Green burial advocate to explain natural “green” burials

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Shelburne residents are invited to contemplate the future whether Shelburne cemeteries should allow “green burials.”

The Shelburne Cemetery Commission has invited a special guest tonight to discuss “green” burials – environmentally friendly interments that have as little impact as possible on the natural environment.

The commission hopes members of the public will attend to learn alongside them about green burials as they consider whether Shelburne should allowing the practice in town cemeteries.

The topic of green burials has gained prominence in Vermont since the state legislature passed a law in 2017 that changed the minimum burial depth requirement from five feet to three and a half feet. This change paves the way for cemeteries to begin allowing green burials, which place bodies at a more shallow depth where the soil is more biologically active, and decomposition occurs faster.
In traditional burials, a corpse’s decomposition process is intentionally inhibited through the use of concrete vaults, metal caskets, and embalming – a chemical treatment to prevent decay.

In a green burial, the natural decomposition process is encouraged. A body is wrapped in a simple cloth shroud or put into a biodegradable box and placed directly into the soil.

Cemetery Commission member Jennifer Martin Brown said that after putting out a call for public input on social media and in the Shelburne News in March, she received a lot of positive feedback from local residents interested in learning more about green burials.

Now, she says, the commission will build on that momentum to figure out the next steps.

“At this point we don’t have a real strategy,” Martin Brown said. “We’re still in the informational gathering stage. So we decided to have someone who really is a professional come and talk to the town about green burials.”

That expert is Michelle Acciavatti, a Montpelier-based end-of-life specialist, who will have a 15-20 minute presentation on green burials at the meeting.

Acciavatti says her interest in green burials began in 2013 when she first began her work as what she calls a “death doula,” providing support to people at the end of their life.

“You can’t help people die without thinking about what happens before and after the dying process,” she said. “This is especially important in a community like Vermont, where it is really important for people to not have a negative impact on the environment, even in death.”

Acciavatti said the practice of allowing the body to decompose naturally after death for many people is simply a continuation of good environmental habits practiced in life.

“People care about car emissions, and where their food is coming from, so they don’t want to be going into the ground in a way that’s going to be damaging to the environment in any way,” Acciavatti said. “I think that a lot of people come to the idea of green burials because they just want something simple and natural. The idea is being able to give back to the earth that has sustained them for so long.”

According to the North America Green Burial Council, environmental activists endorse green burials because they preserve the natural ecological habitat, reduce carbon emissions from cremation and the manufacturing of caskets and headstones, and protect of the health of funeral home workers who can be exposed to harsh chemicals during the embalming process.

Eric Hanley is funeral director at Corbin and Palmer Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Shelburne and Essex Jct. He said he views a green burial as the third option alongside traditional burials and cremation. However, he said there are logistical concerns when bodies are not embalmed.

“What are you going to do in the middle of winter when you can’t get into a cemetery?” he said.

Hanley said he is aware of the growing popularity of green burials, but he is not optimistic that the practice will become widespread soon.

“I don’t think you’re going to change many of the old cemeteries around here, especially the old Catholic cemeteries,” he said. “My feeling is that it would be a process to change the bylaws in Shelburne.”

In 2017, Acciavatti, along with several other green burial advocates, established Green Burial Vermont, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing green burial practices in the state. Since then, she works closely with officials in many towns around Vermont providing information about green burials and addressing the concerns that people have about the practice.

Although Acciavatti has met with officials in about a dozen communities around Vermont so far, none have yet enacted policies to permit green burials in town cemeteries.

“I think there is some resistance because it is very different and it does contain some logistical challenges,” Acciavatti said. “[Cemetery commissions] are also really concerned about being first. They’re worried about being inundated with bodies.”

One key logistical challenge that Acciavatti says deters green burials is that cemeteries are traditionally built on locations not usable for farming, such as wetland. These spots won’t work well for green burials due to groundwater. Additionally, green burial sites typically need pathways for equipment to drive on because shallower natural graves lack the underground structural support that traditional concrete vaults provide.

Still, the number of Vermont municipalities that have reached out to Acciavatti for consultation causes her to believe that there is a promising future for natural burials in the state.

“I think most of the opposition comes from a lack of understanding,” she said. “It’s a change. People who run cemeteries deal with families who are very vulnerable and very upset. They’re not really sure how to support them at that time.”

Many families who choose green burials also prepare the bodies themselves and have home funerals, but that is not always the case.

Hanley said that Corbin and Palmer Funeral Home provides green burial services alongside their traditional ones, noting that the company has performed two already.

“This is just another option for people,” he said. “We are in a business to help families take care of their loved ones.”

The Shelburne Cemetery Commission meets at 7 p.m. tonight at the town offices.

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