What happens to us after death?
This is not a spiritual question, because this story is not concerned with whether your “soul” will end up in Heaven, Hell or on the garage roof next to that Frisbee you lost. This is about what happens to our bodies after death.
Many of us are cremated—burned to ashes—and scattered to the winds, dumped at sea or buried in a can. Many of us are embalmed—drained of blood and pumped full of chemical preservatives—and then buried in a casket which is placed in a concrete vault in the ground. Neither option, arguably, is particularly green.
Enter the “green burial” movement, which wants to make the whole process organic.
No more embalming. No concrete vault or metal casket; only biodegradable materials are used.
In 2012, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany opened the area’s first green burial plot at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Niskayuna. The Kateri Meadow, dedicated by Bishop Howard Hubbard, is named for the first Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. The rules of the plot are in keeping with most of the precepts of the green burial movement. According to the rules set out by the diocese, “Only burial shrouds or natural biodegradable caskets can be used. Burial vaults are not permitted.” The Kateri Meadow allows modest granite monuments, however, which are frowned on in some quarters of the movement.
In June of this year, Schenectady’s historic—and nondenominational—Vale Cemetery will offer the second green burial option in the area. Though Vale opened in 1857, there is enough space on its rambling, bucolic grounds to accommodate new burials for a couple of centuries. (Vale currently buries between 30 and 50 people per year, and averages 100 cremated remains per month.) And a beautiful dell on the property is being turned into a meadow for green burials.
Frank F. Gilmore of Schenectady’s Stracher Roth Gilmore Architects—a firm known for many celebrated local structures, including the CDTA Train Station in Rensselaer—has designed this meadow.
While the Green Burial Council says that the “modern concept of natural burial began in the U.K. in 1993,” Frank Gilmore says, “The genesis of the idea is probably as old as the hippie movement.”
“It’s taking your deceased person and giving back to the Earth,” Gilmore says. “It’s about ecology: letting the nutrients of your body go back into the Earth”
The deceased will be buried in a simple wood box, shortly after dying.
“The whole process is fairly quick,” Gilmore says.
And it’s also, Gilmore argues, the absolutely most eco-friendly option. Even cremation is less green: “You lose a lot of potential give-back in the process, and it increases your carbon footprint,” Gilmore says.
The design is simple, Gilmore says. “We’ve reshaped a gentle ravine into a sunken meadow. It’s an acre and a half of land, or somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 square feet.”
“It will provide the opportunity,” he says, “for 300 to 400 green burial plots”
“We wanted to do it in such a way that reflects the natural bowl [shape of the hillside], and make the entire slope a wildflower meadow with cherry, willow and other flowering trees,” he says.
Reuse is a part of the process, too.
“The landscaping will include found items from other parts of Vale Cemetery, including a sidewalk of blue stone and an historic wrought iron fence.”
“There will be a couple of park benches,” Gilmore says, for visitors. “It’s an overlook to allow you to see this meadow.”
It is also, as he sees it, in keeping with the original concept behind Vale Cemetery—the rural cemetery movement.
“The original concept of the rural cemetery movement was that cemeteries are places to picnic and walk through. It’s a sacred place, and it’s a park.”
Bernard McEvoy, a retired medical doctor who is the vice president of the Vale Cemetery Board of Trustees, is a perfect tour guide to show visitors the meadow. Lively, knowledgeable and very funny, “Bernie” has wonderful stories about the history of Vale Cemetery—and about the most celebrated and notorious of the more than 33,000 citizens buried at Vale. He drives through the winding grounds of Vale to the place where the green burial plot will be.
The overlook is there; some of the fruit trees have been planted; and the bowl-shaped hillside seems to invite contemplation.
It looks like a perfect place to return to dust.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to remove erroneous information about the Green Burial Council.