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City may undertake ‘green burial’ review

Valley News Staff Wrier
Published: 6/14/2021 9:45:40 PM
Modified: 6/14/2021 9:45:43 PM

LEBANON — City councilors will decide this week whether to draft “green burial” regulations after the board in charge of Lebanon’s municipal cemeteries tabled the task.

The Lebanon Board of Cemetery Trustees voted, 3-2, last month to implement a five-year “moratorium” precluding it from recommending green burial rules, with a majority of members saying they didn’t have enough information to move forward.

But some officials say that timeline is uncalled for, especially since residents have for years asked for a more environmentally friendly way to bury the dead.

“I felt like that was way too long a period of time to hold this on hiatus,” Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara said in a phone interview Monday.

McNamara hopes to ask City Manager Shaun Mulholland and his staff to craft proposed regulations, which would then be reviewed and brought before the City Council in October.

The nine-member council, and not the cemetery trustees, has final say over regulations governing Lebanon’s burial grounds.

“I don’t think we can push this off for five years,” McNamara said. “We need to have a proposal in hand.”

The trustees worked for about two years on an effort to set aside portions of a cemetery for green burials, which are meant to allow a body to decompose naturally without chemical preservatives or embalming fluids.

The practice usually involves the use of biodegradable coffins, caskets or shrouds and forgoes the use of a cement vault. Graves also are dug to a shallower depth — 2 to 3 feet — to encourage microbial activity to aid decomposition.

However, cemetery trustees couldn’t agree on key issues, such as who would maintain plots, what materials could be used and whether a funeral director should be required to perform a burial.

“This topic is new for Lebanon and is charged with passion on both sides of the discussion (for and against),” read a memo Mulholland wrote to the council.

Phone messages left for Fran Hanchett, who chairs the trustees, were not returned Monday.

Mulholland’s memo said that Old Pine Tree Cemetery in West Lebanon would be the best place for natural burials.

That’s because it still has room for more interments and historically was home to natural burials, the memo noted.

The cemetery is considered Lebanon’s first “burying ground.”

It was created when the then-town in 1768 swapped an acre of common land for an acre of private property between the top of Seminary Hill and the Mascoma River, according to a history of Lebanon.

But the Old Pine Tree Cemetery’s historic setting also poses challenges for visitors.

“The cemetery is hilly, challenging terrain for people on foot. Especially for old people,” Lebanon resident Judith Bush, an advocate for green burials, wrote in an email last week.

Bush added that Old Pine Tree Cemetery Road is curving and narrow, potentially deterring parking, while a nearby driveway that could help alleviate traffic is marked as private.

“It would be risky to allow cars to park on (the road) while attending a funeral,” she said.

While Lebanon debates green burials, neighboring Plainfield is exploring whether and how to include the practices into its regulations.

Residents worried about traditional burials’ impact on the land and those interested in burials on their own property are looking to bring green burials to town, said Margaret Drye, a member of the Plainfield Cemetery Trustees.

During Town Meeting earlier this month, Drye asked residents if they would be interested in green burials. “And it was a great response,” she said.

“I think we’re going to, in true Plainfield fashion, vet this and explore it and I think if the town would like it, we’ll do what we can to make it happen,” Drye said.

The Upper Valley communities of Grafton and Corinth wrote green, or natural, burial practices into their cemetery rules last year.

The Lebanon City Council is scheduled to discuss green burials during its regular meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

The meeting will be held both in-person and via a live stream at LebanonNH.gov/Live.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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