Ever Green: Local cemetery provides options for a clean getaway

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Tucked into a quiet corner of

West Laurel Hill Cemetery’

s rolling, manicured lawns, the one-acre “Nature’s Sanctuary” might not seem unusual. But this little plot is the only cemetery space in the Philadelphia region listed by the

Green Burial Council

(GBC) as an approved provider, and even earned the group’s highest rating of three leaves. GBC founder Joe Sehee says that, while it's considered a “hybrid” cemetery because of the surrounding 186 acres of conventional burial plots, West Laurel Hill provides an important starting point and is doing things right by starting out small.

Green burial is an emerging industry,” says Sehee, who was on hand when Nature’s Sanctuary opened in 2008. Clifford David, Jr., chairman of the West Laurel board, says the space was created to accommodate a growing trend among those seeking more earth-friendly burial practices. While death may seem like it should be the final word in going off the grid, modern funerals are often a far cry from joining that big compost bin in the sky. That reality prompted the formation of the nonprofit GBC in 2005, to do for funeral homes and cemeteries what the U.S. Green Building Council (no relation) has done for the construction industry. Rather than skyscrapers with LEED Platinum ratings, the Green Burial Council recognizes final resting places and funeral providers that strive for low-impact services with a rating system of one, two or three leaves.

Conventional funerals begin with toxic embalming chemicals and lead to vast tracts of ecologically barren land maintained with chemical lawn treatment and gas-guzzling riding mowers. “This industry was created first by the casket and chemical companies, and the vault companies got in later,” says Sehee, who once acted as an adviser for the mainstream funeral industry.

While green burials vary in how far they go in the quest for an earth-friendly ceremony, GBC strives to address four main issues: worker health, carbon emissions, reducing waste and conserving natural areas.

GBC advocates the use of nontoxic chemicals in embalming, as well as production of items like caskets. Citing links between formaldehyde, a common embalming agent, and cancer, Sehee says avoiding toxic chemicals is more about protecting people than the environment. “Formaldehyde isn’t an issue once it goes in the ground,” says Sehee. GBC recommends nontoxic options for preservation, like dry ice — or skipping embalming altogether.

Another practice that GBC cites as common but unnecessary is the use of burial vaults, concrete slabs that surround caskets in the ground.  GBC seeks to reduce the carbon emissions produced by the vaults, which use 1.6 million tons of concrete each year. “Burial vaults are rarely seen o­­utside of North America,” says Sehee, “just as embalming is almost never used outside of about six countries.

Green burials also reduce waste by replacing conventional caskets with ones made from recycled newspaper or eliminating the casket in favor a sustainably-raised cotton burial shroud.

Apart from reducing waste, consumption and toxic chemicals, green burials can also make cemeteries a tool for conserving natural areas. “[If] a conventional cemetery … were to convert back into a prairie as it was, it wouldn’t need to be watered and mowed, and you wouldn’t need to put those resources into it,” says Sehee. “We have the opportunity to use burial to accomplish conservation goals, and that’s where we’re going.

West Laurel’s green burial packages offers all of these GBC-approved alternatives, as well as others, like hand-dug graves. “The interest in green burials and funeral services is increasing,” says Deborah Cassidy, head of sales at West Laurel. She estimates there has been a 10– to 15–percent increase in plot reservations each year since 2008. Currently, there are 21 people interred in West Laurel’s “Nature’s Sanctuary,” with another 26 burial plots already reserved. But with the steady increase in interest, they’re set to expand to an additional acre — enough space for 1,000 green burials.

Story and photo byBrian Rademaekers