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Thursday, March 12, 2015

No Grave Marker Endures

The headstone that stands at the north end of Fountain Hill Cemetery doesn’t tell you much about John Simsack’s brief sojourn upon this earth:

Born: 1849
Died: Jan. 11, 1905
Aged: 55 Years

Even then the inscription's hard to make out. The elements have pocked and faded the script. Mold obscures much of the face. The “k” in Simsack is disappearing, so too the fateful day John passed away that January of 1905.

A century after his death, Mother Nature has all but rubbed out these last words on John Simsack. In another decade or so, She’ll wipe them away for good. And then the limestone marker that fixes this final resting place will more closely resemble those of its older neighbors: blank-faced and leaning, sinking deeper into the ground.

It’s a sobering thought and, as I studied Simsack’s grave recently on walk through this historic Pennsylvania cemetery, it reminded me of the growing debate in green burial circles about biodegradable grave markers.

Most natural cemeteries in the U.S. ask families to mark graves with fieldstone, river rock, or some other “natural” material that’s collected on site or from a similar geological stratum. Unlike the granite or bronze markers you see in standard cemeteries, fieldstones and their ilk break down quickly out in the open. Within a hundred years, they’ll weather into the landscape, leaving future visitors to consult cemetery maps or GPS coordinates to locate the graves of their beloved departed.

The policy on markers is in keeping with the dust-to-dust philosophy that guides natural burial. It's also one not everybody -- green burial advocates included -- agrees with.

Some critics, as I noted earlier in this space, argue that an (eventually) unmarked grave devalues the individuality of the deceased, the uniqueness of that one life. From that perspective, the dead serve as mere soil amendment and the natural cemetery little more than a mass, utilitarian composting scheme. Genealogists dislike the practice, too, as it denies descendants the chance to see evidence of their ancestry and thus feel their rightful place in the long chain of family.

All these arguments have real merit (enough so that some natural cemeteries are working to address them, something I'll explore in my next blog). 

Even so, I think it’s important to keep in mind the lesson of John Simsack’s weathering headstone. Which is this: No grave marker lasts forever. None of the headstones in Fountain Hill Cemetery will endure. Not the fieldstone that will one day cover my grave in the natural burial ground I’ve started within this cemetery. But neither the markers of limestone, slate, and marble that rise from the old section here. Nor the headstones that were cut from seemingly impermeable granite, which came to replace limestone in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A harder stone buys time, for sure, but it doesn't buy eternity. In due time, all the headstones that populate this cemetery, no matter their durability, will degrade. Inscriptions will eventually fade. Stones will eventually topple or, like the bronze marker that rests on the grave of my great-grandmother in a Rochester, NY, cemetery, sink into the earth.  

The green policy on biodegradable grave markers is a tough one to like. In part, I think that’s because it asks us on a very practical level to accept, if not fully embrace, our mutability. A readily-degrading fieldstone inscribed with our name and dates acknowledges that we really are only here for a time. We’re just passing through.  

What endures is not the overt reminder of our one, short life but the on-going pageant of all life.

Mark Harris, author
Author, Grave Matters
“The manifesto of the [green burial] movement,” Indianapolis Star

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Bethlehem, PA. Kirkland Village

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Emmaus, PA. Poole Sanctuary

April 21 (Tues), 6:00
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Grave Matters

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