Hanover considers adding natural burial option for Pine Knolls Cemetery

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 11-29-2023 4:28 AM

HANOVER — The Selectboard will consider a proposal to allow “natural burials,” or burials that allow the body to naturally decompose into the soil, in the town-owned Pine Knolls Cemetery.

The inclusion of natural burials in Pine Knolls is being proposed by the Hanover Parks and Recreation Department and Sustainable Hanover Committee, an advisory group to the Selectboard.

“Natural burials, which involve interring bodies without the use of traditional embalming fluids or non-biodegradable caskets, promote ecological balance by allowing the deceased to return to the earth in a manner that supports natural decomposition and regeneration,” Parks and Recreation Director John Sherman said in a letter to the Selectboard.

On Monday, the Selectboard scheduled a public hearing on Dec.11 to discuss transitioning Pine Knolls Cemetery to a “hybrid” cemetery model that includes both natural and traditional burials.

The town is proposing a separate section in Pine Knolls that would have capacity for approximately 300 natural burials. Each grave would be marked by a flat gravestone surrounded by tall native vegetation that is intended to “foster a connection with the natural surroundings,” according to Sherman.

Sherman said that the burial areas must be separate due to differences in how each is maintained.

Whereas the traditional burial sites in Pine Knolls are mowed regularly for aesthetic purposes, natural burial areas are managed as a wildflower meadow — which the town will only mow once per year.

In addition, where the town cemetery ordinance requires individual graves to be marked by an upright headstone, natural burial areas typically recommend a flat marker made of native stone.

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Flat markers make the burial area easier to mow and blend into the natural meadow aesthetic, Sherman explained.

Stone markers are also smaller and consume less material and energy to manufacture,

In addition, smaller stone markers help to conserve the energy and materials used in manufacturing, said Lee Webster, executive director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources and Education.

Yolanda Baumgartner, co-chairperson of the Sustainable Hanover Committee, said that a growing number of town residents have asked about the option of natural burials, which are considered more environmentally friendly than conventional traditional practices.

“Burial is your last act, and some people would like to have a choice that doesn’t involve concrete vaults or embalming fluids,” Baumgartner said in a phone interview.

Hanover resident Melanie Podolec approached members of the Sustainable Hanover Committee in March about a proposal to allow natural burials in the town cemetery.

“I haven’t made a decision about my own burial, but I wanted to have an option available to me and to others,” Podolec said in a phone interview.

Baumgartner said that the Sustainable Hanover Committee was working with Sherman on a natural burial proposal a few years ago, but that initiative stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Podolec said her interest in natural burials is largely about the environmental benefits.

Traditional burials or cremations produce up to 250 pounds in carbon emissions per person, including in fuel consumption to process the body and mowing and fertilizers to maintain the grass — 10 times the amount of carbon emissions of a natural burial, according to the Green Burial Council, an educational resource for natural burials.

Podolec also expressed concerns about the leaching of hazardous embalming chemicals — including formaldehyde, methanol and benzene — into the soil.

Webster, who has delivered several educational presentations in Hanover about natural burials, said that many residents have expressed an interest in having the option in town.

“Most of the people I interact with just want to know that they can be buried in a more environmentally friendly way,” Webster said. “But they also want to do it in a place that has a meaning for their family. That sense of place is important. People want to be buried where they lived.”

Other Upper Valley towns have already created policies to allow natural burials.

Last year, the Lebanon City Council approved an ordinance amendment to allow natural burials in Old Pine Tree Cemetery and in a section of the West Lebanon Cemetery.

Plainfield voters, by a unanimous voice vote, passed a warrant article at last year’s Town Meeting authorizing the cemetery trustees to begin developing policies to allow for natural burial.

The Hanover public hearing, Sherman said, is a first step in the process and intended to educate Selectboard members about natural burial practices and the community’s interest. Should the Selectboard vote to move forward with a cemetery transition, the town’s cemetery ordinance will need to be amended to allow natural burials.

The ordinance, last revised in 2014, requires caskets in Pine Knoll to be placed in a protective concrete vault.

In addition, flat markers are only permitted for a family stone, not for individual graves.

In addition, the current ordinance requires graves to be at least six feet deep.

In natural burials, graves are only four feet deep, to facilitate decomposition.

It takes an average of six weeks for an unpreserved body to lose the majority of soft tissue and up to two years for complete decomposition — though in moist soils the breakdown of bones may take considerably longer.

The Selectboard’s public hearing will be held on Monday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. Sherman said the hearing may be postponed if town staff need more time to prepare.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews or 603-727-3216.