Back to the earth
Nevada County is home to the first public cemetery offering green burial services
The archetypal vision of a modern cemetery is of carved and polished stones sprouting from a wide expanse of green lawn, a manicured garden of monuments meant to commemorate the lives of those buried beneath—often in caskets designed to fend off the natural cycle of decomposition—for generations.
But in recent decades, more people have grown concerned with lessening, rather than maximizing, their posthumous presence. Green burials—after-death options aimed at reducing environmental impact and aiding in conservation efforts—have grown increasingly popular.
Matt Melugin, operations manager of the Nevada County Cemetery District, wasn’t familiar with the practice until someone called his office to request green services in 2014. Melugin’s interest was piqued, and he spent much of the next two years paving the way for the county’s first green burial last summer.
“We had plenty of real estate available to make it happen, which turned out to be the easy part,” Melugin said.
A much more difficult obstacle, he discovered, was that no other public cemetery district in California offered such services (though a handful of privately owned facilities do), so there were few guidelines for how to go about it. Sans any laws prohibiting the practice, Melugin set out to establish new policies to allow green burials in his county.
“When you start anything new, it’s hard to keep everyone happy,” he said. “It was quite a process, and we had to address concerns brought up by citizens and [cemetery district] trustees, ranging from environmental health to cost issues.”
Melugin and Akhila Murphy, a Nevada County resident and self-described “death-care midwife” who assisted in the effort to establish green burial in that area, are scheduled to give a presentation called “Going Out Green” this Sunday (Feb. 26) at the Butte County Library’s Chico branch. The event is hosted by the local Alliance for Support and Education in Dying and Death. John Kunst of that group said that in addition to being open to the public, local after-life care professionals and county officials are invited to learn about green burial and how to bring that option to Butte County.
Green burial advocates are critical of the environmental impacts of modern mortuary services, including using caskets and vaults (plastic or concrete grave liners) made of nonbiodegradable materials, chemicals to embalm and preserve bodies, and more chemicals and massive amounts of water to maintain grass cemeteries. Cremation, long considered a greener option, also involves the use of natural gas and results in the vaporization of substances such as mercury and dioxins into the atmosphere.
With a broad range of options for what people consider green burial, part of Melugin’s charge was figuring out what the practice would look like in Nevada County. This prompted him to contact Murphy, co-founder of Grass Valley’s Full Circle Living and Dying Collective, who helped him meet with the community to find what services people were seeking. Similar to the local organization hosting the green burial presentation, the alliance holds regular events and “death cafes” to help educate people about end-of-life options, provide grief support and re-establish a connection with death that members believe has disappeared from modern society.
“Our culture avoids having conversations about death,” Murphy said. “Today, people just hand everything off to a mortuary, but 150 years ago we were born at home and we would care for the dying and dead at home … being aware of our mortality can help us appreciate life more.”
Melugin found the greenest options in his area were “pioneer cemeteries” with limited to no maintained landscaping. Thus far, green burials are allowed only at Nevada County’s Cherokee Cemetery, but other graveyards may be available in the future.
According to the guidelines Malugin established for green burials in Nevada County, bodies must be buried in natural materials, like shrouds made of seaweed or grass, or caskets made completely of natural wood with no metal fasteners. Burial vaults (plastic or concrete cement barriers that commonly surround a casket) are not used and grave markers are optional, but if chosen they must be made from natural, unpolished rock. Bodies are lowered by hand. Burial mounds are required and serve a dual purpose—to mark graves and to prevent ground unsupported by burial vaults from sinking.
The only mechanical part of the process is using tractors to cover and uncover the graves. Melugin said that was necessary, given the difficulty of digging by hand in the cemetery’s rocky soil.
Kunst, of the local death support and education group, noted that there are about 50 pioneer cemeteries in the fields and foothills of Butte County, some of which could provide green burial sites locally in the near future.
Since Nevada County began offering green burials last summer, one person has used the service, but 40 percent of the available space has been prepurchased to date. Melugin said that, for the time being, the cost is slightly higher than that of a traditional burial to ensure the limited space is available for those who truly want green burial services rather than those just looking for the cheapest option.
“If we had thousands of open graves available, the cost might actually be less, but in the meantime we want to reserve green burial for the people who feel very strongly about it.”