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Memorial Ecosystems - Leaders in Conservation Burial Monday, July 15, 2019
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"What we’re doing is basically land conservation.  By setting aside woods for natural burials, we preserve it from development.  At the same time, I think we put death in its rightful place, as part of the cycle of life.  Our burials honor the idea of dust to dust."

-Dr Billy Campbell


 Conservation Burial - Definition

"Conservation Burial", very simply is natural burial that serves a higher, significant conservation purpose.

As used in the media, the term "green burial" ( we prefer the term "natural burial") is somewhat vague and used to describe a range of burial practices from a slightly greener version of contemporary burial to the creation of memorial landscapes/natural areas of high ecological quality and social value. Whether and to what degree a burial is “green” or “sustainable” depends on how the project contributes/fits into to a hierarchy of social and ecological processes and landscapes.

In the U.K., dozens of “green burial grounds” are cropping up, but no clear standard is emerging. Projects differ widely in terms of aesthetics, social utility and ecological functionality. For example, most of the projects in the UK are so small-often less than 5 acres- or are located so haphazardly that they fail to achieve even modest conservation goals beyond that associated with not using excessive resources for burial or introducing toxics into the environment.

Consequently, the public will be confused, and might not recognize the difference between a superficially green (“green-washing”) project and one that makes a significant contribution to conservation and sustainability. The range of possibilities for the conceivable perturbations for greener or more sustainable cemeteries is dizzying, and the market barriers for creating superficial projects are lower than that for creating larger and more functional projects. Without some broadly accepted rating system for projects, we can expect greater market fragmentation and a lost opportunity for funding socially and ecologically meaningful open spaces.

The simple framework for analyzing natural burial projects presented here has three hierarchical levels, each with its own minimal standards. The third and most comprehensive level (memorial landscapes) meets or exceeds the standards of the levels below it. The special case of hybrid operations will be discussed after the basic definitions. A discussion on ashes disposition will also be discussed in a separate section, although ashes may be disposed of in any of the areas discussed below. To some extent the model is a bit rigid. At the margins between levels is a good deal of gray. These standards are very similar to those being promulgated by the Green Burial Council, not surprising since they were the starting point for the GBC's.


 A Conservation Burial Story

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 Conservation Burial - Standards


I. Green burial in a setting devoid of significant conservation value or aesthetic.  “Green burial” describes the actual burial process, but the setting itself need not contribute to conservation. The minimum standards:

  1. No embalming fluids
  2. Biodegradable casket (but no endangered tropical woods, etc.)
  3. No Vault

 Simple green burial could occur in a contemporary cemetery or church yard. The process does not waste the resources as in most contemporary burials and does not introduce toxics. The cemetery environment could still be poor habitat for wildlife and native flora. The grave appearance could include pea gravel and large granite grave markers, grass monocultures, or showy exotic (even invasive) plants.

At the minimum end of this level, the net effect on conservation for such a burial ground could be negative, and have little social value beyond the cemetery function (and could be seen as a detriment to local neighborhoods). These projects can include very high density-1,000 or more per acre, and could have non-green burials intermingled. 

The highest standards for this level would involve no net degradation of existing wild areas, and could provide some minimal habitat for native fauna. They could also have enhanced social value. The criteria:

1) No degradation of existing areas with conservation value.
2) Avoiding landscaping with invasive plants that could be spread outside the confines of the cemetery, or those plants that destroy remnant habitat within the project.
3) Creative approaches for creating learning opportunities and other social benefits.
4) Could include landscaping with non-invasive, non-native plants that provide habitat for nesting birds or food sources (not including invasive seeds) for birds and other animals.

We would not  include sites such as Singing Hills in San Diego that degraded habitat and that require contemporary, non-green burial, but that also “protect” an adjacent non-developable tract (see hybrid discussion below). Also not included is the scenario of a contemporary cemetery switching to all native landscaping within the cemetery itself, as laudable as that is. The general area of greening up contemporary cemeteries is a worthwhile topic, and will be covered to some extent in the section on hybrids.

II. Green Burial in a Natural Setting.

The minimum standards:

1) Green burial
2) Diversity of native flora and fauna in the burial area is maintained or enhanced. 
3) Good initial biological surveys
4) Careful in-site planning for trails and interment areas
The main difference between these projects and the next level is the intrinsic conservation value of the land itself.  Size is generally the limiting factor, although in special cases small areas might be considered critical habitat. Most of the projects in the UK, for example, are less than 5 acres, and are often the back end of an existing cemetery, or an acre or two on a working farm. While a 5 acre site can have significant conservation and social value (a scenic promontory overlooking the ocean, backing into a national park, for example), in general, anything under 15 acres is problematic-particularly if burial density is low, and the endowment possibilities are limited.

At the lower end of this standard, a new cemetery on an existing row crop area might have densities that approach contemporary cemeteries-the overall conservation value is enhanced compared to the bare soil that it was. Family cemeteries in the country generally fit this definition.

Smaller areas can have a problem with long term management funding if they follow low density burial rules (this can be mitigated by a greater dependence on ashes scattering and burial, large donor endowments or endowments from other sources).

These projects might have great social value as “pocket parks” for neighborhoods (particularly traditional neighborhood developments and new-urbanist towns and villages), providing special benefits for those living within 5 minutes walk time. They could help expand the total green area in these communities and/or provide linkage to larger natural areas.

Enhancing the ecological and social value of a project  to produce the highest standards could involve:

1) Linking with a larger “sister preserve”.
2) Linking with neighborhood sacred space/chapels.
3) Expanding educational opportunities through revelatory landscape design and linkages with area schools.
4) Playing a role in conservation of rare plants or animals-for example by “growing out” an endangered species of plant on graves, with the excess production of seeds or plants used to restore other landscapes.
5) Periodic outside biological audits.

III. Conservation Burial

The minimal standards:

1) Green burial.
2) All of the other requirements of “green burial in a natural setting” including highest standards
3) Projects have a high degree of intrinsic social and ecological value.
4) Overall low burial density compared to contemporary burial.
5) Long term covenants or deed restrictions to ensure conservation values retained.

As mentioned in standard II, the main difference is generally size. Larger landscapes can host a range of biological processes and social activities that smaller projects cannot. In a small space, creating a chapel, visitor center, artist-in-residence cabin, and handicapped accessible garden could easily overpower any “natural” aesthetic;  the need to create an endowment to keep such infrastructure long term would be difficult without very dense burials. In general, these sites will be 100 acres or more.

Memorial landscapes should not be defined by the green burials that occur within them. Generally, 90% or more of the surface area should be free of graves and infrastructure. The burial function would be an important part of the site’s identity and sense of place, but not the overwhelmingly dominant identity.

Specific steps to ensure that projects protect and enhance biological and social value (and that lead to excellence) :

1) Land selection criteria based on conservation science and community needs (3).
2) Visitor controls. Emphasis on quality of experience, not quantity-particularly in “back country” areas (4).
3) Association with a regional, landscape level conservation effort, ideally contiguous with a larger “core” natural area.
4) Thoughtful design and management to ensure that different uses do not conflict  with each other.
5) Permanent staff who know and love the site.
6) Development of volunteer corps.
7) Active programs for education, arts, scientific research
8) Development of rituals that bind natural and human communities.
9) Strong affiliations with community-based institutions, including those with conservation, education, scientific, religious or art based missions. This affiliation could involve ownership or co-ownership by these institutions.
10) A high degree of public transparency. 

Larger projects can include a more “tame” visitors area/ceremonial center that will be more attractive for some potential clients


Hybrids. The chief danger of hybrids is the opportunity for those with poor conservation ethics to “green-wash” practices that are ecologically damaging, drawing resources away from more comprehensive and beneficial projects. It is unlikely (but possible) that a developer would design a real memorial landscape adjacent to a new contemporary cemetery. However, an existing cemetery with a significant undeveloped acreage of outstanding conservation value could create a highly functioning memorial landscape project.

The following are items that would either be considered negative or positive for creating a hybrid of outstanding value:


1) Natural area of small size
2) Staff with limited conservation experience or training-including managers, salespeople, and grounds-keepers
3) Little or no independence for memorial landscape managers from those managing the contemporary cemetery (in the worst case, these are the same people).
4) Close link between those selling plots and those selling “contemporary” service and merchandise.
5) No independent identity-project area only accessible through contemporary entrance, for example.
6) No effort to include other community rituals, or  programs for education, science, and the arts in projects (projects remain socially one dimensional).
7) No effort to green up contemporary cemetery.
8) Projects that include contemporary burial and natural burial in the same “natural” space are not true “hybrids”.
9) Spaces that develop a valuable natural area for contemporary burials, but set aside a natural area of less value for ashes is also not a true “hybrid”.


1) Natural area large with high intrinsic conservation value.
2) Independent staff with conservation backgrounds.
3) Clients offered new, conservation based rituals.
4) Project has distinct public identity separate from the contemporary side.
5) Strong efforts to include other rituals (including weddings), and programs for education, science, and the arts.
6) Strong efforts to green up existing contemporary cemetery-the highest level would be to switch to all green burials and natural landscaping.

Cremations.  Those seeking a simpler, less expensive and more environmentally friendly funeral and burial alternative often choose cremation. Cremation does use fossil fuels and in and of its self does not save land from development, nor protect or restore wildlife habitat. Projects like those of Eternal Reefs are notable exceptions. All levels of green burial projects can include cremated remains, and indeed some projects might require a heavy dependence on cremated remains to protect sensitive sites or to make the project economically viable.



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