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Monday, September 06, 2010

Green Burials Take Deep Root in Existing Cemeteries

Nature's Sanctuary is a one-acre natural cemetery that sits at the northwest edge of Philadelphia, a stone's throw from a long stretch of the Schuylkill River before it snakes into the urban grid.

It's a surprisingly hushed, leafy locale given its proximity to the country's sixth most-populated city. Dense woodlands rim the cemetery's northern corner. A tree-belted rail line -- soon to become a nature trail -- runs along the backside of the property. The grounds themselves are mostly overspread with rough grass, which grows up to earthen burial mounds backstopped by tall, feather-tipped grasses and wildflowers native to the region.

Nature's Sanctuary offers a fetching view of a natural return to the elements -- and in a place you might least expect to find it: a traditional cemetery.

Pennsylvania's first true green burial ground takes root at West Laurel Hill, a suburban cemetery where Philadelphians have been laying their dead to rest for well over a century.

And so far, it represents an approach to green burial that accounts for a large part of the movement's growth.

Nature's Sanctuary is just one of scores of existing cemeteries across the country that have opened their gates and manicured lawns to a more natural approach to burial.

For some cemeteries, that means allowing vaultless burial to take place anywhere on their grounds. The property may not be wooded or even particularly "natural" in appearance, but without entombment in burial vaults -- the usual requirement of most cemeteries -- a wood-coffined body will at least have eventual contact with surrounding soil and, in its decomposition, rejoin the elements.

Other cemeteries are taking a more wholistic approach. Here, a section of ground is reserved for green burial only. No formaldehyde-embalmed bodies are allowed. Metal caskets are banned, burial vaults prohibited. The grounds themselves are typically landscaped to resemble more natural environments, like woodlands or, as in Nature's Sanctuary, meadows.

Native vegetation is planted atop and around graves, grave markers are limited to indigenous fieldstone or rock.

Siting a natural burial ground within an existing cemetery has many advantages. For one, it's easier and cheaper to establish one of these so-called "hybrid" cemeteries than it is to start one from scratch. Operators don't have locate and purchase land or post the expensive bonds, which sometimes tally into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, that states often require of new cemeteries.

Cemetery owners already have the land, as well as landscaping crews and sometimes even funds to launch new, eco undertakings. And unlike operators of virgin, all-natural grounds, they don't have to depend entirely on their "green" sales, either. They can often afford to wait for interest, and plot sales, to grow.

Hybrid cemeteries have their disadvantages. They're harder to tie to efforts to preserve nearby lands, as Ramsey Creek Preserve is doing. And while often very handsome, a "wild," unpruned green section can look both odd and oddly circumscribed within the broader environment of the well-tended traditional cemetery, with its surrounding landscape of marble headstones and turf mowed to golf-course grade.

As a consequence, you're less likely to lose yourself in natural revelry here than in those broad, forest-bounded meadows at the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, or to feel the "soothing influences of nature" that the ruined, woodland graves of olde England offered Romantic poet William Wordsworth.

Still, for families seeking a dust-to-dusty return in the known and nearby environs of the local cemetery -- albeit one less leafy than elsewhere -- a hybrid ground like Nature's Sanctuary is a beautiful, worthy, and welcome option.

Next week: How West Laurel Hill started Nature's Sanctuary.

Upcoming speaking engagements:
I'll be giving a number of presentations on green burial in the coming months. Click here for times and street addresses. All presentations are free and open to the public:

26: Harrisburg, PA

17: Morristown, NJ
22: San Mateo, CA
23: Berkeley, CA
23: Santa Rosa, CA

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.