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Friday, September 12, 2008

Green Burial at Existing “Traditional” Cemeteries

It's tempting to measure the growing interest in the green burial movement solely by the rise of new natural cemeteries around the country.

That number is impressive, for sure. When I first visited it back in 2003, Ramsey Creek was the only woodland cemetery in this country. Today, some dozen have joined its ranks, with at least another score in various stages of development.

One of them in Milton, Georgia, a rural hamlet north of Atlanta, gained an operating permit from the town planning commission just this week.

For my money, though, a truer indication of green burial's growth might come not from these new burial grounds but from the old ones. I can't trot out hard numbers, but I count at least a dozen traditional cemeteries that have recently begun allowing for green -- that is, vautless -- burial within their existing grounds. (These are in addition to the countless garden-variety cemeteries across the land that have never required a burial vault.)

Among them are California's Sebastopol Memorial Lawn, and Eternal Rest Memories Park in Dunedin, Florida. There are others in Temple, Texas, and Hillsboro, Oregon. Still more in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Washington State.

Green burial is literally gaining ground there, and for good reason. As many readers have told me, establishing a green cemetery from scratch can mean very tough sledding. For starters, would-be green cemeterians must locate and purchase land, research state/county/municipal cemetery regulations, and move on to gain permits from government entities. Expensive bonds are sometimes required. A cemetery board must form and run a burial business.

Existing cemeteries have it much easier: they can simply decide to offer green burial and bypass all the hassles of starting from ground zero. After all, no law requires them to demand that families use burial vaults (though cemeteries often do, because vaults keep the ground from caving into graves when their wood coffins collapse). Traditional cemeteries can at a moment's notice decide to allow vaultless burial anywhere on their property or, with more work, create a separate, leafy section reserved for the kind of green burial more in keeping (in appearance anyway) with true natural burial grounds.

Recognizing those benefits, a number of eco burial enthusiasts are asking their hometown cemeteries to adopt policies that permit a natural return to the elements. Some cemeteries are responding. As more families request green burial services -- and as a more Ramsey Creeks crop up on the funereal landscape -- I suspect many, many more will follow suit.

Note: I took the photograph above of Pine Ridge Cemetery in Hancock, New Hampshire, a historic cemetery in the southwestern part of the state.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (


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Grave Matters

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