Nature's Sanctuary is a one-acre natural cemetery that sits at the northwest edge of Philadelphia, a stone's throw from a long stretch of the Schuylkill River before it snakes into the urban grid.
It's a surprisingly hushed, leafy locale given its proximity to the country's sixth most-populated city. Dense woodlands rim the cemetery's northern corner. A tree-belted rail line -- soon to become a nature trail -- runs along the backside of the property. The grounds themselves are mostly overspread with rough grass, which grows up to earthen burial mounds backstopped by tall, feather-tipped grasses and wildflowers native to the region.
Nature's Sanctuary offers a fetching view of a natural return to the elements -- and in a place you might least expect to find it: a traditional cemetery.
Pennsylvania's first true green burial ground takes root at West Laurel Hill, a suburban cemetery where Philadelphians have been laying their dead to rest for well over a century.
And so far, it represents an approach to green burial that accounts for a large part of the movement's growth.
Nature's Sanctuary is just one of scores of existing cemeteries across the country that have opened their gates and manicured lawns to a more natural approach to burial.
For some cemeteries, that means allowing vaultless burial to take place anywhere on their grounds. The property may not be wooded or even particularly "natural" in appearance, but without entombment in burial vaults -- the usual requirement of most cemeteries -- a wood-coffined body will at least have eventual contact with surrounding soil and, in its decomposition, rejoin the elements.
Other cemeteries are taking a more wholistic approach. Here, a section of ground is reserved for green burial only. No formaldehyde-embalmed bodies are allowed. Metal caskets are banned, burial vaults prohibited. The grounds themselves are typically landscaped to resemble more natural environments, like woodlands or, as in Nature's Sanctuary, meadows.
Native vegetation is planted atop and around graves, grave markers are limited to indigenous fieldstone or rock.
Siting a natural burial ground within an existing cemetery has many advantages. For one, it's easier and cheaper to establish one of these so-called "hybrid" cemeteries than it is to start one from scratch. Operators don't have locate and purchase land or post the expensive bonds, which sometimes tally into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, that states often require of new cemeteries.
Cemetery owners already have the land, as well as landscaping crews and sometimes even funds to launch new, eco undertakings. And unlike operators of virgin, all-natural grounds, they don't have to depend entirely on their "green" sales, either. They can often afford to wait for interest, and plot sales, to grow.
Hybrid cemeteries have their disadvantages. They're harder to tie to efforts to preserve nearby lands, as Ramsey Creek Preserve is doing. And while often very handsome, a "wild," unpruned green section can look both odd and oddly circumscribed within the broader environment of the well-tended traditional cemetery, with its surrounding landscape of marble headstones and turf mowed to golf-course grade.
As a consequence, you're less likely to lose yourself in natural revelry here than in those broad, forest-bounded meadows at the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, or to feel the "soothing influences of nature" that the ruined, woodland graves of olde England offered Romantic poet William Wordsworth.
Still, for families seeking a dust-to-dusty return in the known and nearby environs of the local cemetery -- albeit one less leafy than elsewhere -- a hybrid ground like Nature's Sanctuary is a beautiful, worthy, and welcome option.
Next week: How West Laurel Hill started Nature's Sanctuary.
Upcoming speaking engagements: I'll be giving a number of presentations on green burial in the coming months. Click here for times and street addresses. All presentations are free and open to the public:
September 26: Harrisburg, PA
October: 17: Morristown, NJ 22: San Mateo, CA 23: Berkeley, CA 23: Santa Rosa, CA
Jane Hillhouse had no idea that the bamboo casket she shipped to a Connecticut family a couple of weeks ago would be used to bury the British actress Lynn Redgrave.
"A woman e-mailed me to ask if I could supply her with a bamboo coffin that would be needed sometime between a week and ten days," says Hillhouse, owner of Final Footprint, a green coffin supplier in the San Francisco area. "Later, she sent me a link to a news story about the funeral of Lynn Redgrave, and there in the photograph -- to my amazement -- was the coffin I'd shipped."
Hillhouse figures the Redgraves found her company when searching the Internet for green casket companies. "The woman knew what she wanted," says Hillhouse. "She said someone had been buried in a wicker casket back in England and wanted something similar" for the Connecticut funeral.
The coffin Hillhouse shipped out East is fashioned from lengths of bamboo that are woven into a traditional rectangular shape (pictured above). The detachable lid is secured to the base with a series of wooden dowels which fit through small rope loops. Three wooden hand grips are attached at intervals on both sides. A finished coffin weighs less than 80 pounds but is sturdy enough to support a body weighing more than four times that. Hillhouse charges $400 for the coffin, plus delivery.
Bamboo is a newer addition to the line of readily compostable materials that are being turned into green coffins, including pine, cardboard and wicker. It may be the greenest of the bunch.
Unlike traditional wood, bamboo completely regenerates after harvesting -- no re-planting is necessary -- and does so more rapidly than any other woody plant. When cut at the root, the stalks grow back to their former height in two month's time.
The bamboo diverted to Hillhouse's coffins is further culled from sustainably-managed and –harvested forests in the Hunan province of China. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used, and the species of bamboo is not the kind consumed by pandas.
The coffins are produced by Ecoffins of Kent, England, a Fair Trade company whose products Hillhouse distributes throughout the U.S.
Hillhouse doesn't know the extent of the Redgraves's green leanings. Yet the eco casket and final interment in a rural cemetery just over the New York line in Lithgow were in keeping with the actress's last wishes, she says. And, as that first e-mail to her had indicated, the bamboo coffin is similar in nature to the wicker one in which Lynn Redgrave's brother, Corin, was laid to rest last month. (Scroll down in the linked article to see the casket.)
Hillhouse says this is the first time she has seen a photograph of one of her coffins in an actual service. It's not, however, the first time she has served as Green Coffin Supplier to the Stars.
Last May she got a call from a funeral director in southern California, asking her to send down one of her bamboo coffins. When she called back after the funeral to ask how the service had gone, the director said, "Now I can tell you who the coffin was used for: David Carradine," the actor of "Kung Fu" and Kill Bill fame.
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Nearly a hundred bodies lie buried at Usk Castle Chase, a natural cemetery an hour northeast of Cardiff, Wales.
But visitors who trek these fourteen acres of rolling pasture might never know it. No paved walkways cut through the grounds, no monuments rise from the land. The grave sites themselves are all but invisible, completely devoid of the headstones, flat markers, perimeter edging and other funereal structures that characterize the more traditional cemeteries scattered throughout the United Kingdom.
The only evidence that bodies are buried beneath this verdant swath of rural Wales are modest oak plaques. And even they don't appear on the actual burial ground. The plaques are affixed to the rafters of an open pavilion near the cemetery entrance, and bear nothing more than the names and lifespans of the deceased.
In both philosophy and design, nature -- not its human inhabitants -- prevails at Usk Castle Chase. "We believe in minimizing the impact we have on a place," says James Leedam, director of Native Woodland, a Monmouth company that operates five natural cemeteries in the U.K. "We wish to preserve the landscape as it is."
For generations, pasture has defined the landscape of the "chase," British for an unenclosed forest traditionally reserved for hunting. When Leedam transformed the Usk chase into a natural cemetery, he worked to ensure that its ruminant history endured -- in form and function. He offered a natural return to the elements on the pasture, but he kept the land looking much as it had for centuries and even continued to allow sheep to graze there. When I asked Leedam if that meant sheep may graze upon the graves themselves, he replied, "Most definitely. It always was, is now and should always be pasture."
While lacking any overt sign of its mordant purpose, the land does show the work of human hands. Leedam's crew occasionally mows the grounds, and he follows a mowing/grazing schedule recommended by a local wildlife trust. Wildflowers are cut after they've seeded; weeds are topped. No fertilizer is used -- beyond the natural fertilizer supplied by the host of decomposing occupants below ground.
Leedam's earth-first approach to green cemetery design puts him at odds with that of most other operators. In many natural burial grounds in the U.K., for example, trees are routinely planted atop graves (Leedam restricts the planting of memorial trees to the forested margins of the chase). In the score of natural cemeteries that have cropped up across the United States, families may -- and almost always do -- mark graves with fieldstones that are collected on site or culled from a similar geographical stratum (although even then the soft stones may completely weather into the landscape in time, eventually leaving grave sites there as unmarked as those on Leedam's grounds).
Without artificial objects marring the landscape, Leedam is able to more fully emphasize its natural beauty. The London-based Memorial Awareness Board found as much, calling Usk Castle Chase "exceptionally beautiful and peaceful" when giving it a best Green Burial Site award in 2008.
Leedam's natural approach to the cemetery de-emphasizes the dead who quite literally nourish and sustain it. In doing so, it asks us to consider questions that go to the heart of how we, the living, should memorialize our dead.
Is it enough to return our deceased to an anonymous end, where one's individuality is subsumed and lost to a natural process? Do we lose a record of our human history if we leave it unmarked, even in so small a place as a grave? Or is one's simple perpetuation of the natural cycle of life a truly sufficient and lasting mark of a life well lived?
We'll explore those questions, and others, in upcoming blogs on the growing green burial movement.
The photos above are owned by and used with permission of Native Woodland, Ltd. The second photo shows a grave site one family has outlined by plucking grass around it. Finished graves sit behind, to each side and in front of it.
A variety of grasses and wildflowers overspread the rolling hillsides just outside Ithaca, New York. If you stand at an overlook beyond the keeper's cottage, you'll see fields fanning out to the dense forestlands that rim this one-time farm, maybe catch meadowlarks or red-winged blackbirds gliding into tall grass.
By century's end, however, a much different -- and much more natural -- view will present itself to anyone standing here. The hardwood forest that stretches to the horizon will have encroached into the Greensprings grounds. Native timbers -- oaks and beech, hickory and black walnut, perhaps even chestnut -- will rise from areas where grasses now grow and mark what will surely be hundreds of additional grave sites. Some meadow will remain, but by 2100 this funereal landscape will more closely resemble the forest that once stood here before Europeans first settled the Southern Tier in the 1700s and began clearing land.
And that's all according to plan.
Greensprings provides a bucolic resting ground for a natural return to the elements. But the long-term goal of this green cemetery is much more far-reaching than mere eco-friendly interment: It's to use its very natural burials to help heal a land long abused by agriculture and, in the process, to return the land to a closer approximation of its truly natural state.
Theirs is an ambitious goal, particularly for an undertaking as humble as a cemetery. To help reach it, Greensprings is steered by a focused Ecological Insight Committee. Made up of naturalists, land trust members and the like, the small group works to craft policy and regulation for the cemetery, using sound ecological principles and practices as a guide.
Its long-term plan for the grounds is still a work in progress. In broad, the group is looking to re-establish the kind of old growth forest that once thrived here (by planting indigenous trees) while simultaneously operating a working cemetery (by "planting" people). Doing both at the same time presents no small challenge. Digging graves beside newly planted trees can harm young roots, for example, and thus make re-growing that forest difficult. More established tree roots may, in turn, make the digging of abutting graves much harder to do.
How to proceed? The answer from the Ecological Insight Committee: go slow. For now, it's recommending that the west end of the burial ground (known as the West Meadow) be preserved as is and that, per existing regulation, trees not be planted onto grave sites there.
To gradually introduce forest into its ground, Greensprings will reserve sections within the West Meadow as "memorial groves." Here, families -- who will have interred their deceased elsewhere within the meadow -- may plant native trees in memory of their deceased. As the number of meadow burials increases over time, the groves themselves will expand, slowly reforesting the meadow.
The Ecological Insight Committee has also marked out "sequential burial" areas closer to the cemetery's forested margins. Families may purchase plots in advance here and, when the time comes, plant trees onto finished graves. The actual grave site, however, will be determined by the Greensprings staff, to ensure that bodies are buried in lots far enough apart so, for example, grave digging won't disturb trees recently planted onto neighboring sites.
Greensprings will always maintain some meadow. Meadow is, after all, habitat for many of the bird species that take flight here, from Henslow's sparrow to bobolink. But it's largely forest that will one day spring from this green and forest to which the dead will return.
Next week: Challenges of the Ecological Insight Committee
The hillside overlook offered the same breathtaking view of this rural swath of New York's Southern Tier, with its broad meadows and rim of dense woodlands stretching unimpeded to the horizon. In the distance, red-winged blackbirds glided into tall grass just as they had on the blustery day I last visited. A quiet chorus of other birds -- of which I could identify goldfinch, some field sparrows and one, lone cedar waxwing -- only added to the natural serenity I had come to associate with the Empire State's first natural cemetery.
And, as I did on that afternoon three years earlier, I could imagine few places on this earth I'd rather be laid to rest.
I'm not alone.
Since its dedication in May of 2006, some five dozen people have been buried at Greensprings. Another 300 have purchased plots in advance.
In keeping with its natural surroundings -- and per cemetery policy -- all of those interments have followed a basic, dust-to-dust return to the elements. Embalming was avoided. Metal caskets, burial vaults and upright headstone weren't used. Grave makers had been fashioned from stone indigenous to the region and then laid flush to the ground.
When I walked the meadowlands that constitute Greensprings' main burial grounds, the only evidence of individual graves I saw at first were mounds of earth in various stages of settling. Some of the older graves -- and others into which shrouded bodies had been lowered, sans casket -- had already returned to mostly level grade. Grass from the meadow had by then migrated into plots, overspreading their graves. Some sites had also been planted with vegetation native to the region, such as purple coneflowers and blueberry bushes.
As I neared the graves, I could see their modest markers. They were cut from natural fieldstone or quarried stone. Like their attendant mounds of earth, the oldest of them had settled into the ground and become a part of it.
Stakes flagging future graves dotted the meadow, but otherwise there was very little to suggest that Greensprings is a cemetery at all. There was no established walking path. None of the burial plots were marked off with stone edging or linked chain. The meadow itself -- not its resident graves -- predominated and thus largely defined this landscape.
Which is just the point. The focus of natural burial isn't so much the interred body but the natural cycle of life that very body is perpetuating for those who remain. It's life, not mere death, that's celebrated here. And that's why visitors like this one feel uplifted, not depressed, when we walk through Greensprings and other natural cemeteries of its kind.
Greensprings offers families in this part of the country a lovely place for a green repose. But it's doing much more than that, for families and the natural environment. Next week we'll look more closely at how Greensprings is working to redefine the landscape of the traditional American cemetery and see the issues and challenges it faces in doing so.