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Monday, December 22, 2008

Open Letter in Favor of Green Burial in Bibb County, Georgia

The fight for a green goodnight in Macon, Georgia, continues.

You may remember my blog entry from earlier this year, in which I reported on the efforts of Jim Wood and Beth Collins to site a green cemetery on a fifty-seven-acre pine forest on the eastern edge of Macon. Despite some local opposition and after numerous appearances before county planning and zoning commissioners, Jim and Beth finally gained the permit to open and operate Summerland Natural Cemetery.

Last month, however, the Bibb County board of commissioners passed amendments to the county cemetery code that would effective ban green cemeteries -- and thus Summerland itself -- entirely from Bibb County.

Below is the letter I sent to the commission, asking that it reconsider its action.

Heading this blog is a photo of Summerland, courtesy of Beth Collins.

Back with a post in January.

December 22, 2008

To: Board of Commissioners, Bibb County, Georgia
In Re: Ordinance Amending Bibb County Code, Chapter 20, Cemeteries

Dear Commissioners:
I am writing to ask that you reconsider your recent amendments to the Bibb County Code that pertain to cemeteries (Chapter 20).

I am an environmental journalist and the author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (2007, Scribner). The book examines the negative environmental impact of modern funeral practices and advocates for more natural, ecological-friendly alternatives. One of those alternatives is burial in a "green" cemetery, which your ordinance would ban from Bibb County.

Josh Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance has already spoken to the more egregious provisions of the ordinance. I won’t repeat them here, but will confirm Slocum’s well-articulated arguments, particularly in regards to the ordinance's requirement that remains be buried in a "leak-proof casket or vault." There is, as he notes, no such container. My own research found that the elements in the environs of the grave will eventually degrade any casket and likewise open cracks in any burial vault. Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission has acknowledged as much, prohibiting funeral directors from making claims to the contrary. Your requirement for leak-proof burial containers thus can’t be met, and, as such, effectively prohibits any new cemetery, green or otherwise, from being sited in Bibb Country.

What I would like to address more directly is your ordinance's seeming bias against green burial. For the last half decade I have studied the natural cemetery, as both a concept and as an actual environment, and found it to be asset to any community.

For one, the green cemetery -- that is, a natural environment in which the minimally-casketed, unembalmed dead are laid to rest in vaultless graves -- is a good use of land. Returned directly to the earth here, one's remains renourish soil, encourage the growth of vegetation and help restore land to ecological health. The result is more nature preserve than mere graveyard. In some natural cemeteries local residents treat them as such, going there for nature walks, reflection and for peaceful communion with the natural world. In the best of schemes, the natural cemetery -- by dint of its cemetery designation -- not only preserves good land from being developed into yet another strip mall or housing subdivision but works to ensures that it stays green forever. A natural cemetery in Macon wouldn't just offer families a beautiful place in which to be laid to rest: it would allow them to preserve a slice of ecological Georgia.

The natural cemetery is certainly preferable to a regular cemetery. A typical 10-acre cemetery contains enough coffin wood to construct more than forty homes, enough toxic embalming fluid to fill a small backyard swimming pool, many thousands of tons of concrete and metal and the residue of untold gallons of poisonous weed killer. As I see it, the standard cemetery functions less as a bucolic resting ground for the dead than a landfill of largely non-biodegradable and hazardous materials. Not so the natural cemetery.

In the end, the natural cemetery asks us to see death in a new light. Death is no longer the mere endpoint of a life; it's part of a larger natural cycle -- of growth and decline, of decomposition and rebirth -- that makes life on this planet possible. Instead of working to short-circuit that cycle at literally all costs -- as our modern funeral practices do, with chemical embalming, bullet-proof metal caskets, and concrete burial vaults, all of which will only delay, not halt the inevitable -- green burial says, let's let Mother Nature follow her natural course. To the benefit of the earth, of families, and, not coincidentally, our pocketbooks.

Green burial argues that our best last act may be the simple one of using what remains of our physical existence to fertilize depleted soil, push up a tree, preserve a bit of wild from being developed, and, in the process, perpetuate the cycle of life that turns to support those we leave behind. That, I contend, is lasting, noble legacy to a life well lived.

I ask that you make that possible for the families of Bibb County.

Thank you,

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters


Anonymous said...

Great letter, Mark. Have you heard back from the Bibb Commissioners? I certainly haven't. I put up a new story about the Bibb County ordinance and Funeral Consumers Alliance's response to it at It links to your post.


Josh Slocum

Mark Harris said...

Hi, Josh. I haven't heard from the Commissioners. Good that you've posted your story/refutation on your web site, which I would encourage everyone to read:

All the best --

Anonymous said...

A moving letter indeed, particularly the part about understanding death in a new light.

Fundamentally, our problems in this field all derive from our society's unprecedented denial, and consequent lack of psychological understanding, of death: the vaults, the embalming, the caskets, but also the whole morbid and forbidding aura of our cemeteries. If, as you point out, we could begin to understand human death in the context of a natural cycle, we might be able to face it more bravely, more sincerely, more constructively. The current conception of green cemetery is a step in the right direction. But we are not there yet, even conceptually the idea needs refinement...

In their initial enthusiasm, new movements, particularly reactionary ones, may go too far in the opposite direction, just to be different from what they oppose. Simplistic absolutism may even take control for a while. For the movement to have a future, this must then be moderated, corrected. This is normal and healthy. With the green burial movement, this takes form in the banning of all enduring grave markers from green cemeteries. As I’ve said before, this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Such “green cemeteries” may really be green but they will not really be cemeteries.

To return here to your thoughts about human death in the cycles of great nature: if we are to have a sense of death and rebirth in a cemetery that is relevant to human beings, then enduring symbols of humanity have to be integrated into the natural cycles of the cemetery. That is to say, symbols that outlast many cycles of nature, that resist even as nature goes through its processes.

Otherwise what results is a beautiful natural landscape going through its cycles without reference to humans and their hopes of continuing beyond these cycles. Once upon a time we had these: in an old-style country cemetery, visitors could contemplate their own mortality in a gentle, thought-provoking way as they watched an old tree scattering its yellowed leaves over the weathering grave of a relative; in the spring they could then silently rejoice as the same grave was surrounded by singing birds sitting among the fresh green shoots of new leaves and flowers. Such an integration of the human and the natural provides hope and strength and meaning. A 21st century reconception of such a cemetery could indeed provide a new venue for us to confront death in a beautiful, hopeful, and not at all off-putting context.

The current vision of a green cemetery only needs the addition of beautiful weathering boulders, even small menhirs, inscribed with names, dates, and simple profiles of the deceased, set among the slowly maturing trees and the naturally evolving landscape. A modern-primitive look that would appeal to our naturalistic tastes and retain the human element of a cemetery is what we need.

Thomas Friese

Anonymous said...

Josh, I just read your equally convincing letter to Bibb County. I would only comment on one point, which relates to what I said above on grave markers.

We should distinguish between issues that are a matter of taste and those that have environmental consequences. The issues of ground pollution through decomposing bodies, concrete, metal or formaldehyde, of scavengers digging up bodies, or of leak-proof containers etc are subject to empirical analysis and objective conclusions. If we care about our environment, we should find out the truth about these and ultimately legislate appropriately nationwide. I have no doubt your conclusions are the correct ones in the current case.

But grave markers are a matter of taste, and it is thus fair neither to require grave markers nor to forbid them. Thus, in my opinion, both Bibb County and more radical green burial proponents are wrong, albeit in opposite directions. Or both are right, and each has the right to enforce what they feel is best on their own land. In this context, our free market should decide.

We can certainly sort out the environmental side of burial through science and legislation, but the spiritual and psychological factors (which grave markers relate to) can only be worked out in our own hearts and souls. And then the market should provide what people want and need in this respect. We can't enforce taste and spirituality on society.

Aside: naturally, the Bibb County argument about law enforcement requirements for markers is a red herring. But I would also be skeptical that current technologies like GPS are reliable long-term. Who knows where our world is taking us and how it will evolve? Not all software and hardware is retro-compatible. Why are we so sure this one will be compatible for centuries, when software generations are measured in months or years? And when the old incompatible technology is buried by the underground among thousands of remains, we are hardly likely to retrofit them! These remains will be as irrevocably lost as those in a mass grave. I make this last point more in regard to relatives looking for their family graves decades down the road than law enforcement authorities....

Thomas Friese

Anonymous said...

I agree with Thomas. I think monumentation should be left largely to the discretion of the family. Summerland's policy, which has never been published, would allow almost anything short of a full, polished granite slab.

The native rock in our geological area is soft limestone, not at all suitable for carving or incising with names and dates. I have often said, only half joking, that our native rock is concrete. There is a cement plant about 30 miles south of our proposed cemetery site. On the other hand, only a few miles north of our site one can find flint, granite, and other hard rocks typical of more mountainous areas. There is a huge granite quarry only about 20 miles northeast of our site.

Cairns, wood, concrete, or granite ("velvet" finish, not polished) with less than 300 sq inch footprint would be allowed, per our policy. Height is important only for the desired "viewscape", as we won't be able to mow with tractors without vaults or graveliners below. Taller monuments could be permitted in wooded areas where they would blend in among the trees. It would be more aesthetically pleasing to group different types of monuments in different "gardens", but I'm all for freedom to allow creativity and personalization. Though monuments don't look "natural", they are just as ecologically functional as naturally occurring rocks on the surface.

Personally, I love a garden of monuments. Ideally cemeteries can be repositories of the art and history of our societies. Even a field of concrete slabs says a lot about the people buried there.

As for GPS, I agree with Thomas on that too. Twenty years as a computer programmer has made me quite the Luddite. When I started programming in 1982, most of my work revolved around punch cards and paper tapes. We wrote code with paper and pencil, then punched the cards on a big machine in a common area and hand-carried them upstairs to be read and processed. There was no Internet, only ARPANet, in use as late as 1989. In 20 years, I saw various sizes and formats of tapes, cassettes, and discs/ diskettes, most of which were obsolete and had to be transferred to the next great thing in 5 years or less. (Windows 98, anyone?) If others want to use GPS and try to keep up with the technology, that's fine. But give me a big piece of acid-free paper and a hand-drawn map. Have two or three more as backups, kept at different sites. Keep the roaches and silverfish away and these could last a thousand years or more.

Regards - Beth Collins

Anonymous said...

my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with ‘we leave it to you to decide’.

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