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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

How many U.S natural cemeteries are there?

When I first began investigating the emerging green burial movement back in the early 2000s, you could just about survey this country's natural cemetery landscape in a single sweep.

There was a budding graveyard on a family farm halfway across the Florida Panhandle, another one ensconced in a pine forest north of Houston, a few others. And then the flagship operation at South Carolina’s RamseyCreek Preserve, ground zero for the chapter in Grave Matters on the natural cemetery

What a difference a decade makes.

Today, my very rough tally puts the number of natural cemeteries in the United States near 150, all scattered across nearly 40 states. And counting. (My definition of the green cemetery is equally rough: it’s one that allows for the vaultless burial of an unembalmed body, which is then shrouded and/or casketed in biodegradable material).

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these new natural burial grounds take root within the environs of existing, traditional cemeteries. As anyone who has tried to start a natural cemetery can tell you, it’s a lot easier to pull off when you have the land, infrastructure (backhoes, staff, etc.), and approvals from the get-go.

Some of these “hybrid” cemeteries, as they’re sometimes called, are places like Mound Cemetery (in the greater Minneapolis area), which allow for vaultless burial anywhere on their grounds. Others have set aside special preserves for green burial only. That’s what we did at Green Meadow (in eastern Pennsylvania, pictured below), transforming a fallow field at the edge of the cemetery into a meadow of wildflowers and native grasses (not as simple as it sounds, turns out).  


If my conversations with alt.burialists and cemetery managers is any indication, the natural burial movement is poised to take off in these established hallowed grounds. One recent indication: Mount Auburn (Boston area), the first rural cemetery in this country (1831), is set to go green. (Join me in celebrating that at a free, afternoon event, on June 14th.) 

A number of other natural cemeteries have rooted themselves on their own property, be it a forest, family farm, municipal land, or, in one case, a golf course. The greenest of the bunch -- the conservation burial ground -- uses the green cemetery model to preserve land and restore it to ecological health, ala Ramsey Creek, that first and enduring flagship.

My survey of the green burial movement since the publication of Grave Matters has shown me what I felt would be true from the moment I first emerged from Ramsey Creek all those years ago: that green cemeteries are changing the face of death in America.

In large part, I think that’s because green burial is not, in the end, a concept that speaks solely -- or even largely -- to off-gridders and hybrid drive motorists. With its lower cost, simplicity, DIY approach and respect for tradition, green burial speaks to old-fashioned American values that still have a strong purchase on this country. Which explains, for one, why there are both Wiccan and Jewish green cemeteries (click on Gan Yarok), plus some dozen Catholic graveyards to boot.

The numbers don't lie: Green burial is a big tent, not fringe, phenomenon. And it’s just getting started.

You’ll find a list of green cemeteries that have earned the Green Burial Council’s seal of approval here. Some two dozen have signed the Natural End Pledge. A listing maintained by the Funeral Consumers Alliance is here (click on 2014 Green Cemetery List). Don’t see anything near you? Email me: mark@gravematters.us

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters, “The signature book of the green burial trend.”
Web. Facebook (Grave Matters). Twitter (greenburialist).

Upcoming Appearances (all free and open to the public, except the Moravian event) 

April 13 (Sun), 2:00 PM
Ithaca, NY. Kendal at Ithaca, 2230 N Triphammer Road.
Event information: click here. 

April 30 (Wed.). 7:00 PM
Pen Argyl, PA. Slate Belt Nazareth Baptist Church, 1620 Church Road.
Event information: click here 

June 7 (Sat.), 2:00 PM
Bethlehem, PA. Moravian College, 1200 Main Street.  
I’ll be giving a presentation on memoir writing, at a wonderful, weekend writers’ conference. If you’re a writer, this conference is well worth attending.
Event information: click here  

June 14 (Sat.), 4:00 PM
Cambridge, MA. Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn Street.
Event information: click here. 

If you’d like me to speak to your group, you can reach me at: mark@gravematters.us

The photo at the head of this blog was taken at the Fultonville Natural Burial Ground, outside Albany, just after a dedication ceremony last October.

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