Lebanon City Council to revive green burial discussion in March

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/3/2021 6:29:02 AM
Modified: 12/3/2021 3:50:20 PM

LEBANON — The debate over green burials will stretch into spring after the Lebanon City Council asked staff to modify proposed regulations after a robust debate at the public hearing Wednesday. The council will discuss and vote on a revised ordinance at its first meeting in March.

“This has gone on for two years now. It really shouldn’t have gone on this long, quite frankly,” said Shaun Mulholland, the city manager, at the end of the public hearing. He suggested that staff would also draft and advertise “options” so the City Council could revise the ordinance without yet another public hearing.

In green burials, also known as natural burials, bodies are prepared without chemical preservatives and embalming fluids. With conventional burials, toxins, including formaldehyde, can leach into the soil and groundwater. Green burials also use a biodegradable coffin, casket or shroud, eschewing vaults that slow decomposition and varnishes that can also be pollutants. In the Islamic and Jewish traditions, caskets and vaults break with tradition and many choose a natural burial. Before the Civil War, natural burial would have simply described a typical burial.

Councilors pointed to several parts of the ordinance to be reconsidered: The ordinance requires the burial container to be buried at a greater depth than is optimal for decomposition; a residency requirement would make people who move away in their last months of life ineligible for natural burial; it does not lay out an option for natural burial during the winter when the ground is frozen. Counselors also laid out equity concerns, including that, if passed as written, the ordinance would not require staff to dig or fill natural graves as they do with conventional burials.

Added complexity for cemetery staff has been a chief sticking point in discussions about green burials.

“There are definitely benefits to it and downfalls to it maintenance-wise,” Patrick McCarthy, Lebanon’s cemetery sexton, said in an interview before the meeting.

He kicked off the hearing with a series of photographs of collapsed graves to show the maintenance challenges. Typically, a concrete vault stabilizes the ground so heavy equipment (some weighing as much as 12 tons) that digs graves and mows cemeteries can safely drive over buried remains. But in a natural burial, there is no vault and the grave can collapse as the biodegradable container decays and the body decomposes.

Vaults were not always required in Lebanon’s graves, and in a handful of unfortunate instances, equipment had fallen into unvaulted graves, McCarthy said. There are also “naturally occurring collapses” that cemetery staff fill in, he added.

In an interview before the meeting, Fran Hanchett, a member of the Cemetery Board of Trustees, argued that the “gaping hole” that can form below the grass in a natural burial is a safety hazard.

McCarthy presented “inverted vaults” as an intermediate choice: The casket rests on the bottom of the dug grave, and then a vault is installed upside down. The body decomposes, but “we still keep structural integrity of the earth for equipment and (future) residents,” he explained. This is the standard practice at the Jewish Community Cemetery in Lebanon.

Later in the meeting, though, Mary Childers, an advocate for green burial, drew attention to the hefty carbon footprint of inverted vaults: The concrete industry accounts for 8% of global emissions.

Next, Antonio Palazzo, a member of the Cemetery Board of Trustees, said the board had voted to recommend that Lebanon open only one cemetery, Old Pine Tree Cemetery, to natural burial. As written, the ordinance would also make natural burial an option in the West Lebanon Cemetery, which Mulholland had included because concerns about accessibility and the possibility that the namesake pines’ roots would make grave-digging difficult.

“The West Lebanon Cemetery is next to an elementary school that would not be appropriate for this process to be exposed to children’s eyes before we have the process determined,” he said. “We are for natural burials,” he said, but this would amount to “exposing a dead body to children.”

Caitlyn Hauke also serves on the Board of Trustees and is the president of the Green Burial Council, a national association that promotes green burial. During the public hearing, she pointed out that the ordinance required an outer container so children would not see any dead bodies.

“I’m not totally sure what the relevance of pictures (is),” she said regarding McCarthy’s presentation. “We’re not using equipment, as written in proposal, and we’re not doing maintenance. So if most of those non-vaulted graves are collapsing due to equipment, it’s a moot point for what we’re proposing for natural burials.”

She also raised ways to deal with maintenance concerns, such as mounding dirt that would sink as the body decomposes.

McCarthy had also argued that casket height, which can be as much as 32 inches, necessitated a 5-foot-deep grave, which the proposed ordinance requires. Hauke explained that the optimal depth for a green burial is at 3½ to 4 feet because it helps bodies break down more quickly than they do at a greater depth.

“You could fit five of me in that,” was how Sue Painter, who also serves on the Board, responded to McCarthy’s reference to a 32-inch-high casket.

Several councilors, including Erling Heistad, expressed interest in a standard that would allow smaller burial containers to be buried at a shallower depth.

Both advocates for green burial and councilors raised concerns about how equitably the ordinance treats residents who chose a natural burial over a conventional burial.

“I would like the city to accord me the same services,” said Lorraine Kelly, an advocate for green burial, who took issue with the reduced services the city would offer residents who choose a natural burial. The ordinance’s requirement that plots for natural burials be 6 feet also raises the cost for a natural burial by $300, she added.

“It’s an old practice, an ancient practice, but it is also a new process in our cemeteries,” Counselor Karen Liot Hill said when the council began its discussion. “I think it is reasonable to take a measured approach.”

Councilors brainstormed ways to get around some of the challenges of natural burials. Because they would often be hand dug to avoid grave collapses, the equipment that makes winter burials possible could not be used, and the municipal tomb is not climate-controlled and cannot house unembalmed bodies. Heistad pointed out that there are workarounds, such as heated construction blankets that defrost the ground for digging.

Councilors did not agree on whether or not cemetery staff should be asked to dig or fill graves for natural burials. Karen Zook pointed out that their “job descriptions don’t include handling human remains” and that there is an “emotional” component that should be considered. But George Sykes raised concerns about treating both kinds of burial equitably.

“It causes a little concern for me that if we’re worried about collapse that one of our steps would be to outsource the process of establishing that grave to a third party, or in this case, amateur third parties,” Devin Wilkie said. (Family members may dig and fill the graves themselves if the city does not.) “It would occur to me that if we want to ensure a stable burial site we would want someone who has experience, presumably someone already working in that cemetery.”

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

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