by Jayalalita for Green Leaf, GreenStar Natural Foods Market, originally published May 5, 2013
Since every life ends in death, isn't dying consciously a way to take conscious living to the limit? And if mindful living, for you, includes minding your carbon footprint every step of the way, why not keep it as low as possible when you make your exit? Do you want your body reduced to ashes in an energy-guzzling process that sends pollutants into the air (as in the process of cremation — typically thought of as the best of available choices)? Do you want to have it pumped full of toxic preserving chemicals and stashed in a predominantly metal coffin, which then goes into a concrete or metal vault (the system used in most burial grounds to keep the earth from sinking)? Imagine this: your body could simply be returned to the earth — your final composting effort, as it were — in a place that doesn't rob land from nature and even provides protected space for wildlife, with a simple field stone for a marker, engraved, perhaps, but neither cut nor polished.
I had a long and truly inspiring conversation with Joel Rabinowitz, the director of Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, to learn all about it. The cemetery that became operational in May of 2006 had its genesis when two women from Corning, Jennifer Johnson and Susan Thomas, got it into their earth-loving heads at the beginning of 2000 (right on January 1st!) that a local natural option should exist. The natural burial movement was just getting going then. The Green Burial Council, which provides eco-certification for cemeteries and funeral homes, currently lists 37 certified natural burial grounds in the United States, with more in existence operating without certification. Obviously, they're far outnumbered by conventional cemeteries. But note that conventional doesn't equal traditional: advocates of natural burial are quick to point out that current practices only began in the past couple of centuries. Factor in sustainability, and it's a no-brainer to go back to the old way.
Early in their explorations, Jen and Susan met Mary Woodsen at a Newfield town meeting, erroneously believing they needed the town's permission for their venture. At the time, Mary was looking with Carl Leopold, a founder of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, for a natural preserve for scattering cremation ashes. Longtime nature and science writer, Mary was to become Founding President of Greensprings and, subsequently, a public speaker for the natural burial movement. The four of them joined forces and quickly scored 100 acres of undeveloped land from Herb Engman, town of Ithaca supervisor and staunch ecologist.
Herb wanted to sell the property in Newfield, just south of Ithaca, but was most interested in preserving the land. Formerly used as farmland, despite its rocky soil, it consists chiefly of grasslands up on Irish Hill Road. Mary describes it as "a windswept hilltop, ... and that 'windswept' bit is no cliché." It's a beautiful spot, bordered by Cornell's Arnot Forest (a local birding hot spot) and Newfield State Forest, amounting to some 8,000 connected acres of protected woodlands. Herb cooperated with a plan for payments for 93 acres to happen later in conjunction with plot sales, while the 7 that held a livable cottage could be paid for right away by handling it as a rental for the caretaker of the land, Sam Hernandez, and his wife. Sam has done trail maintenance, grave maintenance, and brush clearance. He's now actively working on a grave maintenance plan to make sure the graves are getting covered with grass more quickly and to generally improve the overall appearance of the burial areas without the harsh chemical upkeep typical of most cemeteries.
Despite the fact that plot sales took off quickly, Greensprings founders found it increasingly difficult to funnel 25 percent of sales toward buying the land. In 2009, Herb responded with a powerful, simple gesture to demonstrate his commitment to this natural burial venture that would preserve the land in a way that aligned with his values: he donated the 7 acres outright, and waived any future payments on the 93. "We consider him to be our number one benefactor," says Joel.
Known to the founders because of his work with the Finger Lakes Land Trust, Joel was the first nonfounder to be on the board, coming on in 2004 and helping with the process (which took much longer than expected) to gain approval from the state to slate the land for burials. It wasn't until summer of 2007 that Joel became paid director. Before then, he said, he and the other board members took care of everything on a volunteer basis. "We just dropped what we were doing when someone wanted a burial there and somehow or other took care of it." By 2007, he, like the founders, had been taken with a passion for offering a local natural burial option to care for both people and planet.
During his first year as director, Joel handled the burial coordination, too, then founder Jen Johnson took over that part, with another paid position thus created. The job is multifaceted, requiring communication with the local farmer with the backhoe who digs each grave, funeral directors — some of whom may be unfamiliar with natural burial — and grieving families. Part of her job is to let people know what to expect — for example, the usual convention of dressing up is usurped here by the need for good walking shoes to navigate the uphill, unmanicured grounds. She may also actively officiate over burial ceremonies. "She's wonderfully empathetic," says Joel, "and has studied healing modalities with Native American teachers. She can do Native American–style burials for people who want that. We've had that, plus all the typical traditions — Jewish, Catholic, various Protestant denominations — then Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, and of course people who've created their own secular ceremonies or came from different cultures. There's so much diversity in what's going on at Greensprings."
It's worth noting that there's an area designated as a separate Jewish burial space in compliance with the particular rules of that tradition. The Jewish way has always called for natural materials, such as caskets made completely of wood or simple shrouds for containing the body. "The idea," says Joel, "is that bodies should return to the earth from whence they came — which is exactly what the natural burial movement advocates."
"Greensprings offers ecologically sound burial options," reads their mission statement, "and a natural return to the earth — simple, affordable, and respectful of the human spirit." The ecological aspect of this mission is paramount, scrupulously applied in ways small and large. A recommended plant list directs people to plant commemorative flowers that are native plants. The board engaged a small ecological management company to recommend ways to improve the health of their woods. An ecological advisory committee recommended the cutting of many nonnative Norway spruces in one meadow and made guidelines for mowing to maintain the grassland habitat for the many birds that thrive there, including the migratory bobolink. Recent good news for Greensprings is a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that will fund a 4-year period of habitat improvement through 2016.
Besides blessing the land and its creatures, the ecological thrust works in every way to support the people coming in to envision the final experience of their own human bodies or to bury those of their loved ones. "We encourage people to connect to the land," says Joel, "take walks there, work the plots with their hands." The latter may include actually covering the body with earth during the interment (all of the soil that's displaced goes back in, creating a mound that takes years to level back down naturally), planting to mark or beautify the space, or pulling rocks from the soil to create a ring around the burial mound. "For some families, it's therapeutic to get involved that way, and you just don't get to do that in conventional cemeteries."
In preparing this article, I spoke to a number of people about their positive experiences with Greensprings and was deeply moved by what GreenStar member-owner Saoirse McClory had to say:
I went to a burial at Greensprings in the winter, with snow on the ground. There was a horse there to pull the body on a sleigh. The horse had black and silver livery, and it was so cold you could see the breath from the horse. The person who had died was in a shroud—you could see the shape of her body and there was greenery on the body for simple, natural decoration. People participated in filling the grave. There were a lot of tears, and there was something about that environment that seemed to welcome their heartbreak; the earth welcomed the body. They weren't putting the body in a lead-lined box and keeping the body from the earth. It was raw, painful, and beautiful. I wonder if the stark simplicity of such burials allows us to more deeply take in what has happened — and thus provides for some measure of healing.
Greensprings creates an invitation to see death itself as something that isn't robbing us at all. It's a natural completion, and natural burial allows us, as Jen Johnson puts it, "to complete the cycle of life and give something back to the earth."
For more information on Greensprings Natural Cemetery, including resources, photos, and video, go to http://naturalburial.org.