Offering Green Burial Options in Your Hybrid Cemetery
by Lee Webster, with assistance from Suzanne Kelly of Rhinebeck Cemetery and author of Greening Death; Chesterfield, Hawley, and Heath, MA cemeteries; Candace Currie, formerly of Mt Auburn Cemetery; Patrick Healey of Green MountCemetery, Montpelier, Vermont.
Introduction If you are a cemetery trustee, member of a cemetery or historical commission, selectman, town clerk, city registrar, town or city planner, public works superintendent, or county official in some capacity that oversees cemeteries, it is likely that you will be approached about green burial if you haven’t been already.
Given the rapid rise in interest, many municipal officials feel unprepared to answer questions. They may be challenged by citizens with little knowledge of the concerns and responsibilities that officials, elected or otherwise, face while stewarding their town’s cemeteries within the confines of budget, space, real estate values, mandatory state law, and various restrictions.
The following is also intended to address green burial from your point of view while exploring where there may be common ground that benefits both residents and town government. We understand that state and local laws and regulations vary, so please take what applies and is helpful and leave the rest.
Who Wants Green Burial? What According to a 2018 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association, "Just over half of respondents (53.8 percent) said they would be interested in exploring green memorialization options to reduce the environmental impact of end-of-life rituals."
I 2007, a similar study by AARP indicated 42% of those canvassed were interested in green burial, while a study by Kates-Boylston, funeral trade magazine editors, found 43% the next year. interestingly, 64% indicated interest in a FAMIC Harris Poll in 2015.
Also, in 2015, the Green Burial Council polled its provider green cemeteries and learned that an estimated 45% of the burials they handled would probably have been cremations, not conventional burials. The term "cremation conversion" was coined to explain the choice of natural disposition methods over cremation and its inherent environmental downsides of CO2, particulates, and heavy metals, particularly mercury emissions, plus reliance on vast quantities of fossil fuel consumption.
Here are some other observations gleaned from that survey:
73% of green cemetery operators said they had experienced growing demand since making it available
77% agreed that they have been profitable
72% indicated that they felt their families were “highly satisfied” with their experience, with all the rest saying they were just “satisfied”
What we have learned above all is that green burial cuts across all socio-economic lines. Anyone with a desire to leave the planet naturally or who enjoys nature in any capacity is a likely consumer. As Baby boomers direct their own parents’ funerals, no less their own, there is a growing swell of desire for simpler, more authentic, organic send-offs that culminate in natural burial.
And there is another factor that will influence whether they approach municipal cemeteries first: the fundamental human need for a sense of place. People want to be buried as close to “home” as possible, wherever that may be for them at any given time, and local cemeteries are far preferable to traveling many miles or to another state or region purely for the environmental benefits. Municipal hybrid cemeteries can pay a vital role in strengthening community and meeting the needs of their residents by providing green space close by.
Local cemeteries can also take a greater role in building community by hosting life-affirming events, encouraging people to make a place of death a place of life again. Green burial grounds are the ideal venue for strengthening family and community bonds and educating about environmentally sensible options.
Historical Perspective Some cemetery trustees find it difficult to imagine doing business differently, often having been involved for years in cemetery management according to bylaws written decades earlier. So much about what is legally required has become conflated with local regulations that it is not unusual to hear that vaults are required by law or that embalming is done for public health reasons, neither of which are true anywhere in the US or elsewhere in the world. Tanya Marsh, the leading cemetery historian and legal expert from Wake Forest University, has written extensively about the evolution of burial and cremation that answers the larger world questions and details types of cemetery trends up to and through the current lawn cemetery (Cemetery Law: The Common Law of Burying Grounds in the United States, 2015, God’s Acre Publishing). To get a little perspective on what has been happening in our town and city cemeteries that relates specifically to proposals for green burial practices, here is a quick synopsis:
Prior to 1860 — Care of the dead was largely handled by families, church members, and the local birth midwife. Burial was either on private property on the farm or in church cemeteries, 4-5 feet down, in a pine casket made by the local cabinetmaker or someone handy, or a shroud made of old quilts, sheets, or other fabric. All materials were organic, and no impediments were added that would delay natural decomposition.
1860 -1930 — Care of the dead migrated out of the hands of family members and into the storefronts of undertakers. The National Funeral Directors Association was formed in 1882 to promote embalming, experimented with on the southern battlefields of the Civil War, and establish a mortuary profession. The affluent began purchasing embalming for preservative reasons and increasingly for cosmetic purposes, and the middle class followed suit. It was common for the mortician to embalm the body and return it to the family home parlor for a vigil. Burial in rural areas continued as before; some cemeteries in crowded urban areas were moved out of the city limits. Early wooden vaults to assist in this effort were introduced, though they caused more safety hazards than they solved.
1930 — Wilbert Haas, a German-American concrete business owner, toured the tomb of King Tut in Egypt the year it was opened to the public, which resulted in his brainstorm idea to encase caskets in concrete vaults to make burials closer, thus increasing burial density and revenue potential. He marketed the idea as providing protection from the elements for our loved ones for eternity—and protection to the living from the germ-ridden, restless souls inside. Cemeterians embraced the practice for its orderliness and hygiene promises, even after miasma theory that had been associated with the dank air of rotting corpses seeping through soil causing a threat to the health of the living was debunked and replaced by proven germ theory. Around the same time, town and city cemetery managers began writing bylaws to include vaults as a matter of course. Undertakers nee morticians, now calling themselves funeral directors, actively curried a reputation for professionalism akin to doctors and lawyers.
1998 - present — Green burial migrated to the US from the UK in South Carolina, with Dr. Billy Campbell and his wife Kimberley starting Ramsey Creek Conservation Burial Ground. Twenty years later, more than 200 green burial cemeteries are in operation, all with one significant practice in common: burial without vaults, biodegradable materials, and absence of toxic embalming fluids, the way we started out.
What we can glean from this goes against the mythology many of us have been taught. We now know that dead bodies are not automatically infectious, smelly, or dangerous. While concrete vaults create maximum use of the land in the short term until the cemetery is filled up, make disinterment possible, and allow areas with poor soils to be utilized, natural burial allows for long term reuse of the land, maximum burial density without artifacts, sustainable management and restoration of poor soil areas. Most natural burial cemeteries disallow disinterment for any reason other than legally required exhumations for obvious reasons plus the unwritten compact between families and owners to keep a loved one’s remains undisturbed for spiritual reasons. The fact that both embalming and vaults are not legally required at any governmental level speaks volumes about the false narrative of their necessity as a public health safeguard.
In fact, current practices have proven cumulatively dangerous, filling land with concrete, imported rainforest woods, bronze, steel, and other metals, toxic chemicals, and other things that create leachate and impede the natural decomposition of our organic bodies in soil that is ideal for the purpose of filtering, binding, and deactivating toxins. In studies designed to determine toxic plume from burials, it is clear that any dangers involved with burial are attributable to the things we put in the grave, with the exclusion of the body itself. [See The Science of Green Burial. An excerpt on soil and water is included in this packet.)
When we can move past these misunderstandings, we can put the “but we’ve always done it this way” mentality behind us and begin to be creative in finding ways to incorporate ethical, safe, environmentally responsible practices into our cemeteries.
Best Practices/Safety Concerns For extensive practical directions specific to green burial cemetery operations that address both best practices and safety procedures, see Opening, Closing, and Maintenance of a Green Burial Grave.On the Way to the Green Burial Cemetery: A Guide for Families discusses other types of safety concerns and approaches the experience from the consumer side of things. Also see the additional FAQs assembled at the conclusion of this article. Leading cemetery operators and sextons contributed to these guides. Together they address the following general areas of concern, and much more:
Four International health organizations’ statements on public health safety of omitting embalming
Water and soil contamination
Safe procedures for carrying and lowering the deceased
Safe procedures for digging and filling the grave
Safe procedures for conducting graveside services
Maintenance procedures and priorities
Hybrid Cemetery Models There are currently four distinct types of hybrid cemetery models in the US, with more creative ways to utilize active and abandoned cemeteries in the works. Each takes into consideration the need to use space strategically, respect existing graves, and leave room for successive burials to extend the life of the cemetery.
Natural Burial Section Within or Adjacent to a Conventional Cemetery The Catholic Church has been instrumental in showing the way toward sustainable green burial in their existing cemeteries due in part to full body burial doctrine [See To Lie Down in Green Pastures: The Catholic Church and green burial]. By creating a dedicated space within the property in general or in an adjacent lot for vaultless burial, maintenance consistency, access points, and a host of other potential complications may be avoided. What happens in green space with regard to chemical, pest, and nuisance animal control, along with maintenance schedules and chosen best practices, stays in that area, making it possible to budget and schedule accordingly. It is also aesthetically pleasing to many who want to be buried in a less manicured or tame place with others of the same ilk. Their sense of place is different from the usual, where people choose based on geographical proximity to home. For green burial families, sense of place has as much to do with what is above ground in direct connection to the grave space as in what town the burial occurs.
Intermingled with Existing Conventional Burial Plots Some cemeteries are burying green between existing graves, many of which have no vaults or liners. Maintenance and care therefore follows the cemetery-wide protocol. People choosing this are often satisfied to have contributed to the environment by eschewing a vault and using a biodegradable container while being buried in a place of great meaning to them. There are opening and closing challenges in this scenario, particularly in historic cemeteries whose record keeping may be unreliable, which is often the case due to flooding, fires, and other reasons for records loss or confusion.
Use of Marginal Property Another way to utilize space in cemeteries is to identify marginal property that cannot be used for conventional burial due to sloping or rugged topography. It is also a great way to use burial to bring an aesthetic creativity to the property, introducing elements of design that enhance the experience for mourners and visitors. One cemetery in New England has identified through testing that a significant area previously thought unusable can accommodate more than forty green burial graves in its first phase alone by following a swath of land that curves through the center of the cemetery. Another has designed a circular layout with a center fountain in an awkward corner lot area. Still another has done the work of having a soil and water resources inventory done on an area thought to be too close to wetlands and undesirable adjacent land, only to find that there is an environmentally beneficial opportunity for restoration and scenic area development that incorporates burial space. While contemplating the use or development of marginal lands, it is important to weigh cost against potential revenue, but to also weigh the benefits of public engagement at the same time.
Abandoned Cemetery Restoration Cemeteries have an interesting legal life where abandonment is concerned. Who is to say whether a cemetery has had its identity destroyed, which is the essential legal criteria for determining an abandoned cemetery? Furthermore, it’s hard for family members to understand that although their relative or ancestor may have purchased a plot, their ownership is an easement agreement or license to keep them in that space rather than ownership of the real estate itself. The process of having a cemetery deemed abandoned requires a court decision involving such terms as ‘adverse possession’ or ‘notorious and hostile possession’, neither of which is as bad as it sounds. Regardless of the complexity, these older cemeteries that predate consistent use of concrete vaults are being acquired for the purpose of restoration and burial, breathing new life into communities and remembering the interred, just as their families had hoped at the time they were buried.
With Respect to Revenue Obviously, town officials are dedicated to responsibly ensuring the fiduciary health of their area, and cemeteries are no exception. Using land wisely and prudently is critical for thriving communities, and essential for fiscally successful cemetery balance sheets.
Some states have mandatory requirements for towns and cities to maintain active burial space for their residents, making it incumbent on selectmen, planning, zoning, cemetery, and other commissioners to plan well. It also means that when cemeteries reach capacity, the municipality is responsible for purchasing additional real estate that can accommodate burial which may or may not be in the same community. With many rural cemeteries maxing out existing space, the acquisition of real estate in desirable locations at a price the town or city can afford is becoming increasingly difficult.
Add to that the upkeep of historical and full cemeteries in addition to developing new space and the costs can add up exponentially, pinching an already strained municipal budget. In many areas of the country, abandoned cemeteries are taking their toll as they revert to municipal control and oversight once the profit has been realized by private owners, or the churches and religious institutions are no longer able to maintain them due to dwindling attendance.
Green burial plots were originally larger than standard plots to account for subsequent burials. We now know that we can bury closer to an earlier burial as long as we keep good physical and digital records and follow a rotation plan, giving each burial a chance to process before disturbing adjacent earth.
In a well-managed green burial cemetery, plots and opening and closing fees make the same demands on real estate, time, effort, and resources that conventional burials do. Charging the same price to bury without a vault as with one is fair, and contributes to keeping burial affordable for all, avoiding the dangers of elitism and selective attainability and accessibility that contributes to socio-economic inequality. Families choosing green burial will benefit from not having to purchase vaults and may find savings by providing their own burial containers or choosing biodegradable manufactured ones, significantly reducing financial pressures. Green burial is also responsible for converting some cremation candidates back to burial, who may have chosen cremation based on a wish to avoid prohibitive pricing of a full conventional funeral, reintroducing opportunities for connection through ritual associated with graveside services.
Burial plot pricing in a hybrid cemetery needs to be consistent with what each individual cemetery is charging for conventional plots for several reasons. First, real estate is real estate—people generally choose place above space. It comes down to location, and the market value of any location is driven by varying factors unique to that location, not what is going to occur on it, just like any other real estate transaction. The price of a piece of land does not change depending on whether a Victorian or a Craftsman house is going to be built on it. Likewise, it makes little sense to charge differently for a similar-sized plot in the same location. Maintenance for green burial graves is different and still necessary, so costs go toward whatever method of upkeep the cemetery chooses to perform; revenue is used differently, not one more than the other. Cost equalizing also ensures accessibility to all, not just for those who can afford it.
The pricing differential is found in lower baseline funeral costs. Environmental advantages, family participation, and return of meaningful ritual burial practices are an added boon to families and cemeteries alike, and savvy funeral directors will see an opening for providing appropriate goods and services that will be beneficial to both consumers and providers.
Despite the rise in cremation, burial space is still needed for cremated remains, and interment is required by the Catholic Church. Common practice is to sell plots for x number of full body burials and/or x number of cremation spots. What many natural burial cemeteries are doing to maximize space use and still generate revenue is to create a smaller cremated remains space, or communal tank, or a scattering garden, with the option of recording the loved one’s name on a cenotaph at the entrance to the space rather than taking up larger plots that are mostly empty. This keeps costs down while encouraging responsible disposal of remains that are dense, composed of non-biodegradable elements calcium phosphate and sodium, and can negatively affect the environment when dumped or spread on foliage.
In short, green burial in an existing cemetery can be profitable in multiple ways while also meeting personal, cultural, and financial needs.
Building Consensus Chances are good that as a municipal or county official you have been approached by individuals in your area about providing green burial space. Those individuals are joining ranks with others to form green burial societies, alliances, conservation land trusts, nonprofits, and other groups dedicated to making green burial happen in their state or region or area. They come armed with statistics that lay out the environmental, health, land use, and cultural drawbacks of the current system and are demanding change, and it is deeply personal to them.
That said, they may not be savvy about the laws, the politics, or the realities of making these changes in their local cemeteries. They are looking to elected officials to be responsive to their requests. The potential for conflict is high, not just between the residents and officials, but neighbor to neighbor. Getting out ahead of the issues and exploring options is critical for municipal officials. So is building consensus when things are not as easy as they first seem. Since most of the following is not included in your job description, lean on those who are keen to promote the idea and let them take the lead doing the footwork.
Here are some ideas for stemming conflict and building consensus through inclusion:
Identify potential green burial spaces in your community through a feasibility study
Identify potential space with a natural resources inventory commissioned from a university or extension service
Identify space in existing cemeteries by reviewing plats and land use documents
Appoint a citizen-led committee of advocates to develop and execute a public awareness campaign
Form an ad hoc committee to design a community-based plan of proposed activities to be offered in the cemetery space, such as fun runs, dog days, yoga or tai chi, family gatherings, birdwatching, etc.
Have conversations early and often with potential property abutters
Develop budget projections that identify fiscal planning goals and possibilities
Host community forums in conjunction with interested community members to explain the law, the benefits and address concerns about green burial
Engage librarians, book store owners, movie theaters, senior centers and others to display books and host films that explain green burial
Enlist the aid of religious leaders, funeral directors, community outreach program leaders, educators, and anyone else who has a stake in the development of a green cemetery in your area
Solicit help in writing newspaper articles, warrants, bylaw language, and brochures or other materials for distribution
Tap local businesses for support, such as printers, to help with educational efforts