‘Green burials’ becoming an option at Upper Valley cemeteries

Valley News
Published: 11/15/2020 7:28:31 PM

Two Upper Valley communities are moving forward with plans to allow “green burials” in their municipal cemeteries as part of a nationwide push to offer people a greater say in manner in which their remains are disposed.

Officials in Grafton last month approved rules allowing people to be buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery without the use of concrete vaults and nonbiodegradable caskets.

Meanwhile, the Lebanon Board of Cemetery Trustees this week took up draft regulations that would allow for similar burials within the city.

Lebanon officials began crafting the draft last year and say it’s the first step toward lifting the city’s mandate that all interments to be enclosed in a “permanent outside container.”

Trustee Caitlyn Hauke said she’s optimistic that Lebanon will ultimately adopt green burials, but it may take some convincing on the part of those worried about logistics and safety.

The board, she said, will likely debate maintenance practices, where burials will be allowed and what materials will be required in the coming months.

“It is sort of, in a way, a foreign concept to do a natural burial even though this is how burials were done hundreds of years ago for hundreds of years,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Green burials, which are already allowed in a handful of cemeteries in the Twin States, are said to allow a body to decompose naturally, rather than being prepared with chemical preservatives or embalming fluids.

The practice usually involves the use of a simple biodegradable coffin, casket or shroud, and graves are dug shallow enough for microbial activity to aid decomposition.

Advocates say green burials keep chemicals out of the ground, promoting a healthier soil and allowing the land to someday be reused. In Grafton, new rules call for those seeking a green burial to be buried either naked or wrapped in a biodegradable cloth. Only soft wooden boxes and biodegradable urns are allowed beyond that, said Cindy Kudlik, a cemetery trustee who also serves on the town’s Selectboard.

No flowers or plantings are allowed, and graves are to be marked with a flat stone memorial, she said.

Kudlik said the Grafton Board of Cemetery Trustees got to work crafting the rules this summer after some residents expressed interest in a green burial. Officials haven’t formally set aside the land yet, she said, but they’re eyeing a field on the east side of the Pine Grove Cemetery.

‘It wasn’t a tough process at all,” she said. “It’s not a terribly controversial thing.”

The same can’t be said in Lebanon, where residents began advocating for green burials two years ago. In April 2019, the City Council asked the cemetery trustees to explore the idea in hopes that a recommendation would be ready that fall.

Hauke, who supports bringing green burials to Lebanon, said the trustees have studied green burials sporadically, gathering information and soliciting advice from Lee Webster, a nationally known green burial advocate and president of the nonprofit New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education and Advocacy.

The biggest challenge, Hauke said, is getting people comfortable with performing the burials and addressing “fears or misconceptions that might come up along the way.”

“I would have a hard time getting to a point where I would think the board wouldn’t recommend this,” she said. “I just think it’s a matter of figuring out the logistics.”

Lebanon’s draft regulations would prohibit those seeking a green burial from being embalmed or placed in a vault.

They also would ban caskets with “nails, staples, glue, or any fastener that will remain in the ground” and exterior finishes with “latex, metallic or oil-based products.”

Family members would be responsible for maintaining the graves — mowing the grass and pruning nearby bushes — and burials would require the signature of a licensed New Hampshire funeral director.

Sarah Riley, an advocate for green burials and a member of the Lebanon Conversation Commission, said she was “excited” to see the draft. However, she pressed the cemetery trustees to take more public input in the matter.

“I understand that everybody wants to be cautious and we want to make sure that everything is safe for workers and visitors,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot more than just caution.”

Fran Hanchett, chairwoman of the trustees, said the draft will be discussed in more detail during its Tuesday, Dec. 8, meeting. She predicted it will take the group “a while” to finalize rules that are acceptable to advocates, city staff and trustees.

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