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Friday, February 26, 2010

Greensprings Natural Cemetery: Three-plus Years Later

I returned to the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve recently and found it looking just as bucolic and inviting as I had remembered.

The hillside overlook offered the same breathtaking view of this rural swath of New York's Southern Tier, with its broad meadows and rim of dense woodlands stretching unimpeded to the horizon. In the distance, red-winged blackbirds glided into tall grass just as they had on the blustery day I last visited. A quiet chorus of other birds -- of which I could identify goldfinch, some field sparrows and one, lone cedar waxwing -- only added to the natural serenity I had come to associate with the Empire State's first natural cemetery.

And, as I did on that afternoon three years earlier, I could imagine few places on this earth I'd rather be laid to rest.

I'm not alone.

Since its dedication in May of 2006, some five dozen people have been buried at Greensprings. Another 300 have purchased plots in advance.

In keeping with its natural surroundings -- and per cemetery policy -- all of those interments have followed a basic, dust-to-dust return to the elements. Embalming was avoided. Metal caskets, burial vaults and upright headstone weren't used. Grave makers had been fashioned from stone indigenous to the region and then laid flush to the ground.

When I walked the meadowlands that constitute Greensprings' main burial grounds, the only evidence of individual graves I saw at first were mounds of earth in various stages of settling. Some of the older graves -- and others into which shrouded bodies had been lowered, sans casket -- had already returned to mostly level grade. Grass from the meadow had by then migrated into plots, overspreading their graves. Some sites had also been planted with vegetation native to the region, such as purple coneflowers and blueberry bushes.

As I neared the graves, I could see their modest markers. They were cut from natural fieldstone or quarried stone. Like their attendant mounds of earth, the oldest of them had settled into the ground and become a part of it.

Stakes flagging future graves dotted the meadow, but otherwise there was very little to suggest that Greensprings is a cemetery at all. There was no established walking path. None of the burial plots were marked off with stone edging or linked chain. The meadow itself -- not its resident graves -- predominated and thus largely defined this landscape.

Which is just the point. The focus of natural burial isn't so much the interred body but the natural cycle of life that very body is perpetuating for those who remain. It's life, not mere death, that's celebrated here. And that's why visitors like this one feel uplifted, not depressed, when we walk through Greensprings and other natural cemeteries of its kind.

Greensprings offers families in this part of the country a lovely place for a green repose. But it's doing much more than that, for families and the natural environment. Next week we'll look more closely at how Greensprings is working to redefine the landscape of the traditional American cemetery and see the issues and challenges it faces in doing so.

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.