Green burials are good for the environment. They might be even better for the soul

Green burials are good for the environment. They might be even better for the soul

The hybrid model

While Bixby happened upon a cemetery perfectly suited for green burials, undeveloped tracts of land for new burial grounds can be hard to come by. There are, however, plenty of existing cemeteries that might be able to carve out some land devoted to green burials. This is the hybrid model.

Bala Cynwyd’s storied West Laurel Hill Cemetery fits that bill.

Founded in 1869 by Quaker John Jay Smith, the 187-acre campus is a certified Level II arboretum, and home to more than 3,900 trees, according to Sales, Marketing and Family Services Director Deborah Cassidy. It is the final resting place for a number of famous Philadelphian families, including Rittenhouse, Strawbridge and Widener, as well as nationally-known names like Breyer, Luden, Stetson and Whitman.

Despite its long history, it has not been resting on its laurels, if you will.

“We try to be at the forefront of innovation,” says Cassidy.

West Laurel Hill has a crematorium and a funeral home on site, and began offering services for pet burials using a technique called aquamation in 2018. A much more environmentally friendly alternative to cremation, aquamation involves submerging a body in a solution that is 95% water and 5% alkaline. This speeds along the process of decomposition. After a few hours, only bones remain. These are then ground into dust that the client can keep in an urn or spread as they wish; the nutrients in the water can be used as fertilizer for plants.

Aquamation of human remains is currently legal in 15 states, but not yet in Pennsylvania.

“We are one call to one place for everything when it comes to our death services,” says Cassidy. “We want to make sure that when someone asks, ‘Do you offer this?’ we’re able to do so. And if we can’t at that time, we make sure that we put that in place as one of our strategic plans for the following year.”

That’s how their green burial offerings emerged. After a few people asked about them, the cemetery launched Nature’s Sanctuary, a natural burial section that overlooks the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, in 2008.

Nature’s Sanctuary has been certified by both the Green Burial Council and the Sustainable SITES Initiative, but it took a significant commitment to get the sanctuary to where it is now.

“I think it was about 2015 or ’16, we decided to take the same property and do a restoration. There were individuals buried in the area and we had sectioned them off, so that we could then take out all of the soil, put it back in, so that we could plant indigenous plants instead of these invasives that were taking over,” Cassidy explains. “Once we did that restoration, people were just very, very interested.”

Also on the sanctuary’s grounds is an apiary. A full-time horticulturist and an arborist are on staff, helping to seed a meadow that will eventually become a woodland.

Demand for the space is strong.

Cassidy says that in 2008, West Laurel Hill had three green burials. Since then, that number has climbed to 96. But the real measure is that the living are making reservations.

“We have over 351 pre-needed properties,” says Cassidy. “So you can see the difference between 2008 and 2020.”

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