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Lebanon City Council exhumes effort to allow green burials

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2021 11:18:04 PM
Modified: 6/17/2021 11:18:12 PM

LEBANON — Calls for Lebanon to allow green burials in its cemeteries took a major step forward this week as city officials plan to release draft rules governing the practices in municipal burial grounds.

The City Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to direct employees in City Hall to craft green burial regulations, which are due back before the nine-member body in October.

The decision effectively reverses that of another board, which voted last month to enact a five-year moratorium on recommending new rules.

The Lebanon Board of Cemetery Trustees voted, 3-2, in May to halt its efforts to create green burial rules, with the majority saying they didn’t have enough information to move forward. Over the past two years, members had clashed with advocates over issues including liability, maintenance and who would direct burials.

Mayor Tim McNamara said during Wednesday’s regular council meeting that giving city staff the opportunity to research and draft rules could result in less acrimony.

He also called the trustees’ moratorium “too long,” adding that residents are interested in bringing green burials to Lebanon.

“I think it’s too important that we get something before the council,” he said.

Green, or natural, burials are intended to allow a body to decompose naturally without the use of chemical preservatives and embalming fluids.

They usually involve biodegradable coffins, caskets or shrouds and forgo the use of a concrete vault. Graves also are typically dug to a shallower depth — about 2 to 3 feet — to encourage microbial activity and assist decomposition.

While green burials largely resemble those conducted before the Civil War, opponents worry they lead to more maintenance and liability. Because of the lack of concrete, decomposition might cause some graves to shift, making them difficult to mow.

Fran Hanchett, chairwoman of the Board of Cemetery Trustees, said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting that her board had intended to draft rules that would protect employees and visitors.

“Unfortunately green burial people were not receptive to any of the rules and regulations that were drafted,” she said. “This became very frustrating.”

“I’m not against green burials as long as our city, our employees and our residents are protected,” Hanchett said.

Advocates and some cemetery trustees have said a majority on the board who were opposed to green burials threw up unreasonable hurdles, even when offered meetings with experts on the subject. Linda Secord, a Lebanon resident who has advocated for green burials, called the five-year wait “irresponsible” during public comments Wednesday.

“Even though I hope I don’t need a burial spot within the next five years, I think that it is a safe way to bury a person, it’s a natural way to follow and, even though it seems new to people, it is actually very, very old,” she said.

City councilors said they also endorsed the idea of green burials in 2019, when a group of residents brought the idea forward.

While there was no formal motion at that time to have the cemetery trustees craft rules, there was a clear consensus that it should be studied, Councilor Karen Liot Hill said.

“This is something I recall that the council did discuss and did show support for this concept,” she said. “It is new and it does evoke passion, but I think there is a place for it in Lebanon.”

The city manager’s office intends to look at several cemeteries for future green burials, instead of just the Old Pine Tree Cemetery.

An initial proposal called for burials to just be considered there since the burial ground, located between the top of Seminary Hill and the Mascoma River,dates back to a 1768 land swap. However, the terrain there is hilly and can accommodate little parking.

“I think it makes sense to just have it cover municipal cemeteries,” Councilor Doug Whittlesey said. “Everyone has different needs and I think a flexible approach, as long as it’s sufficient (and) meets all the regulations, shouldn’t limit ourselves or the citizens.”

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




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