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Monday, March 08, 2010

Greensprings Back to the Future in 2100

The 100-acre burial ground that is the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve is mostly meadow now.

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

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.