Quaker Cemeteries Going Green

Graveyard of Brigflatts Meeting near Sedbergh in Cumbria, U.K. Photo by Martin Kelley.
Graveyard of Brigflatts Meeting near Sedbergh in Cumbria, U.K. Photo by Martin Kelley.

In keeping with Friends testimonies of simplicity and stewardship, Quaker cemeteries of New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) have begun to “go green.” For many years, Friends have chosen cremation as the better option over filling the earth with the toxic chemicals used in embalming. Others, cognizant of the Muslim and Jewish prohibition of procedures involving “a desecration of the body,” have also chosen cremation. Cremation, however, uses non-renewable fuel and releases particulates into the air, making it a less-than-ideal green method. There is now a third alternative that is both simple and a practice of good stewardship of the Earth: green burials.

A grave in Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Bark in Cedar Creek, Tex.
A grave in Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Bark in Cedar Creek, Tex.

Green burials place the body directly in the ground. Contrary to widely held belief, embalming is not required anywhere in the United States. Burial vaults are also not required; they are merely a convenience for the cemetery because they keep the ground level for mowing. Green, or natural, cemeteries are open fields and woodlands, often with paths winding through the area. They allow people to pre-select their spot. An unobtrusive marker is permitted.

New York State requires that some kind of container be used for burial, although not every state does. The acceptable options have gotten greener in recent years, as well: cardboard coffins, do-it-yourself pine boxes, and woven wicker are a few of the available choices.

Some cemeteries in NYYM are enthusiastic about adopting the green option as a very Quakerly alternative to the less environmentally friendly methods. All were only recently made aware of the option and its legality. Green burials first started in Great Britain in 1993 and began in the United States a few years later. There is currently a green cemetery near Ithaca under the care of NYYM.

Green burials also support our testimony of integrity—truth saying and acknowledgment. During a meeting retreat on end-of-life decision making, one 92-year-old participant began a statement with “If I die . . . ” After the group stopped laughing, we all admitted that we often think about death along those lines. Grappling with the reality of death, making the appropriate decisions, and preparing the necessary arrangements ahead of time are all steps that are very much in keeping with our requirements for truth telling and having our affairs in order.

To learn more about green burials, there are a number of useful websites, including Be a Tree (www.beatree.com), the Green Burial Council (www.greenburialcouncil.org), and Green Burials (www.greenburials.org). Several have video tours of green burial cemeteries. I encourage meetings to explore this option. If your meeting does not have a cemetery, consider purchasing land to create a green burial option for Friends and others.

Anita Paul

Anita Paul is a member of Schenectady (N.Y.) Meeting and a coordinator of New York Yearly Meeting's Aging Resources Consultation and Help program, which offers workshops, individual consultations, and training for seniors, disabled adults, monthly meeting members, and families.

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