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Friday, May 16, 2008

Georgia's Second Green Cemetery Offers Lessons in Getting it Built

Families in central Georgia can soon choose to rest in eternal, green repose in their own region, thanks to planning and zoning commissioners who last month permitted the siting of the Summerland Natural Cemetery in Macon.

That's good news for families and the environment, of course -- but it almost didn't happen. The proposal for Summerland passed by a single vote, and that after months of multiple meetings, a deferred decision and the protest of some local dissenters who vowed to continue the fight against green goodnights taking place in this rural corner of Bibb County.

So, what happened to make such a good idea seem like such a bad one? As the founders of Summerland tell it, ignorance of what green burial is (and is not) -- and the advocates' lacking attempts to explain it -- played big roles and offer valuable insights to would-be natural cemetery builders.

First, some history. In the fall of 2007, Beth Collins and Jim Wood bought a 58-acre pine forest at the far eastern edge of Macon. Their goals were worthy: save local land from development, provide a place where people can reconnect with the natural world, and create a green cemetery on the property.

The agricultural zone in which Summerland rests allows for cemeteries but only with a special permit from the planning and zoning commission. And so Jim and Beth began the long application process, which included creating a business plan, surveying and mapping the land and, in the process, and piling up the fees. They even contacted some neighboring property owners, none of whom disapproved of the plan.

The day before the commission was to consider the Summerland petition, an article about the proposed "green cemetery" appeared in the Macon newspaper. Half a dozen neighbors who lived along the property where it crosses into the next county (whom Jim and Beth hadn't reached), arrived at the meeting angry and up in arms against the plan. Some argued that the cemetery would lower their property values; others found the green burial concept "repulsive" and contrary to their religious beliefs. Many of the opponents worried that rainfall filtering through gravesites would carry contaminants from corpses into underground wells that supplied their drinking water. The commissioners deferred their vote pending further investigation of the groundwater issue.

Faced with opposition they hadn't expected, Beth met with discontented neighbors to better explain the concept of green burial, while Jim dug into cemetery research. Trolling the Internet, he turned up published studies on cemeteries, like those by Australian geologist Boyd Dent, which, in this case, showed little cause for concern about groundwater contamination. Environmental/health officials and local drillers Jim interviewed concurred, particularly given the cemetery's hilltop location (which encourages the runoff of water) and long distance from both the water table and private wells. Still, to make sure contamination weren't a problem, he and Beth decided to limit burials to 75 per acre on ten acres of their highest ground (down from 300 burials on 25 acres) and to increase buffer areas between gravesites and both roads and neighboring wells.

And then went back to the commission. The vote at an April 14th meeting, in which one commissioner was absent, was deadlocked. A full commission met two weeks later and, with little evidence that groundwater contamination was an issue, granted Summerland its permit.

I talked to Jim at a home funeral conference earlier this year and have since corresponded with him and Beth. They're obviously pleased with the commission vote, but also believe their somewhat tortuous route to approval offers useful lessons for others looking to start green cemeteries in their own towns:

1) Educate first. Beth found that the much of the opposition to Summerland came from people who didn't understand the green burial concept. A presentation on green burial -- with pictures of existing sites and of actual burials, with some history showing that what we call green burial is really little more than a return to long tradition in this country -- might have brought many of them around.

2) Master the science. When neighbors voiced concerns about groundwater contamination from graves at that first meeting, the Summerland group had little evidence on hand to show that their site posed no such threat. Jim's subsequent research (much of it gained from local experts) helped turn the commission vote in his favor.

3) Meet the neighbors. Their understanding and, if possible, cooperation would have gone a long way to not just gaining favor with officials but with the very families who may one day want to pursue a green burial.

With the commission vote behind them, Beth and Jim are moving ahead to transform their forest into a natural cemetery. At the moment, they’re looking to apply for a cemetery license from the state board, develop a landscape plan (including a survey of the ground's native plantings), clear trails and establish policies and guidelines. They hope to open the land to burial next year. We'll follow their progress in this space.

Note: If you’re interested subscribing to the Grave Matters blog, with its (mostly!) Friday post, you can do so via the link at the foot of this page.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (


Anonymous said...

I am so happy at the prospect of a natural burial site in central georgia.

Yes, people need to be educated on this all important and planet saving issue. If people would take time to research the damage that is being caused by millions of gallons of embalming fluid poluting our ground and water, they would do a complete about face. Not only are dangerous chemicals being put into the ground, but also thousands of tons of metals in caskets that erode and rust are other dangerous contaminates to consider.

Do people really think that our Creator forgot about the proper way for us to return to the ground from which we were made of? Where did He tell us to pump cancer causing chemicals into our dead? The ancients preserved their dead with oils and herbs. It is historical truth that just a century ago most people were still caring and preserving their loves ones at home before the day of burial. They did not use chemicals or metal caskets. Everything was natural and the body was allowed to decompose quickly and return to the earth as it was intended to do.

Speak to a coroner or pathologist if you get a chance and ask them how an embalmed body looks if it is exhumed. Even after a month most embalmed bodies are growing hideous mold and slime. There are bacteria that thrive in sealed caskets that begin a food fest on the corpse and produce oozing effects of the decomposing body. I have been told it is a most grusome sight. Embalming will NOT stop a body from rotting away. It only retards the process in the most macabe way imaginable. It is NOT a law in any state that a body has to be embalmed and it is NOT a law that a grave needs a liner or vault. These are false fairtales used by dishonest people to make as much money as possible from the grieving family members at a very difficult time. If there was a danger from unembalmed bodies there WOULD BE FEDERAL AND STATE LAWS REGULATING THAT PART OF THE BURIAL ISSUE! Google 'The Funeral Rule' that all undertakers are to abide by and see for yourselves. Do an internet search on burial laws for your state and notice the lack of embalming and vault enforcement laws. This is the official word from the government, state and federal, to the morticians of this nation and it was written for your good.

For those who don't agree with green burial, that is your right. For those of us who do agree, that is our right. We object to the polution of deadly chemicals and harmful metals being put into the ground daily all over this nation, yet until just the past few years, we have had no say in the matter and no right to do what we feel is not only best for us but for all mankind.

For God sake people, wake up. Educate yourselves and stop being brainwashed. In this age of information at your fingertips, there is no excuse for such ignorance.

Mark Harris said...

Thanks for checking in. Your comments are well made, especially about the effects on modern burial. You're also right about the need of the green burial movement to educate consumers about their rights. The presentations I give around the country attempt to not just shed light on green burial options but on the legal requirements -- or mostly non-requirements -- families must meet when death comes calling. We still retain many of the basic rights our early ancestors did (that we can wake the deceased in our own homes in the vast majority of cases and, no, embalming is almost never required).

All the best,

zan said...

Thanks for taking the time to share your page in life's learning book.
I'm grateful you both had the "stick" (and the grace)! to hold out and make the project come to fruition.
Very -- very -- wise of you to recognize the problem was not really about ground water, or property values, or any such things...but just fear of facing their own unknown.
Your suggestions of preparing the neighbors beforehand, making the first step to get to know them, etc., helps to build a bridge, to invite them to look in and see what wonderful things you have planned!
Looking forward to reading your Newsletter (HOPE there are photos)! ;]
Best regards

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