Eco-friendly burials on rise

From left, Howard Berg, Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones Jr., Shelley Morhaim and Dan Morhaim walk through the area that will become Serenity Ridge: Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum in Windsor Mill in Maryland. Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS

BALTIMORE — A sprawling field in Windsor Mill, Md., may soon become Baltimore County’s first natural burial ground — an increasingly popular option for loved ones to bury their dead without embalming, headstones and concrete vaults.

The land off Ridge Road was passed down to Dr. Howard Berg and his brother by their parents, and has been in their family since 1955, the doctor said. Soon, he hopes, the sprawling field will be a park open to the public and an idyllic resting place for the deceased.

The County Council has approved a bill to allow some of the 177-acre green space to be used for that purpose.

“The whole concept is that you’re caring for the dead with a minimal environmental impact,” Berg, a surgeon at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, said.

The council unanimously passed the bill, sponsored by Democratic Chair Julian Jones, in September. It amends zoning laws to allow Berg to preserve the land, which he hopes to soon call Serenity Ridge: Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum, as a natural burial ground. The new county law broadly defines that designation as a “green” alternative to embalming or cremation.

Eco-friendly burials use far fewer resources and none of the chemicals involved with a traditional interment. Remains are buried in biodegradable containers. Grave markers are made from natural materials and headstones don’t protrude from the ground.

“People can choose a burial that’s more consistent with how they’ve lived their lives, their values,” Berg said.

Natural burials draw on both Old World and modern concepts, said Shelley Morhaim, a member of the Natural Burial Association of Maryland who spoke independently of the organization. For instance, she said, a traditional Jewish funeral involves burying a body in a pine casket without treating the remains with chemicals.

According to the nonprofit Green Burial Council, burials in the U.S. annually use about 20 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid and 64,500 tons of steel.

While cremation has surpassed casket burials as the most popular end-of-life option in the U.S., it, too, comes with environmental costs.

“There’s a big incineration process — in other words, a big carbon footprint,” Dan Morhaim said.

Another issue advocates of a natural burial raise: funeral costs. The national median cost can reach more than $8,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, a nonprofit group representing those in the industry.

A natural burial could cost as little as $2,700 for a plot, interment and flat headstone, according to the Green Burial Council. The price depends on the cemetery operator, property value and any extra services the family might request, said Caitlyn Houke, president of the nonprofit council.

The council has certified more than 200 natural burial sites across the U.S. Certified sites don’t cut the grass or use chemicals to control weeds, and they require graves to be dug and filled with only hand tools, according to the council’s website.

Fewer than 10% of people nationally opt for a green burial, estimated Jack Mitchell, a funeral director with Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home, who owns Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Baltimore County, and is a member of the National Funeral Directors Association’s board of directors.

Berg said he plans to use goats to maintain the fields and a battery-powered excavator to dig graves.

He envisions the future scene not as a graveyard, but as a gathering place. An avid gardener, he plans to plant an acre of native, deer-resistant flowers (hence the “arboretum”) that visitors can pick to lay atop their loved ones’ graves.

He imagines families coming to enjoy the open space independent of visiting burial sites.

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