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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Green Burial Happened by Default in Historic Cemeteries

Some half dozen natural cemeteries lie scattered across the new green deathscape. But that doesn’t mean you have to travel to these few leafy locales to find good green burial grounds.

Practically any historic cemetery, whose final interments took place in the last decades of the 19th century, will do.

Pine Ridge Cemetery in Hancock, New Hampshire, is a prime example. Nestled behind a low rock wall that skirts the two-lane road that bisects this colonial town, Pine Ridge is the final resting place of local residents from the late 17th to late 18th centuries. Carried off at mostly young ages, some of them children who fell prey to the dysentery epidemic that swept through the area in the early years of the 1800s, the deceased were given natural burials by default.

Embalming, which early Americans considered a desecration of one's scared remains, wasn't practiced until after the Civil War. And burial vaults, which were first used in the mid- to late-1800s to deter grave robbers who supplied early medical school with cadavers for anatomical study, didn't become a standard feature -- and later requirement of cemetery owners -- of cemetery burial until the end of the same century. Metal coffins, which now account for some three-quarters of all coffins sold in this country, were rare.

As a consequence, historic cemeteries like Pine Ridge present real, compelling pictures of green burial. (True, the headstones are less biodegradable than the fieldstones typically erected in the best of our modern, natural cemeteries. Those at Pine Ridge are hewn from granite, and, as these photos from my summer visit to the cemetery indicate, still stand strong.)

As is not the case in more modern cemeteries, the deceased here sleep in green repose. Washed, dressed, laid into simple pine coffins and lowered into vaultless graves, their remains quickly degraded and soon thereafter rejoined the elements. And, in doing so, perpetuated the cycles of nature that supported -- and continue to support -- the living.

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