The Meadow, a new, natural burial ground, opens this week in Ferndale
By KRISTIN DIZON, Seatle PI
Giving added meaning to the phrase “pushing daisies,” Western Washington’s first green cemetery opens this week.
The Meadow, a natural burial ground in Ferndale, will inter unembalmed bodies in a simple, biodegradable coffin or shroud, without concrete vaults or liners. It joins White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Goldendale, which opened near the Columbia River in July 2008, giving Washington state two of the 11 certified green burial grounds in the country.
A growing movement, green cemeteries don’t use mausoleums, headstones, sculpted markers or permanent vases. There are no manicured, fertilized lawns with regular mowing, no paved roads.
If this sounds strange or new, experts remind us that this is what burial was like for most of human history.
“I think there’s a sense of comfort that a lot of people find in knowing that their body will be able to return unhindered to the earth,” said Brian Flowers, cemeterian with Moles Family Funeral Homes, owner of The Meadow project. “We live in an area where there’s a savvy for all things green and those values dictate their choices.”
Green cemeteries usually serve a dual purpose — natural burial, plus conservation of open land. They often involve a new type of partnership between a land trust or conservation organization and a funeral group. Some hope they also reinvent cemetery culture.
“A green cemetery is not like a regular cemetery. It can be an area where people play Frisbee and have picnics. It can be a public-use space,” said John Eric Rolfstad, executive director of the People’s Memorial Association, a membership group and funeral cooperative.
Rolfstad hopes the association, which also offers green caskets, green urns and other ecofriendly products, will open its own natural burial ground near Seattle within a few years.
“Green burial is sort of your final decision — it’s a way of leaving a minimal impact on the environment,” he said. “As it becomes more convenient, it’s a choice that more people will make.”
Many believe the latent demand is there — fueled by baby boomers and their iconoclastic ways — but services and facilities lag behind. A 2007 AARP survey of adults over 50 found that 21 percent said they were interested in a more “environmentally friendly” burial than a traditional one.
Like natural burial grounds, conservation burial grounds are green, but have a permanent conservation easement to protect the land from development or other uses. Some traditional cemeteries also are starting to offer green burial options. In this area, several rural cemeteries offer green burial, as well as the Kirkland Cemetery (where plots are sold out, unless an expansion occurs).
Joe Sehee, who created and directs the Green Burial Council, estimates that as many as 200 natural cemeteries will open within the next five years.
“The idea of going naturally into the ground and becoming part of a tree — that’s a concept most people can go along with,” Sehee said. “I think that this is going to be the norm. Years from now very few people are going to request embalming.”
Sehee, whose group certifies green funeral homes, cemeteries and products, said there’s much potential for greenwashing and warns people to beware green promises without verification.
He said he’d like to see fewer resources used in burial.
“We bury enough metal in the ground each year to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “And we bury enough resource concrete — about 1.6 million tons — to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit. There’s a good carbon footprint associated with burial.”
Green cemeteries are different in a number of ways. They’re less dense than traditional burial places. At The Meadow, graves are a roomier 6 by 12 feet, rather than the traditional 3-by-10-foot space. And, in lieu of headstones, they’ll use sustainably gathered, unpolished river rocks as markers, with name, birthday, death date and epitaph.
Flowers said Moles is poised to sign a conservation easement on the 5-acre parcel with the Whatcom Land Trust “for generations to come.”
Costs of green burial vary and can be substantially cheaper than traditional burial in urban areas, but often are more costly than rural cemeteries. At The Meadow, for example, a membership including a plot, opening and closing of a grave, a memorial planting fee and endowment care fee are $3,065, excluding the cost of a boulder marker. At White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Goldendale, a 20-by-20 plot is $2,200, and opening and closing a grave is $600. Most green caskets or containers are cheaper than traditional coffins, but they can get spendy for rare woods or special joinery.
By contrast, calls to several large Seattle area cemeteries found considerably higher costs for burial. At Bonney-Watson’s Washington Memorial Park in Sea-Tac, the average cost of a plot is $3,500 (ranging from $2,695 to $5,995), opening and closing a grave is $945 and a required vault ranges from $1,095 to $8,000, plus a $375 setting fee for the vault. At North Seattle’s Evergreen-Washelli, a plot is $3,910 to $10,000, opening and closing a grave is $975, a liner starts at $875, including setting fee; or a vault, including setting fee, starts at $1,500. At Acacia Memorial Park and Funeral Home in Shoreline, standard plots range from $4,300 to $9,900, and opening and closing a grave is $1,495.
As with any cemetery, plots at The Meadow are mapped and recorded, but Moles also plans to use a locating device with each burial, possibly a special tape or microchip. Rather than roads or paved walkways, a path of crushed rock will access the site.
Instead of using concrete vaults or liners to prevent settlement and ground collapse, Moles will do it by mounding dirt on top of a grave, Flowers said.
And, they’ll use native species such as grand fir, red elderberry and salal for memorial plantings and restoration.
“This actually does good, because we are restoring a native ecosystem in this process and we’re creating a beautiful, natural place for people to go that’s also a memorial landscape,” Flowers said.
Everything will be nontoxic and biodegradable, except, perhaps for the silver dental fillings — which contain mercury — of some deceased people. Moles will offer locally made green caskets of sustainable maple, as well as some from the Lummi Nation.
There’s actually no Washington law requiring that a body be covered or contained at all, said Dennis McPhee, program manager for the state’s funeral and cemetery board.
Nor is it a requirement that a body be embalmed (embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen) under state law. A body must either be refrigerated or embalmed upon receipt, according to Washington regulations. (Even embalming is going green: One company is bringing a nontoxic, plant-based embalming fluid to market this spring.)
It’s also possible for people to have themselves naturally buried on their own land, but few do so because of the hurdles. The state requires that you create a plotted cemetery with a $25,000 endowment care fund and a state license, McPhee said. Plus, you have to get clearance from a municipal authority that the use is permitted under local zoning.
So far, the state has no specific definition of a natural or green cemetery, McPhee said. “It’s still sort of in its infancy, particularly out on the West Coast. But I encourage cemeterians to always explore these green options,” he said.