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Friday, November 21, 2008

You've Got a [Green Burial] Friend in Pennsylvania

When I first ventured into the green burial underground more than half a decade ago, I had to travel far afield from my home in eastern Pennsylvania to gather the material that would become Grave Matters.

When it came to natural return, not much was cooking here at the time (besides the very real bake taking place in the hearths at Philadelphia Crematories, a model crematory I ended up profiling in chapter three).

Since then, a green sea change has colored funeral and burial customs in this part of the Keystone State, with most of it coming in the last couple of months. Here's what's happening in:

Pocono Mountains
Last week I drove up to the Poconos and walked the grounds of Pocono Plateau (pictured above). It's one of three ashes-only EcoEternity Forests I blogged about a couple of months ago. On a chilly afternoon, I caught up with president Jack Lowe, who talked about how families had approached him with such enthusiasm because they'd been holding onto their loved ones' ashes and didn't know what to do with them -- until now.

Since its consecration back in June, Pocono Plateau has seen three interments (one of which involved a daughter who'd removed her father's ashes from their mausoleum niche for greener burial in Jack's forest). Nearly ninety families in all have purchased burial plots in the three EcoEternity sites, including the newest location due east of Richmond, Virginia.

Pennsylvanians will soon have even more choices for a natural return with the help of EcoEternity. In the coming year, the company plans to open a pair of new sites in the southeastern part of the state.

Two weeks ago, the owners of West Laurel Hill Cemetery opened up a corner of its expansive grounds for natural burial. Founded shortly after the Civil War on the northwest outskirts of Philadelphia, West Laurel Hill is part of Laurel Hill, the second of the "rural" cemeteries that flourished in this country in the nineteenth century during a greening of the American deathscape.

The cemetery's "Natural Sanctuary" is a 3.5 acre parcel where only green burials may take place. Embalmbed bodies are banned, burial vaults prohibited. Natural stones may mark the grave. A funeral home on site understands green burial concepts, makes basic caskets and can help families conduct home funerals.

I'll write more about the Natural Sanctuary in an upcoming blog.

Eastern PA Home Funeral Providers
Families in eastern Pennsylvania -- as is true for the rest of the state, and, for that matter, for most of the country -- have always been able to care for their own deceased. Now, they can turn to two area organizations for help with those family undertakings.

In the Philadelphia region, there's A Natural Undertaking, which is staffed by Jennifer Bingham and Donna Larson. Families in the greater Allentown region can turn to Penny Rhodes (610-756-6253) and Greta Brown (610-865-9050). Penny and Greta might work with a local funeral home that's just gone green. More on Elias Funeral Home shortly.

Barbara Kernan: 1962 – 2008.
Finally, my sympathies to the family and friends of Barbara Kernan, an early advocate of home funerals in the Southern Carlifornia area, who died from breast cancer at the end of October.

Barbara was the founder of Thresholds, an organization that offered home funeral services and support in San Diego. I'd interviewed Barbara for the home funeral chapter of Grave Matters. We very quickly figured out that she grew up literally around the corner from my home in Pennsylvania and knew some of the friends I'd made since moving here. We'd hoped to meet up when she came back to visit her parents.

What I remember most from our exchanges was Barbara's good humor and her spirited engagement with the funeral industry, to the extent that she even earned a funeral director's license (to make it that much easier to encroach on their turf). I hear that Barbara's own home funeral was a moving tribute to her life and work. A celebration of her life went into the wee hours, and when her body was taken to the crematory on Halloween Day, her friends wore witches hats.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (www.gravematters)

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Grave Matters

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