Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania Edition
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Green Meadow

A Natural Burial Ground

As a journalist, Mark Harris has been fortunate to combine his love of writing with his passion for the environment. A former environmental columnist with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Harris says that for him, writing is a way to promote an important cause and broadcast pressing issues of our day. In 2003, he had the opportunity to visit Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, the first conservation burial ground in the United States. Here, the deceased are buried in the woods with no embalming and no burial vault, allowing the body to recycle naturally. After touring the grounds and interviewing the founders, he felt strongly that this would change the way our generation would look at burial.

The subject of natural, or green, burial really resonated with him and he knew it would resonate with others. He wrote a series of columns dedicated to the green burial movement, covering subjects such as cremation, backyard burials, artisan coffin markers and more. “The natural end of life is decomposition and decay,” he says. “Green burial embraces this fundamental fact and lets Mother Nature run her natural course.”

The concept of a green burial is not a new one. In fact, it is the oldest and most natural form of interment. Much of what constitutes green burial was once standard practice in this country. “Natural burial speaks to old-fashioned American values—a long tradition,” he explains. “The goal then and now is the same: to allow the body at death to rejoin the elements it sprang from, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life, to return dust to dust. It’s a do-it-yourself approach that not only respects tradition, but also is good for the environment.”

The more he learned, the more he wanted to share, and in 2007, his book Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, was published. He traveled the country speaking to college students, church congregations, hospice workers, home funeral providers and more about green burial and funeral issues—and continues to do so today.

Harris garnered the attention of a local cemetery, Fountain Hill, which asked for his help in planning a natural burial ground within the boundaries of its property. He volunteered his time and helped put together a coalition of people to help plan the green cemetery, to be located on what was then a quarter-acre mowed green field. With the help of landscape designers, architects and others, all of whom also donated their time, they plotted, planned and turned the plain, grassy field into a beautiful meadow of wildflowers and grasses native to Pennsylvania.

In 2012, Green Meadow at Fountain Hill Cemetery—the Lehigh Valley’s first and only green cemetery—was officially launched. Here, the deceased return to the earth in vault-free graves, laid to rest in caskets made from a range of biodegradable materials, like wicker, pine, sea grass and even cardboard. Bodies are not embalmed and graves are marked with rustic fieldstone that is collected from the region and laid flush to the ground.

“In a traditional cemetery, measures are taken to preserve the body and prevent decay,” notes Harris. “Bodies are chemically embalmed and laid to rest inside a metal casket that’s lowered into a concrete vault. But, those methods only offer temporary preservation; the body will still decay. At Green Meadow, we embrace the natural cycle of life. We allow bodies to decay and became a part of the soil, to push up vegetation, and rejoin the natural cycle of life that turns to support all those we leave behind.”

The cost of a green burial can vary, depending on what a family chooses, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. For example, loved ones may provide a coffin (made of biodegradable materials), have a home funeral and do the transport themselves (with proper paperwork). But, the real benefit is upon death, realizing you may get back to earth, renew the soil, create oxygen and preserve a bit of land for those you leave behind.

If that’s not enough, Harris has done plenty of research to determine the environmental impact of a modern funeral, and his findings are astounding. He explains, “The modern burial uses a vast amount of resources and leaves a trail of environmental damage in its wake. A typical 10-acre swatch of cemetery ground, for example, contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel and another 20,000 tons of vault concrete. Add to that a volume of toxic formalin nearly sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool.”

Harris continues to promote the cemetery locally, give talks and help maintain the site. He even has two plots of his own. “I look at Green Meadow, and natural burial, as a way to leave something behind. I like the thought of my daughters one day sitting in the meadow, not just thinking about their father but communing with nature. For me, that’s a powerful legacy.”

Green Meadow is located at 1121 Graham St, Fountain Hill. For more information, call 610-868-4840 or visit GreenMeadowPA.org.

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