BRISTOL - Here's an opportunity to die for. Some Bristol-area residents are aiming to develop New England's first eco-cemetery on the grounds of a local conservation area. The advocates envision non-embalmed bodies in pine boxes or cotton shrouds being buried in unmarked graves on a small portion of the 644-acre site known as the Waterworks Property.
Interments should be "as natural as can be," says David Brynn, leader of the effort to bring "green burial" practices to Vermont. Several eco-cemeteries have been established in England in recent years, and they're now coming to Canada, notes Brynn, a conservation forestry professor at the University of Vermont. Natural burial grounds appeal to the environmentally minded, he says, because they offer a cleaner, "more positive" alternative to traditional in-ground interments - and to cremation as well.
Embalming fluids, which are highly toxic, will eventually seep into the earth, even when a body has been buried in a metal casket, Brynn points out. Use of a pine box or shroud, on the other hand, facilitates the return to nature of a body's nutritive elements. This cycle can't be completed with cremation, which also requires "a great deal of energy." It also releases dioxin and mercury into the air, Brynn adds.
Natural burials are also a lot cheaper than the typical American funeral. The cost of a ceremony and interment at Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve near Ithaca, New York, averages less than $3500. The typical American burial usually results in a $6000 bill for survivors, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
A green burial allows friends and family to participate in a final farewell - perhaps by shoveling soil into a grave, Brynn notes. Proponents staged a simulated ritual of this sort at the Waterworks site one sunny Sunday afternoon last month.
About a dozen faux mourners ranging in age from 12 to late sixties gathered in a circle after depositing leaves, acorns and feathers in a pine box that was then lowered into the ground. One member of the group read Wendell Berry's poem, "Ripening," which begins: The longer we are together / the larger death grows around us. / How many we know by now / who are dead!
Brynn, 55, got interested in burials by working as a gravedigger at St. Augustine's Cemetery in Montpelier while in high school. He says he foresees an eco-interment for himself one day.
Natural burial in a well-drained section of the Bristol site would probably comply with Vermont law, says Secretary of State Deb Markowitz. "In Vermont, we allow a lot of flexibility with burials," she notes, citing the state's acceptance of backyard interments in rural locales. Markowitz's office recently published an updated booklet on the state's burial and cemetery law, available through www.sec.state.vt.us/.
But the Vermont Land Trust, which holds a conservation easement for the Waterworks Property, may not give its needed approval to the plan. The trust is just beginning an assessment of the Bristol group's proposal, says Elise Annes, vice president for community relations. She notes that stipulations for the forested site allow it to be used only for recreation and do not permit excavations.