mark Harris, author Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)