Imagine your favorite walking path through a quiet forest or a scenic meadow, the songbirds flitting among tall grasses, at rest in the morning dew. Your natural pathway winds past native wildflowers buzzing with pollinators, and rocky ridges reminding you of the passage of geologic time.
This landscape is familiar to you because you visit this site to honor someone who has died and is buried on this land.
This land is conserved by a local land trust and it is also a cemetery — a simple burial ground for bodies and cremated remains memorialized in nature and protected in perpetuity. In this cemetery, there are no upright granite headstones, no chain link or iron fences and no manicured lawns. There are no concrete grave liners or metal burial vaults below ground.
Conservation cemeteries are sacred places that offer friends, family and the wider community a restorative place for experiencing loss, grief and the healing properties of nature.
Those who live by environmental principles their whole life may prefer a green burial in a conservation cemetery, in which everything going into the ground is biodegradable. The body is not embalmed. It may be wrapped in a shroud or placed in a simple pine box and lowered into the grave by family and friends.
With a natural burial, it’s common for relatives and friends to place the earth back into the grave. For the community that has gathered, this last act of love and service is as powerful as it is profound.
Consider the account of Joe Laur of Wendell, who assisted in the burial of his dear friend, Rosalind, in 2010. The burial took place on her property in Leyden.
We buried Rosalind today in the forest above her home. Two dozen of us trudged up a hillside on a humid afternoon, carrying a plain pine box. We rested Rosalind on her rock, and shared memories, music, tears, laughter and love of our remarkable friend. Afterward we carried Rosalind to the dug grave, and lowered her gently into it.
We buried her with our own hands. No backhoe doing the job by some cemetery employee after everyone had left. We saw Rosalind through to the end. With shovels and our bare hands, we scooped and pushed the dirt into the hole over the box, until it was all covered by a mound of fresh turned soil and a few large rocks. We buried her as she had lived, consciously, naturally and with abiding love.
Now Rosalind, the conservation biologist, lover of wild things and places, is slowly returning to the earth, the land and the living systems she loved so dearly. Her flesh and bone will become soil and microbe, earthworm and insect, flower and forb, shrub and creature and tree …
Many people are surprised to learn that most private and municipal cemeteries don’t allow this kind of natural burial. Rather, they require that the casket be placed inside a burial vault or concrete grave liner, neither of which is made of materials that will naturally biodegrade.
In a conservation cemetery, all the soil that is displaced by the casket will be returned to the grave and mounded up over the burial. Over time as the body, clothing and casket biodegrade, the meadow grasses or the forest floor will show signs of new life again.
Despite what you might think, there’s almost no risk that bodies might be dug up by wild animals or release odors as they decompose. That’s because burials occur at least 3½ feet underground, providing a “smell barrier” for both wildlife and humans. It’s also true that animals much prefer to find food above ground rather than expending energy on serious digging.
Green burials don’t contaminate deep groundwater, as the soil filters and binds any organic compounds. Burial sites are also set back substantially from any surface drinking water sources.
The costs for green burial can be significantly lower than those for a conventional burial. Eliminating the burial vault and headstone alone saves thousands of dollars. Your family may purchase a simple cardboard coffin, build your own wooden coffin, or use a shroud for the body.
And in Massachusetts, it is the family’s choice to hire a funeral director to handle some or all of the arrangements for a burial. If you opt to file the paperwork, transport the body, and work with the cemetery staff yourself, you will reduce the professional fees for these services.
As public interest in green burial grows, Green Burial Massachusetts and the Kestrel Land Trust are working together to create Massachusetts’ first conservation cemetery in the Connecticut River Valley.
Generous seed funding from area philanthropists will enable Kestrel to purchase and permanently protect land for the Valley Conservation Cemetery project. Once the right property is found, the cemetery will be run as a nonprofit organization and burial will be open to all. The cemetery will provide a sustainable alternative to conventional burial by adhering to strict green burial standards while protecting the land for its conservation values.
As every decision we make throughout our lives has an impact on our planet, green burial can give each of us a chance to make a parting gift to the earth. To learn more about the Valley Conservation Cemetery project, go to conservationcemeteryMA.org.
Judith Lorei is co-founder and president of Green Burial Massachusetts, which has championed natural burial throughout the state for over 10 years. Kari Blood is community engagement director with Kestrel Land Trust.
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Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.