Lebanon cemetery officials research possibility of green burials

  • Lebanon public works employee Brendan Downey removes plastic flowers and holiday wreathes from grave stones at Glenwood Cemetery in Lebanon, N.H. on Friday, April 12, 2019. Lebanon is considering whether or not to allow green burials in its cemeteries. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/14/2019 9:58:09 PM
Modified: 4/15/2019 1:38:14 PM

LEBANON — The city could join a slowly growing list of communities in the Twin States that allow so-called “green burials” in municipal cemeteries.

Officials on the newly formed Lebanon Board of Cemetery Trustees have agreed to look at environmentally friendly interment practices after some residents expressed concerns about the requirement for vaults in the city’s cemeteries.

Green burials are said to allow a body to decompose naturally, rather than being prepared with chemical preservatives or embalming fluids. Green burials also involve simply a biodegradable coffin, casket or shroud, and graves are dug shallow enough for microbial activity to aid decomposition.

Sue Painter, chairwoman of the Lebanon Board of Cemetery Trustees, said the group hopes to soon take up the topic and will be exploring in the coming months where green burials might take place and what rules should guide them.

“We know that you can do them in New Hampshire, and we certainly intend on looking at green burials as a board,” Painter said in a phone interview last week.

Several residents advocated for the burial practice during the City Council’s April 3 meeting, where officials were discussing proposed new cemetery rules.

Only one provision in current regulations prevent green burials: a line that calls for all interments to be enclosed in a “permanent outside container.” Those can include concrete boxes, copper and steel vaults or cremation urns designed to withstand deterioration.

“I request that the new cemetery ordinance being discussed tonight will add a sentence that allows burials without a vault,” West Lebanon resident Judith Bush told the City Council.

Green burials were used for centuries prior to the Civil War and would help the city meets its sustainability goals, she said. There’s also a growing group of volunteers who would be happy to partner with officials to draft policy and educate the public and funeral homes, Bush said.

Her appeal drew the support of several councilors, who hoped regulations could be drafted by fall.

“I think green burials is going back to original tradition, and if I go back and think of my family that’s buried in the Old Pine Tree Cemetery, I’m sure that every one of those sites up there that are for my family are all green burials,” said City Councilor Erling Heistad. “What we’re doing is perhaps completing a cycle of going back and saying, ‘How do we deal with these burials in another way?’ ”

By incorporating biodegradable materials, a green burial is better for the earth and allows the land to someday be reused, said Lee Webster, a nationally known green burial advocate and president of the nonprofit New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education and Advocacy.

“It may sound a little freaky to Americans. It’s a very American idea that we own land even after we’ve left the planet,” Webster said in a phone interview.

But many more people are choosing green burials for reasons aside from the environment, including price, she said. Going green can significantly reduce the price of a traditional funeral, which on average cost Americans $8,755 in 2017, Webster said.

She understands why some would be reluctant to give up burial vaults, though. They’re often considered useful for those looking to preserve bodies, maintain even grounds and help organize cemeteries, Webster said.

“Warehousing the dead by creating concrete parking lots,” as she calls it, also has allowed for bodies to be buried close together and prevent cemetery employees from accidentally digging into a neighboring grave, she said.

However, technology now allows cemeteries to track where bodies buried are through GPS, meaning it’s possible to place graves closer together.

Webster has counted about 220 cemeteries across the country allowing green burial practices, with about three-quarters of those adopting the practice in the last few years.

But only a handful of communities in the Twin States allow for green burials, which are typically conducted on land set aside from traditional, vaulted cemetery plots.

The southern New Hampshire community of Richmond, population 1,155, has 40 plots designated for the practice in its municipal cemetery.

Town policy in Richmond prohibits the use of embalming chemicals — unless they’re biodegradable — headstones, flags or flowers. Only flat footstones can mark a grave, and bodies are buried in either wooden caskets or shroud.

When those plots are full, that section of the cemetery will no longer be mowed or maintained, Richmond Cemetery Trustee Bill Coll told the Concord Monitor in 2014.

“Whatever will grow there,” he told the newspaper.

The Hillsborough County town of Wilton, population 3,677, has similar rules in place for 56 green burial plots in its Laurel Hill Cemetery, as does the White Mountain community of Tamworth, population 2,856, which allows green burial practices in two of its village cemeteries.

In Vermont, green burial grounds can be found in East Calais and Brattleboro, according to Webster’s nonprofit.

Advocates say there’s at least one Lebanon cemetery that could serve as a model.

Vaults are optional in the Upper Valley Community Jewish Cemetery, which is managed by the Upper Valley Jewish Community in Hanover but maintained by Lebanon’s Public Works Department.

That’s because Jewish custom prohibits embalming and many Jews forgo burial vaults, according to Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium, which offers green burials through offices in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Islamic law also calls for the deceased to be washed and buried with only a wrapping of white cloth intended to preserve dignity, according to the funeral company.

The idea of green burials isn’t just new to cemeteries; many in the funeral industry are adjusting to a creeping demand.

“Very few” clients have asked or expressed interest in the practice, said David Ahern, who owns Ricker Funeral Homes and Crematory in Lebanon.

“When I say ‘very few,’ I mean one or two at most,” said Ahern, a longtime Ricker employee who acquired the business in 2014.

But it’s likely those numbers will grow as news about green burials continues to spread nationally, he said, adding both funeral directors and policymakers will have to adapt.

“Seems like New England’s always the last to get anything,” Ahern joked.

While current rules don’t address green burials, that’s not because the trustees opposed the idea, according to Painter, chairwoman of the city’s Cemetery Trustees. The group, which was formed last year to address the deterioration of Lebanon’s burial grounds, first wanted to ensure there are up-to-date regulations that can be built on, creating a “living document,” she said.

“That was kind of our initial charge,” Painter said. “It was to look at this document that the city has in place and what kind of modifications are needed.”

A number of details will have to be worked out in the coming months, she said, including where green burials could be held and how they fit into Lebanon’s existing system.

“There’s a lot that we need to learn about it,” Painter said. “We’re expecting to kind of bone up on this over the next few months.”

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

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