Story and photos by Amanda K. Jaros
When I stepped out of my car at Greensprings Natural Cemetery, and was greeted by Jennifer Johnson with a hug rather than a handshake, I knew I was in a distinctive place. A growing number of people are choosing natural burial as an environmentally conscious way to deal with their body upon death, and the idea intrigued me. Intending to forgo conventional burial and cremation myself, I went out to Greensprings in Newfield to understand more about this budding option.
It was one of those fall mornings where the cold wind and dazzling colors on the trees remind you winter is on its way. Johnson, the burial coordinator, suggested we hop in a green golf cart to tour the scenic 100-acre property. We puttered along mowed pathways into the West Meadow, the first burial area, which opened in 2006. On either side of the cart we passed varying human-sized dirt hills. Some had been there for years, barely a bump in the ground, blending in with the sloping meadow. In other places the dirt was freshly piled up, with little growing on top. Other than the mounds of soil, the field looked like any other New York field alive in fall; flowering with goldenrod and asters.
Natural burial, also known as green burial, creates minimal impact on the land. For the process, no chemicals are used to preserve the body; it isn’t embalmed. All materials used – shroud, casket, urns – must be biodegradable. Also, vaults – concrete linings used to hold the earth around the casket in place – cannot be used. These criteria are promoted by the Green Burial Council (GBC), a national organization dedicated to educating and building awareness about environmentally friendly end-of-life rituals.
The GBC certifies cemeteries across the United States, as well as funeral homes and product manufacturers, to offer assurance to consumers. It holds cemetery operators accountable to green burial standards, and prevents future owners of the cemetery from retracting their ecological and aesthetic obligations.
Greensprings is certified by the GBC, Johnson explained, as she pointed out rocks engraved with the names of the deceased. “Often, we pull rocks out when we dig a grave, and people choose to use those as markers,” Johnson said. To preserve the feel of a wild meadow, flat rocks can be laid flush to the ground. Upright headstones are not permitted.
The burial plots we drove past are laid out in a grid across the property. The grid is marked on a corresponding map, allocating proper spacing requirements, and allowing people to buy a preferred plot ahead of time.
In addition to the main West Meadow grid, there are other sites set aside for particular purposes. For example, a Jewish burial area has its own meadow for those wishing to follow Jewish tradition. Another area is designated for those who want to plant a tree atop their loved one’s grave. There are smaller plots reserved for the burial of cremated remains, and another large meadow accessible during winter months when the ground is coated by snow.
When we reached the bottom of the rolling hill, where cemetery land blends into state forest, Johnson turned off the vehicle’s motor. We paused under a grove of blazing yellow birches to listen to the nature sounds. The land is a prolific with bird life. “Cornell professors bring their ornithology students here,” Johnson said with a laugh. “If you want to come birding, come birding.”
Greensprings was born in the early 2000s when Johnson and a friend sought options other than traditional burial. When they asked the New York State Cemetery Board for information, they learned that because there were no natural cemeteries in the state, no guidelines had been developed. Also, there was no law requiring embalming. With help from Carl Leopold, founding president of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, and Mary Woodson, a local science writer, their cemetery grew quickly.
There are other options for natural burial in the Finger Lakes – many traditional cemeteries will perform green burials if requested. Some have designated natural sections that allow the body to return to the earth with minimal impact. Those that are Green Burial Council-verified must uphold the standards of that organization.
Additionally, more people are choosing to create burial plots on their own property. This is an option that may be more intimate and economical than a traditional burial. However, it entails research into local laws. Some areas require the assistance of a funeral director, and most require the burial site to have a minimum number of acres, filing a plot map with the county planning board, or a permit.
As Johnson drove out of the West Meadow and into the wide-open Bobolink meadow, she explained that green burial is one final way to give back to the earth. The lack of chemicals and foreign materials allows the earth to reclaim the body more easily. Johnson contends that it also helps a family in the grieving process. “Seeing the body lowered into the dirt gives a real sense of closure,” she said. “At the end of the ceremony, family members are welcome to shovel a few scoops of dirt.”
The overwhelming sentiment at Greensprings is connection to the earth, for both the deceased, and the family left behind.
Before I left, we drove through an undeveloped meadow to the Carl Leopold Overlook, which provided views south over the burnt-orange hills to the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. “We just received a grant to start a wildlife management program, and we just had our first wedding here,” Johnson said. “People come here to be with nature and feel feelings.”
For a burial ground, this cemetery was very alive. That’s the distinction of Greensprings. It’s a property set aside for the time of death, but it’s really a peaceful countryside brimming with life.
Green Burial Council-Certified Cemeteries in the Finger Lakes
Greensprings Natural Cemetery
293 Irish Hill Road, Newfield, NY 14867
The cemetery offers natural burial areas in a variety of different meadow and forest locations. It has an Ecological Advisory Committee to study the landscape and offer recommendations about native habitat growth and restoration.
Mount Hope Cemetery
1133 Mount Hope Ave.
Rochester, NY 14620
Mount Hope offers a designated natural area, as well as allowing natural burial throughout the cemetery. It is a National Wildlife Federation-certified wildlife habitat and has a nesting bluebird project.
White Haven Memorial Park
210 Marsh Rd
Pittsford, NY 14534
The memorial park is open to all denominations and offers a natural burial wildflower meadow that is kept free of pesticides and chemicals. It has a bluebird and bat projects, and maintains a nature trail throughout the property.
The following two associated cemeteries were the first Catholic cemeteries in New York to receive Green Burial Council certification and offer designated natural areas.
Holy Sepulchre Cemetery
2461 Lake Avenue
Rochester, NY 14612
1900 Pinnacle Road
Henrietta, NY 14467
Visit greenburialcouncil.org for more information.