Green Burial Cemeteries Gain Traction; Wright Cemetery in Westford Under Consideration

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Renee Cook’s elderly father was traveling in the states when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. The Philippine resident died in his daughter’s home three months later.

“…we had very little time to prepare anything,” she said, referring to her father’s burial.

But she had enough time to observe the things that mattered to him. Don Cook spent much of his last days on his daughter’s sofa looking out at the woods.

“He likened the woods to a symphony because he lay there in the living room and just watched things,” Renee Cook said.

The Cooks represent a trend in this country that has people considering or choosing a so-called green burial: no embalming fluid, no expensive coffin, no metal casket, no cement burial liner or vault. The tombstone is flat.

Although clear cut statistics are not readily available on how many cemeteries are permitting green burials as compared to a decade ago, awareness of the natural process is growing as people like Renee Cook tell their stories.

Prior to the Civil War, all burials were natural in the country. Embalming fluid, a cocktail of formaldehyde and other chemicals, came into use when soldiers’ bodies had to be transported over a period of days. There is no law requiring that a body be embalmed.

According to Greenfield-based Green Burial Massachusetts, Inc. “because only biodegradable materials are used, in green burial a human body and its burial container enrich the soil”

When Don Cook died, Renee had a grave picked out for him in Limington, Maine, two-and-a-half hours away from her home. It was the closest green burial cemetery to her residence and it gave her a sense of completion, she said.

“It was home,” she added.

Green Burials Massachusetts has a list of 21 communities that offer a green burial option or are investigating the viability of one. Among them is Cambridge’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where Candace Currie, a consultant in natural burials, was formerly the Director of Planning and Cemetery Development. Town officials in Lexington and Provincetown are considering the option. In most cases, only residents can be buried in the existing green burial cemeteries.

Candace Currie, a natural burial consultant. PHOTO BY JOYCE PELLINO CRANE

In Westford the newly appointed Green Burial Advisory group was created in December. Its purpose is to draft rules and regulations for Town Meeting. Those rules and regulations will not be on the warrant for the upcoming annual Town Meeting in March, but will appear on the warrant at a future Town Meeting, said Advisory Group members.

The site would be on a plot of land at the Wright Cemetery on Route 40.

Co-chairman Terry Stader said he supports the concept.

“….I think it is an excellent option for Westford residents,” he stated. “I am not sure the concept is something everybody will embrace.” Stader noted that the town’s Health Department has endorsed the idea.

“I personally am for green burials,” said Health Director Jeff Stephens. “I don’t have any issues with them.”

Stephens noted that the grave should be above the water table. A deep hole test is typically done to determine the water level. Stephens added that there is no sanitary issue with a green burial.

There are three types of burial grounds, according to Currie: a conservation cemetery in which burial fees pay for land acquisition and preservation, a natural burial ground adjacent to a crematory, and a hybrid cemetery with both natural burials and traditional ones, such as Westford’s Wright Cemetery.

“When my husband died eight years ago, I didn’t know about green burials,” said Denali Delmar of Westford. But she knew she didn’t want to use embalming fluids.

“My husband died at home and I got to bathe him and my sons and I put him in a cardboard coffin and took him to Mt. Auburn Cemetery, where, because I didn’t know about green burials, I had him cremated,” she said.

Delmar praised the concept and said she hopes that when she dies, she returns to the ground where she could fertilize the soil.

“I look forward to living a long time and ultimately having my loved ones have a picnic and shovel the dirt onto my body and tuck me in…” said Delmar.

Wright Cemetery in Westford. PHOTO BY NICK WOODBURY

Cook has already experienced the beneficial serenity of visiting her father’s grave.

“In Maine,” she stated, “he is in the breeze blowing out to sea and back again, and in the frothy dance of the trees as they play their symphony. I like being there.”