As a recently retired surgeon, Howard Berg has always had an uneasy relationship with death. But the four-year process of opening a cemetery at the end of 2022 — Maryland’s first certified natural cemetery — on land that’s been in his family for decades has made him far more comfortable with the subject.
“Your last act on Earth is to go back to the earth — dust to dust,” Berg said. “To me, rather than impact the environment, why not improve the environment?”
Berg didn’t initially decide to open Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum, located in Baltimore County, MD, for such lofty reasons. He and his two brothers were looking for the best use of former farmland with forested edges that they had inherited in an area with options limited by zoning. After visiting a natural cemetery in New Jersey, Berg came to see the approach as a way to generate revenue from the land while maintaining its natural beauty.
He didn’t conceive at the time that there would be such a pent-up demand in the state — and growing interest nationally — in the type of natural or “green” burials the site offers. The Chesapeake Bay portion of Virginia has two cemeteries offering natural burials, one of them certified, like Serenity Ridge, by the national Green Burial Council. Pennsylvania, Maryland and the District of Columbia also have “hybrid” cemeteries that offer green burials on a portion of their land, and the options are expanding.
The Green Burial Council defines the term as burying “without impediment” to natural decomposition — no embalming, plastic liners, concrete vaults, metal handles or exotic wood caskets. Green burials aim to reduce the environmental impact associated with modern methods by allowing the body to naturally decompose, often in the top few feet of soil, in biodegradable containers or fabric shrouds without embalming chemicals that can leach out over time.
Most green burial facilities allow cremated remains to also be buried onsite, in biodegradable containers, as a way of giving families a place to visit. But, for many people, green burials are a conscious alternative to the growing practice of cremation, which the Green Burial Council says is “erroneously thought by many to be greener.”
Cremation, the council says, uses fossil fuels to reach and maintain 1900 degrees for about two hours per body, releasing mercury and other pollutants into the air in the process. During a peak in pandemic deaths in 2021, residents of Arizona, where cremation rates are high, complained of foul smells and polluted air wafting from overbooked crematoriums. In 2021, nearly 58% of bodies in the United States were cremated, a number projected to reach 64% by 2025, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
Increasingly, facilities offering alternatives to cremation and traditional burials are focused not simply on reducing impacts; they want to transform burials into a benefit for their surroundings. They see caring for the dead in congruence, not in conflict, with conservation.
And it’s not just on the fringe. The Nature Conservancy was recently involved in creating Tennessee’s first “nature preserve for natural burial,” offering burials on conserved land next to a state natural area. As of March of 2022, there were 350 green burial cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Green Burial Council, and more have been added in the Chesapeake Bay area since then.
In the National Funeral Director’s Association’s 2022 consumer report, more than 60% of survey respondents said they would be interested in investigating green funeral options, up from nearly 57% in 2021. While only about 5% of today’s burials are green, the association considers them a fast-growing segment of the funeral business.
The top reasons survey participants said they would consider a green burial are its lower cost and potential environmental advantages. But there are a host of others.
Jewish, Muslim and Orthodox Christian traditions have practiced forms of green burial for generations, eschewing cremation and embalming to promote natural decomposition. Facilities opening now say they are getting inquiries not just from those who would normally be considering end-of-life decisions, but also from younger people interested in doing things differently.
Jennifer Downs, a founding board member of the Green Burial Association of Maryland, a nonprofit focused on educating the public on green burial, sees her generation fueling much of the natural burial interest.
“There are a lot of us Baby Boomers out here,” said Downs, who helped start the group in 2015. “We were around for natural food, natural birth … and now we’re getting to the end of our lives and saying, ‘What do we do with our bodies when we die?’”
Chris Palmer, who recently became president of the Maryland association, agrees.
“I’ve spent almost all my life working with environmental organizations,” he said, making it unpalatable “for me, when I die, to dispose of my body in a way that creates pollution and energy consumption.”
Glenn Jennelle had been in the funeral and cemetery business for years when, about a decade ago, customers started asking new questions. Why do we need to have embalming? Why a casket or vault?
At the time, Jennelle helped run Kyger Funeral Homes & Crematory, which opened in Harrisonburg, VA, in 1975 and started the first crematory in the Shenandoah Valley in 1979. The business has seen cremation rates in Virginia soar from 1% when it opened to more than 50% today.
Now, the business is banking on a different future for burials. In 2012, the Kyger family purchased 113 acres of former dairy farmland near Penn Laird, VA. After a couple of years of research, Duck Run Natural Cemetery opened as the state’s first location devoted to green burials and certified by the Green Burial Council.
“We think of it as a 150-year project,” said Jennelle, Duck Run’s general manager. “We’re doing a total land restoration. A lot of people start at the beginning, but we jumped to the end and said, ‘What do we want it to look like then?’”
To that end, the cemetery works with horticulturalists to replace nonnative trees and flowers with native species. A covered shelter for ceremonies overlooks a duck pond, meadows and mown areas with burial plots scattered along the paths. An 8-acre field is set aside for monarch butterfly habitat. All of the landscape planning is done in conjunction with burials.
Serenity Ridge in Maryland is in the early stages of a similar approach. At both places, families can plant trees near graves only after the burial plots of that section have been filled. This prevents tree roots from being cut by future burials. Some areas of both sites are maintained as open meadows while others are forested. Customers have options to bury loved ones in a variety of settings.
At Cool Spring Natural Cemetery, a green burial ground on 1,200 acres maintained by monks at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, VA, plots vary in price based on their proximity to beautiful views or drivable walkways. Burials near the outdoor chapel, which can be easily reached by car, are higher priced than those a good walk away in the woodlands, where there is more space available. But, with costs between $2,000 and $4,000, green burials still tend to fall below conventional options.
“Some people are willing to pay extra, because they know they can pull up and visit the gravesite often,” said Vern Conaway, the cemetery manager. “We get people of all faiths and no faith. At our place, they just fall in love with the beauty of it.”
The monastery added the cemetery business in 2012 “because other monasteries in their order in Georgia were doing it, and they found it was filling a need,” Conaway said. “People were interested in being buried on sacred ground.”
Cool Spring uses green burial practices but has not sought any certifications.
All of these green burial sites mark graves with natural stones that lay flat on the ground instead of upright headstones to maintain a natural landscape. The stones can be engraved with names and dates. Burial locations are tracked with GPS coordinates should the stones fade in the future.
“The stones lay flat on the ground, so you don’t look out at the fields and see them,” Jennelle said of Duck Run, describing the unobstructed view that is similar at the other two locations. “Our hope is to have it look like an arboretum.”
Thin wooden stakes at each site mark plots that have been purchased but not yet used. One section of the cemetery at Duck Run offers something few other locations in the country do so far: reusable plots. Jennelle said green cemeteries in Europe reuse the plots every 50 years, but these will go for 75.
“After 75 years, we’ll take the headstone up and place it in the grass walkway, like a cobblestone,” he said. “My thinking is maybe a grandchild would want to take that space and it could be a family plot for generations.”
In the weeds
Not all of the cemeteries’ acres are open for burial at once. Opening sections one at a time allows the cemeteries to cut costs, since states require significant “perpetual care” trust fund deposits based on the number of acres receiving burials. Operators emphasized that, despite ongoing interest, opening a green burial cemetery isn’t as easy as it sounds.
One family tried to open a “conservation burial ground” in Baltimore County, MD, in 2015 but could not get zoning changes approved. At the time, the community was concerned about water quality.
The Green Burial Council has research on its website about soil and water quality concerns related to green burials. In its certification process, the council stresses choosing sites with appropriate soil types and monitoring the way water flows across a property.
Other green burial advocates emphasize that the absence of embalming fluids and other products that leach chemicals into the groundwater makes a green burial an inherently safer option for the environment. (State laws do not require caskets or embalming, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. But many funeral homes recommend these practices, giving consumers a sense that they are required.)
At Serenity Ridge, for example, bodies will be buried in the top 3 feet of the soil, where the microorganisms that aid in decomposition are most active. Sticks and stones will be added to the soil to provide pockets for oxygen, which helps fuel the process.
“When you’re completely decomposed in natural burial, you actually are, as they say, feeding the tree,” Berg said.
At some of these sites, the burials are also helping to fund the landscapes’ protection and improvement, making a loved one’s final resting place a more beautiful place to visit over time.
“Death is never an easy thing to deal with,” said Chelsea Berg, community outreach liaison for Serenity Ridge. “But I think having a place like this can ease it a little bit.”