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Friday, October 10, 2008

First Green Burial Conference: A Lively Affair in Boulder

Last week's first-ever green burial conference, in Boulder, Colorado, brought together the broad, eclectic mix of adherents that continue to bear out my long-standing belief that natural burial has the legs to go mainstream.

There were students and septuagenarians. Hospice workers. Vegetarians and MBAers. Cemetery operators and celebrants. A couple of funeral directors and many more home funeral advocates. A few gutsy souls who had the moxie to take the deathcare of their deceased into their own hands, not because they knew it was legal but because they felt it the right thing to do. Even a couple of attendees who'd never heard of natural burial but thought it sounded interesting enough to invest a day learning about.

I gave a version of my ever-changing presentation on the current lay of the green burial landscape, with a history of death in early America and how it evolved into the more elaborate funerals of today. Joe Sehee, of the Green Burial Council, provided an update on the natural cemeteries across the country he has helped start.

The Q&A sessions and open forums that followed provided an interesting window into how some are viewing the green burial movement and what issues the movement does and may face.

Some highlights:

Green in green burial? A pair of businessmen wondered how to make green burial pay out. Up to now, the natural cemetery has largely provided a strategy that offers not just a dust-to-dust burial but a way to preserve land from being developed. Profit margins, to the extent there are any, are thin. To increase them, the MBAers talked of burying more bodies per acre than is currently the case, partnering with conservation organizations, growing natural cemeteries on or near the urban cores where large populations dwell. The challenge, as they acknowledged, is to do that and stay true to real-green conservation principles.

Natural cemeteries may draw too many visitors. One of the goals of the natural cemetery is to reconnect people with the land, by inviting them to see it less as a graveyard than as nature preserve to delight in. So it's possible, one cemeterian noted, that locals might overtax their natural cemeteries, arriving in huge numbers and despoiling the land in the process.

Ensuring that green cemeteries remain green. A great question from one of the green burial neophytes: what's to prevent the future owner of a green cemetery from deciding to, say, allow for the burial of embalmed bodies or metal caskets? For Joe Sehee the answer is in making sure that green cemeteries partner with reputable conservation organizations, which act as ecological stewards of the land. That's just the kind of arrangement he sets up with the conservation burial grounds he helps establish.

Not surprisingly, the Boulder gathering was friendly to natural burial. I'll report next week on the response I get from a tougher and, perhaps, more suspect audience I’m addressing on Monday: the funeral directors who are attending the annual convention of the National Funeral Directors Association in Orlando.

The photo above comes complements of Clint Crary, of Pioneer Natural Burial. From left to right: Karen van Vuuren (founder/director, Natural Transitions), Joe Sehee, Mark Harris, Laina Corazon Coit (founder, Prairie Wilderness Cemeteries) and Maeve Conran (news producer at KGNU radio).

Note: That's a wicker coffin, distributed by Passages, in the far right of the photo.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (


Billy C said...

Dear All

Sorry we missed the meeting. Between the medical practice and working on our projects in Atlanta and Asheville, time is pretty short these days.

We have thought a lot about the issues you mentioned: density, profit margins, partnering with non-profits , projects in the urban core and visitor management.

The last issue, visitor management, is near and dear to my heart. Even though Ramsey Creek has never developed a problem from excessive visitors (almost certainly related to our remote location) we developed a visitor policy just in case. We posted an article addressing the issue on our original web site in 1998. I saw a great paper in the Natural Areas Journal by a couple of guys from the Nature Conservancy ( Curthoys, Lesley, 1998 , Ramsey Canyon Preserve, Arizona : A Case Study in Successful Small Protected Area Management, Natural Areas Journal, Vol.18). They reviewed the elements of outstanding small (less than 2000 acres) nature preserves and concluded that visitor management was the most critical factor. We do not need to re-invent the wheel. While some of the issues for natural burial in a natural are unique, we can learn a lot from those professionals who have been mulling over things like visitor management, signage, etc. for decades.

Visitor policy must protect the ecological and aesthetic values of the project, and emphasize quality of visits over quantity. At the same time, the policy should be sensitive to the needs of the families and the need to provide reasonable public access. Public access is also important for sales-at some point a super-restrictive visitor policy could hurt sales and community support.

At Ramsey Creek, we have not had to worry as much about visitors, but our project in the Atlanta metro area (Honey Creek Woodlands) is requiring thoughtful design and rule-making.

The HCW site is 1 mile away from the visitor contact area deep within the 2400-acre monastery grounds. Right now, we are working to provide the monks the seclusion they need while providing reasonably open access to the public. The long term plan is to require registration by all visitors (that also serves as a liability waver). If visitation becomes an issue, we will use visitor caps. The distance along the access road (no private cars except for services-only golf carts, bicycles, and foot) will probably limit site visits.

Density has always generated a lot of discussion about its relation to profit margins, along with operational and visitor impacts. From an ecological perspective, density is ultimately about the condition and sensitivity of the site. A steep, pristine site covered with sensitive, difficult (or impossible) to move rare plants would not be a very good site for a natural burial ground, but a cut over, gently slopping, plowed 70 acres with next to the pristine site might be excellent (especially if the pristine area can be protected in partnership with a non-profit). You might get 150-200 natural burials per area in the degraded site, not counting opportunities for cremation disposition. We also think that people will be willing to pay more for the plot (than in contemporary settings) while saving on the overall cost of the funeral/burial. Given that sort of density-with plots being perhaps twice the cost at the local Memorial Acres, and the lower site development and O&M costs, the threshold and timeline for profitability will probably be better than a contemporary cemetery with higher density.

The cooperation with non-profits and eligibility for things like stream mitigation credits, Transfer of Development Rights credits, and open space credits can make the projects very profitable even with relatively low densities.

Real world example. The Monastery of the Holy Spirit is trying to make land conservation pencil out in the Atlanta Metro area (now with 6 million people). The 2400 acre Monastery is a part of a National Heritage Area (Arabia Mountain Heritage Corridor) that now protects more than 8,000 acres along the South River (several thousand more areas are slated to be protected). The bike paths now stretch 12 miles down the river, and the connection with the MHS is to happen within the next few years.

Recently, the MHS needed to purchase a 240 acre in-holding that was slated for development (it was the “hole in the doughnut” and would have greatly affected the monks peace and quiet, road traffic, etc). They worked out a complex deal with the state and county to help provide them with some of the money to protect the property if 1) they allowed some public access including bike paths to a nature center and 2) if they put up additional acreage for long term conservation (roughly half the monastery is already permanently protected). The state was providing almost 1 million dollars in return for permanently protecting the purchase area and roughly 150 additional acres. The state open space people toured the 70-acre project, understood that we would be granting a very detailed conservation easement to an outside organization, and saw the high quality restoration we are doing in the old clear cut. They freed up almost $400,000 for the land purchase, letting the monastery count the cemetery land as high quality natural area/open space. That is about twice what the HCW has spent on development and salaries and upkeep. We also had over 80K in sales in the first 4 months-despite the incomplete state of the project (still a bit raw). Additionally, two small streams that are technically a part of the cemetery are included in a Corp of Engineers stream mitigation bank, which will eventually yield many 10’s of thousands of dollars more (perhaps as much as another 100K). We cannot bury anyone in this corridor, but can have a soft foot path. So the monks may see the land-which they have owned since the 40’s permanently protected, while yielding close to $500,000 in cash (mitigation bank) and state and county investment in protecting the critical in-holding. And they now have a new “industry” to provide them long term income, accelerated gifting and a permanent endowment for managing the land.

The MHS is also exempt from a lot of state regulations, and is one of the major tourist attractions in the county-greatly lowering our soft costs (zoning was not an issue since the conservation burial area is completely insulated from neighbors, and because no one on the county level wants to hurt the monastery’s finances.

billy c

The Undertaker said...

This sounds like a productive and lively affair. I'm sorry I missed it. I am "dying" to know more details as well as the details from NFDA/Orlando. I've been reading a lot about the personalized caskets making the big splash. The hammered metal casket made me cringe, ouch..

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