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Land trust helping find site for green cemetery

  • Glen Ayers talks with Al Jazeera reporter about green burials.

    Glen Ayers talks with Al Jazeera reporter about green burials.

  • Ruth Fass, owner of  Mourning Dove Studio in Arlington, shows casket of woven banana leaves to Al Jazeera reporter on "Earthrise" segment.

    Ruth Fass, owner of Mourning Dove Studio in Arlington, shows casket of woven banana leaves to Al Jazeera reporter on "Earthrise" segment.

  • Glen Ayers talks with Al Jazeera reporter about green burials.
  • Ruth Fass, owner of  Mourning Dove Studio in Arlington, shows casket of woven banana leaves to Al Jazeera reporter on "Earthrise" segment.

The “grace” in Mount Grace Land Trust’s name may be taking on new meaning, as the conservation organization has joined in a new Green Cemetery Initiative.

Working with the Green Burial Committee of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts, the Athol-based land trust is trying to establish the state’s first open-to-all green cemetery.

All cemeteries are green, you might think, especially once we get past winter. But think of this as an “all-natural” cemetery, in which burials take place without embalming fluid, without steel burial vaults, without vertical headstones and in some cases with shrouds or cardboard caskets rather than those made with hardwoods.

“The idea is to keep the land as it was, to maintain the site with as little disruption as possible,” says Judith Lorei of the Green Burial Committee. “We’ve been looking from an environmental perspective, to being as simple, as noninvasive as possible, to the land and to the body. The idea is to use fewer resources from an environmental standpoint, so that more family and friends are involved in the ritual. It’s an opportunity to be in touch with the ritual.”

“In a natural burial,” says green-burial advocate Glen Ayers of Leverett in a segment of Al Jazeera English’s “Earthrise” environmental program, “we’re really part of that (soil) system. You would be recycled and you would live again. And that’s really a great concept: Instead of being buried in a cement box, you’re part of a flourishing ecosystem instead.”

In the same segment, Ruth Fass, the owner of Mourning Dove Studio in Arlington displays a casket made of woven banana leaves, and another that’s simply a cardboard box. The green burial advocate, who wants to buy the first natural burial plot in Massachusetts when it becomes available, says, “Every year, we bury enough concrete to pave a road from New York to Detroit.”

That 1.8 million tons of reinforced concrete is in addition to 827,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid, more than 104,000 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze and more than 30 million board feet of hardwood, says the website of the Green Cemetery Initiative launched by the two organizations.

Although Wendell and Warwick town cemeteries allow natural burial for town residents who want it, according to the initiative, there are concerns that some people raise because it’s not a widely understood practice, says Lorei, a Montague resident.

The organizations have already approached the selectboard in New Salem and hope to talk with officials in other towns around the county, looking for a host community, she said.

Among those concerns are that animals will dig up the remains — a myth for which there is no evidence, say green-burial advocates — or that groundwater will become contaminated, a belief that is contrary to the notion of doing away with toxic embalming chemicals, argue proponents like Ayers, who supports properly sited natural burials as a way of avoiding groundwater contamination.

The New Salem parcel they expressed interest in already has a conservation restriction on it, according to Town Coordinator Nancy Aldrich, so it isn’t available, but the board and cemetery commission remain open to the idea, which would have to be presented for town meeting approval in any case.

“It’s like home births,” said Lorei, pointing to the popularity of returning to a more natural beginning life cycle, just as there is now a growing interest in the end-of-life cycle for a generation that has popularized recycling and composting to protect the environment and better connect with the ritual.

Paul Daniello, conservation project manager with Mount Grace, says, “We see it as an innovative way to combine conservation with the (regional) community’s need for natural burials.”

Mount Grace is seeking to acquire at least 50 acres of land for conservation, with minimal disturbance, he said. “We’re in the early stages of talking with towns,” and would be interested in doing general screenings of soils and abutting conservation areas of land that is identified for purchase or, preferably donation to the Land Trust, which would then likely be responsible for managing the property. “The question now is, ‘Is it feasible?’”

On the Web: www.greenburialma.org

www.mountgrace.org

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUcPpcAhrjs&feature=youtu.be

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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