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Bristol group plans eco-cemetery

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10/29/07

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — For some, concern for the environment is a lifelong passion. But the end of life doesn’t have to be the end of one’s commitment to a healthy ecosystem.

A local group is trying to start an eco-cemetery, where the interred are buried in biodegradable caskets without being embalmed, as an alternative to conventional burial methods.

“It’s kind of an ecological alternative to being cremated or having their remains interred in a formal cemetery,” said David Brynn of Bristol. Brynn is chairman of the board of the Watershed Center, which owns the Waterworks Property on Plank Road in Bristol, the possible site of an eco-cemetery. On Sunday, the Watershed Center hosted a public presentation on eco-cemeteries and the feasibility of one in Bristol.

The idea began with a class project by University of Vermont graduate Meghan Bannan, a resident of Essex Junction. “It is a good way to stay environmental when you die,” she said of eco-cemeteries.

About 15 people attended Sunday’s presentation and were interested in starting an eco-cemetery, Bannan said. “The people who were there were definitely open to the idea,” she said.

When Bannan learned about eco-cemeteries during a research project last year, she became interested in starting one in the area. She discussed it with Brynn, director of Vermont Family Forests and a forester for UVM. They decided that the former site of the Vergennes waterworks, now owned by the Watershed Center’s board of directors, might be a good spot.

The Waterworks Property is a 664-acre plot of land on Plank Road in Bristol under a conservation easement. Bannan and Brynn said using part of the land as an eco-cemetery is probably acceptable under the terms of the conservation easement, but they aren’t certain yet. “That’s something that has to be looked at in more depth if this goes any further,” Bannan said.

WHATS AN ECO-CEMETERY

Eco-cemeteries, also called natural burial or green burial sites, are relatively new. Only a handful exist in the United States, according to Bannan, but there are many more in Europe and Canada. Details vary, but in general, graves are marked with markers native to the landscape like trees, shrubs, or flat stones. In some cases, graves are unmarked and the plots are identified by surveying techniques or with a computerized geographic information system, or GIS.

In addition to ecological concerns, using a natural burial site is less expensive than burial in a conventional cemetery. According to the National Funeral Director’s Association, the average cost of a funeral is more than $6,500, but Bannan said that $2,000 is around the high end for an eco-cemetery burial.

Embalming is not used because the chemicals would seep into the ground without a conventional casket. Formaldehyde, the most common preservative chemical used in embalming, is biodegradable, but it may be a carcinogen according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In the cremation process, when formaldehyde oxidizes it forms formic acid, a byproduct that would be released in the atmosphere.

Natural burial also uses much simpler caskets than the metal or hardwood caskets used in conventional burials. “I don’t see a need to do that when you’re six feet under,” Bannan said. Bodies in eco-cemeteries are usually buried in a casket made of cardboard or wicker, or simply in a shroud.

Cremation is another relatively common alternative to conventional burial, but Bannan said cremation has its own problems from an environmental perspective. “It uses a lot of energy to cremate a body,” she pointed out.

It is still early in the process of establishing an eco-cemetery in Bristol. Bannan said that Vermont has no regulations of burials other than a requirement that the body be more than five feet below ground, but they still need to resolve the question of the conservation easement at the Waterworks Property.

Bannan also isn’t sure if there is enough interest in the project to go forward, but that was part of the goal of the Oct. 21 presentation: to raise awareness of the idea. “They really looked forward to possibly doing this,” she said after the event. “Just getting the knowledge out is the important part.”

Even though the idea is still relatively new in the United States, Brynn said that he sees eco-cemeteries as a natural extension of other conservation efforts.

“We talk about birds and timber management and trails, let’s talk about one more use of the land,” he said.

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