Special for Sunday, Oct. 19 event
By CYRUS LEVESQUE
BRISTOL — For some, concern for the environment is a lifelong passion, but that doesn’t have to be the end of it. 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, Oct. 21, beginning at 1 p.m. at the law offices of James Dumont, the Watershed Center will host 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 was a good way to stay environmental when you die,” she said.
When Bannan learned about eco-cemeteries during a research project, she became interested in starting one in the area. She discussed it with Brynn, director of Vermont Family Forests and a forester for UVM, and they decided that the former site of the Vergennes waterworks, now owned by the Watershed Center’s board of directors, might be a good site.
The Waterworks Property is a 664-acre plot of land on Plank Road in Bristol under a conservation easement. Bannan and Brynn said using 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.
Eco-cemeteries, also called natural burial or green burial sites, are relatively new. Only a handful exist in America, 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 like a geographic information system (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 over $6,500, but Bannon 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 most. “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.”
It is still early in the process of establishing an eco-cemetery in the area. 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.
Bannan also isn’t sure if there is enough interest in the project for it to go forward, but that is part of the goal of the Oct. 21 presentation: to raise awareness of the idea. “Just getting the knowledge out is the important part,” she said.
Even though the idea is still relatively new in the United States, Brynn said that he sees it 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.”