Have you ever noticed how many cemeteries have the word forest in their name? Forest Lawn is perhaps the best known. But usually, there’s no forest.
A few trees, maybe, but mostly headstones lined up in ranks like soldiers. It’s kind of like a subdivision where they name the streets after tree species that have all been chopped down to make room for McMansions. Hickory(less) Drive, for instance.
When it comes to death, westerners — Americans in particular— really aren’t down with the whole concept. What’s that Woody Allen quote? “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
As a result we as a society like our death sterile. And we’ve supported an entire funeral industry, worth an estimated $20.1 billion a year in the U.S. The average funeral costs $8,000 to $10,000, according to a 2017 PBS report.
But that is slowly changing. Over the past few decades there’s a growing movement away from funerals that involve embalming, expensive caskets, and concrete burial vaults and toward a simpler and more natural send-off. And this so-called “green burial” movement is where forests come in. Turns out a lot of people would like their final resting place to be a forest, or at the edge of one. With a nice view. Of mountains, maybe. Or rolling hills, or a lake.
There are already two green burial grounds in Maine — Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington and Rainbow’s End in South Orrington. The Kennebec Land Trust is planning to open a conservation burial ground as part of an expansion of its protected lands in Fayette, with the first burials there perhaps as early as next year.
Green burials, also called natural burials, forest burials, conservation burials or eco-friendly burials, are about as planet-friendly as they come, says Chuck Lakin, a retired Colby College reference librarian and a volunteer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine, a non-profit dedicated to educating consumers about funeral choices. Lakin speaks frequently on the topics of home funerals and earth-friendly burials.
“A burial in a green cemetery is a net plus for the environment; burial in a conventional cemetery is a net minus for the environment,” Lakin says bluntly.
According to the Green Burial Council, each year we bury 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid (of which 827,000 gallons is poisonous formaldehyde); 64,500 tons of steel; 20 million board feet of hardwood lumber in the form of caskets; and 1.6 million tons of concrete in the form of burial vaults.
By contrast, a green burial ground limits interment to what’s biodegradable, said Lakin: the body, a shroud of natural materials or a cardboard or pine coffin. No embalming, no vaults, no metal-lined caskets. Conservation burial also has these requirements, but takes place in a much larger, natural area (at least ten acres of protected land) thus serving as both a cemetery and a conservation strategy.
In green cemeteries bodies are typically buried only about three feet deep, where they typically decompose in about six months, he said. “It’s kind of like composting yourself,” said Lakin. “You’re putting the materials in your body back into the system. It’s the exact opposite of a conventional burial.”
Green cemeteries are usually just “natural pieces of land,” he said. They often have trails for access to gravesites that also double as recreational trails and benches where you can pause during a walk or come specifically to contemplate the impermanence of all things and your place in a vast universe.
Also, in contrast to conventional cemeteries, where a mower is going to clatter overhead every week during the summer, maintenance is generally kept to a minimum. Green cemeteries that have some meadow may brush hog them a couple of times a year to ensure they remain open, but that’s about it. Green cemeteries are often located in forests, so the term “forest burial” is often used synonymously with “green burial” since some people like the idea of being buried in the woods, the nutrients in their bodies turned into the wood of a tree, tree roots cradling their corporeal remains.
The Kennebec Land Trust began exploring the idea of a green burial ground in 2016 after summer intern Josh Caldwell researched the growing trend and wrote a report and brochure, said Theresa Kerchner, KLT’s executive director. In 2018, KLT summer intern Jack Daley continued that work and developed a conservation burial business plan for the Trust.
The organization began working with Maine State Soils Scientist David Rocque, an expert on large animal burials and issues surrounding them. He has since done extensive research on green burials and the siting of green burial grounds. Issues include groundwater, aesthetics, accessibility, and the suitability of soils to foster decomposition. “We wanted to make sure that there weren’t impacts on soil and groundwater and wildlife,” Kerchner said.
The search for a suitable property eventually led back to an area where the Trust already had a presence: a 90-acre parcel in Fayette known as Baldwin Hill. Its purchase from longtime KLT supporters Arn and Leda Sturtevant was finalized in June. “It immediately resonated with their family,” said Kerchner. The purchase brings the area the Kennebec Land Trust owns or holds conservation easements on in that area to 425 contiguous acres.
KLT’s cemetery will be sited on Baldwin Hill. However only eight acres of the 90-acre Conservation Area will serve as the actual burial ground. “We had the sense that there was something inherently significant and beautiful about being on a hilltop.” Kerchner said.
A timber harvest this summer is opening up some views and clearing out some of the white pines and lower value oak and other hardwoods. A short all-weather road will be put in. “Since storing bodies will not be an option for us, our plan from the beginning was to have burials all year round.” Kerchner said.
The burial ground will have an ADA-accessible trail, she said, and other recreational trails will thread the rest of the 90 acres.
The entire project will cost just over $225,000, including the land acquisition, said Kerchner. Proceeds from the sale of timber will go to build the gravel road; sale of burial plots (the price hasn’t been set yet) will fund stewardship at the site. The project was made possible by a donation of $200,000 from Paul Kuehnert and his wife Judith Graber and matching gifts from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Kuehnert is a vice president at the Foundation. The couple formerly lived in Maine and are long-time supporters of KLT.
KLT’s primary management responsibilities will be to coordinate plot sales and manage the burial ground and surrounding conservation land, Kerchner said, adding that the Trust is partnering with local funeral homes that have established expertise with grief support, memorial services, transportation of bodies and sexton burial fees.
Kuehnert said the project, “just makes sense to us and is consistent with our values.”
“Conservation burial makes it possible for our last act on earth — our funeral or memorial — to be consistent with how we are living our lives,” Kuehnert said. “It eliminates much of the cost and all of the chemicals and metals and other materials common to mainstream burials today. And the burial ground itself is part of the living, social and natural world that we leave behind as part of the KLT’s conservation lands and walking trails.”
“Interment in a conservation burial ground has a smaller carbon footprint than a ‘modern’ burial, and the project will provide a valuable model in our community for other cemetery associations to consider,” Kerchner said.
“When I think about this property I think of it as a place where people will be celebrating life and the beauty of the natural world, which I think is what we all hope for at the end of our lives,“ she added.
While eco-friendly burials are seen as new, both Lakin and Kerchner note that they were the norm until recently and still are in much of the world.
Lakin said embalming took hold in the U.S. during the Civil War as a way to get soldiers’ bodies back from the battlefield. Later, as the country continued industrializing and more and more people moved from the country to the city, funeral homes were developed to provide services that families could no longer conveniently provide themselves.
The natural burial movement started in Great Britain in the early 1980s, said Lakin. The first so-called woodland burial in the United Kingdom took place in 1993 at Carlisle Cemetery, according to Wikipedia. The first natural burial ground in the U.S. was opened by Billy Campbell, a rural doctor and green burial pioneer, at the Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina in 1998.
There are dozens of green burial grounds in the US today, with more opening all the time. And some traditional cemeteries are setting aside sections for natural burials as well.
Lakin notes that in much of the world outside the industrialized west, so-called green or eco-friendly burials are just the way it’s done. “ ‘Conservation burial’ is really traditional burial,” said Kerchner.
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature and sustainability for websites and magazines. He lives in New Sharon.