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Growing interest in green burials as second, dedicated green burial cemetery to open this year in Maryland

Serenity Ridge cemetery.png
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 18, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-18 11:19:29-04

WINDSOR MILL, Md. — On a brisk, sunny morning, Evelyn Bradley walks up a grassy hill at Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery to visit the grave site of her mother, Anne Ballard. The plot is marked only by a small stone plaque lying flat against the ground.

"She was a simple person and we all wanted a simple way of doing things, so this is what was right for our family," Bradley said.

Bradley said she discussed the idea of doing a green burial with her mom and right before she died in April of 2023, Serenity Ridge opened in Windsor Mill. It's the state's first dedicated green burial cemetery.

"I came out here and bought seven plots for the whole family," said Bradley.

Her mom's body was wrapped in a shroud or cloth. The children laid flowers on the covered plot. Bradley said her mother was an avid gardener and would have loved everything about the ceremony.

"It was just perfect and when they finished covering it, we read poems of hers and we spoke some farewell words to her."

Green or natural burials have been around for thousands of years, said Jennifer Downs, president of the Green Burial Association of Maryland. She said this type of memorial has seen a surge in interest over the last decade as an environmentally friendly alternative to a conventional burial or cremation.

"It’s all about land preservation and returning the body directly to the Earth," said Downs.

To qualify as a green burial, a person cannot be embalmed, which is not required by state law. They must be buried in a biodegradable casket or shroud and the memorial plaque must lay flat, not vertically like a traditional headstone.

Downs said Maryland has been slow to adopt the trend and part of the mission of the association is to educate people, and funeral homes, about the option.

"We’re reaching out to funeral homes so they’re more aware of what families may be asking for and we’re finding that some funeral homes are really happy to work with families."

While there is currently only one dedicated green burial cemetery in Maryland, several conventional cemeteries offer the option, of what the association calls hybrid cemeteries.

The cost to do a green burial depends on a family's choice of cemetery, casket, or shroud. The association said on its websitethat a green burial will likely cost more than cremation but is less expensive than a conventional burial.

Sharon Bailey's family created their own green burial cemetery on their farm in northern Baltimore County. Their daughter, Julienne Gede Edwards, is buried on the site. She died of colon cancer at the age of 30.

"It was very cathartic, a wonderful way for the family and people she was close to honor her wishes and continue taking care of her even after she passed," said Bailey.

"Nature is a big part of our spiritual life and that’s why we’ve always been green burial advocates."

According to the Green Burial Council, conventional burials in the U.S. between 2014 and 2019 used 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 20 million board feet of hardwood, and 64,500 tons of steel.

Downs said people often think cremation is a greener option than a casket burial, but the process creates a lot of carbon emissions to maintain the high heat necessary for cremation, creating 1.74 billion CO2 emissions annually in the U.S.

Evelyn Bradley said her mom would not have wanted to be buried in a conventional casket or been embalmed and she's grateful to have had the option of a green burial cemetery.

"It was very meaningful and it was very personal and it was very us," she said. "It’s good for the Earth, it’s good for the people who care about the Earth."

A second, dedicated green burial cemetery is set to open later this year called Reflection Park in Silver Spring.