by Karen G. Meshkov
The green burial movement, which encompasses a host of ways people are finding to honor the dead and care for their remains in environmentally, socially and economically sustainable ways, is on the rise. According to the Green Burial Council website, the number of approved providers in North America has grown from one in 2006 to more than 300 today, operating in 41 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces. This phenomenon represents another major area of American culture that has shifted toward the “green”.
Two of the movement’s driving forces are located here in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Mark Harris’Grave Matters….In his book Grave Matters, A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Place of Burial, Moravian College instructor and former environmental columnist Mark Harris follows the stories of several families that sought and found alternative “green burials” for a loved one. Through their experiences, Harris opens up to exploration the various alternatives—cremation, burial by sea and natural cemeteries—to what is offered by traditional funeral parlors in the U.S. He explains the environmentally problematic implications of the standard burial and embalming process, and traces the history of burial in America from the rural cemetery movement of the 1800s to the modern, billion-dollar business it is now.
Harris, who lives and works in Bethlehem, PA, has a family history in the business of death and dying: His grandfather owned a memorial park, and he is continuing the legacy in his own way, touring, speaking and teaching on the natural burial movement across the country and locally at universities, churches and community groups.
Harris is a proponent of natural cemeteries as a strategy to protect and preserve land, but he also lauds how using a naturally decomposing casket in burial contributes to a spiritual and literal experience of moving from “dust to dust.” He shares, “When I visited my first natural cemetery, I could see that this was a place of life, not of death. In this place, I thought, the body can join the natural cycle of life at death, and that struck me as a really logical thing to do.”
A Green Meadow in Fountain Hill Cemetery….Harris brought his passion for the natural burial model home to Lehigh Valley and, working with the founders of Fountain Hill cemetery, created the first natural cemetery in the area, calling it Green Meadow. GreenMeadow’s mission is to return people’s remains to the earth as simply and directly as possible. The goal is to create a beautiful and respectful place to allow the body to degrade naturally and rejoin Earth’s elements, perpetuating the natural cycle of life and death, of dissolution and rebirth. The burial process uses what remains of life to regenerate new life.
Unlike traditional cemeteries, Green Meadow prohibits practices that prevent natural reunion with the Earth, including burial vaults, metal caskets and chemical embalming. In their place they allow biodegradable caskets and cloth shrouds. Upright headstones are not permitted; however, ground-level fieldstone and other natural native rock markers are allowed.
Maintenance of the grounds at Green Meadow also differs from traditional cemeteries. The meadow is planted with native wildflowers, eliminating the need for lawn care. Unlike conventional cemeteries, plots are not pre-assigned—new plots are selected in succession to recent burials. (Exceptions are made for families with existing sites.) This allows for less environmental disturbance of the meadow and maintains a peaceful, contiguous native wildflower landscape.
Each season, Green Meadow invites volunteers from the community to help with turning the soil, cleaning and upkeep of the grounds. “It’s a wonderful way for people whose loved ones are here to connect with their memory and the spirit of this place,” says Ed Vogrins, Green Meadows Executive Director.
Mark Harris is a former environmental columnist with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. His articles and essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Reader’s Digest, E: The Environmental Magazine and Vegetarian Times. He has been interviewed by Fresh Air host Terry Gross and appeared on CNN, MSNBC, ABC News and the CBC. He can be reached at 610-954-8375 or Mark@GraveMatters.us. For more information or to buy the book Grave Matters, visit GraveMatters.us.
Fountain Hill Cemetery is located at 1121 Graham Street, Fountain Hill. For more information, contact Ed Vogrins at 610-868-4840 or visit GreenMeadowPA.org.