Plainfield board considers green burials

  • Some portions of Wilton's Laurel Hill Cemetery are reserved for green burials. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/28/2021 9:53:25 PM
Modified: 11/30/2021 1:07:54 PM

PLAINFIELD — Members of the Plainfield Board of Cemetery Trustees are considering how to regulate green burials and are likely to bring it to Town Meeting in March as a warrant article, according to supporters of what are also known as “natural burials.”

Trustees unanimously support green burial and voted at their Nov. 19 meeting to advance it to the next administrative step.

“We’re very excited,” said Margaret Drye, who sits on the Plainfield board. “There’s been interest. It’s something that’s in our ability to offer, and we’d like to take advantage of it if we can.”

In green 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. The Upper Valley Jewish Cemetery in Lebanon does not require vaults.

In Drye’s family, there is a branch “loaded with morticians,” so she knows her way around funerals. “I’ve watched very ornate and very simple funerals,” she said. “It’s nice to offer people a choice. There are people who are yearning for simpler things.”

Over the coming months, the Cemetery Board will have to discuss the particulars of green burials, including issues such as the depth of the grave and maintenance.

The City Council in Lebanon is considering a proposed ordinance that would allow green burials at two municipal cemeteries, with a public comment session scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. Some opponents to green burial in Lebanon point to potential maintenance problems as bodies decompose as well as the problem that heavy grave-digging equipment could not drive over a natural grave because it would not have a vault.

Plainfield contracts Gage Lawn Care & Landscaping in Plainfield to care for its cemeteries. Randy Gage told the Plainfield Cemetery Board last week that he was not concerned about how natural burials could complicate maintenance.

He could not be reached for an interview, but his son, Adam Gage, who owns the business, said that filling in holes that may form as the bodies and their biodegradable containers decompose would not be difficult. With only three or four burials a year in all of Plainfield’s cemeteries, he said he did not foresee maintenance or grave digging ever becoming particularly burdensome.

“One of the biggest issues that the Cemetery Board has to work out,” said Steve Halleran, Plainfield’s town administrator, “is are you talking about green burials in a designated cemetery, or allowing green burials in every cemetery in town? I don’t pretend to know the answer.”

Designating a contained area for green burials would allow the graves to be managed as a unit, but people often want to be buried near their family.

Diane Rogers, a Plainfield resident, wants to be buried near the graves of her parents and her infant baby. She is also enthusiastic about green burial. Earlier this year, she attended a public meeting that the board held with Lee Webster, an advocate for green burials. Rogers had thought cremation made sense for her, but she had never considered the environmental impact of the energy expended to burn a body or the smoke released.

The ritual of a green burial also draws her, she said. Families are often more involved than a conventional one: they may lower the body themselves, fill the grave, or wrap the body in a woolen shroud, she said.

“The old saying ‘ashes to ashes’ — I look at it, well I’ll become something else. I’ll become part of the soil. Things will grow above me,” she said. “We’ve just made ourselves so sacred over everything else on this planet … Life is sacred, but it’s also the whole sacredness of the cycle that you go back to.”

Still, if it came down to choosing between a green burial and resting near her loved ones, she would choose the latter.

When the Cemetery Board distributed a survey through the town newsletter, all of the 15 respondents said that they were interested in green burial, for reasons ranging from cost reasons to a desire to be part of nature. Several also indicated interest in incorporating meditation, walking trails, or even bird watching in areas with green burials, which the Cemetery Board may take into account when it considers landscaping, Drye said.

While some people choose green burials for the environmental benefits, others simply want a funeral without the expense and complications of a conventional burial.

“I don’t like the idea of caskets and the what all that goes with most burials,” said Anne Tracy, 82. She also dislikes fire, so she sees natural burial as a good choice for her. She would also like to be buried near her family’s plot.

Over the winter, the board will continue “to do our homework,” Drye said.

“We really wanted to bring the community into the discussion,” she said, and Town Meeting will be the chance to do that. Green burial will likely be up for a yes/no vote, but the Cemetery Board would be open to policy changes if anyone brings up something “we’ve forgotten or a legitimate problem,” she said.

“Dying and burial is one thing that everybody knows they have to plan for and doesn’t,” she said. “It’s a healthy discussion to have. And green burial opens an option that fits a lot of peoples’ lifestyle.”

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

Correction

Adam Gage is the owner of Gage Lawn Care & Landscaping in Plainfield, and his father Randy does some work for the business in Plainfield cemeteries. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described who owns the business. 




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