Ron Langley was buried on a crisp, overcast day last month. It was the first funeral at the Vermont Forest Cemetery, a 56-acre stretch of woods up a steep dirt road in Roxbury.
Family and friends had a short walk to the gravesite, just off a newly built gravel road. There, white folding chairs were set up. A handful of shovels leaned nearby.
Langley's body lay on a wooden board above the grave, wrapped in a white cotton sheet. It was covered with flowers — yellow marigolds, pink and orange zinnias, blue hydrangeas and lavender.
Most came from the garden of Kate Abrams, Langley’s wife and partner of nearly four decades. After a short service, she passed around a wooden grave marker and carpenter’s pencils for others to sign. She had burned Langley's name on the wood, and traced a line of music that she wrote for their fifth wedding anniversary.
“This will sit on the grave after it’s covered up, and get pushed into the soil and, eventually, it will disappear,” she told the crowd.
Later, their four sons lowered their father's body into the ground and started filling in the grave. Young grandkids joined in too. It took a while, but eventually there was a big mound of dirt.
Being able to take part in a burial like this is something Abrams wanted.
“A green burial offers the opportunity for grieving families to be involved with it, instead of just shipping the body off to a funeral home,” she said during a recent phone call. “It's not a dirty business, it's nothing to be afraid of.”
Abrams lives in Barnet, more than an hour’s drive away, but having her husband’s funeral at this cemetery felt important to her. She plans to be buried here too.
“There are lots of cemeteries where you can have a green burial,” she said. “But those cemeteries, they have a section for green burials — it’s not a dedicated thing. And there's still going to be mowing and landscaping and all that kind of stuff. I didn't want any of that.”
This type of burial is not new — it was the norm in the U.S. before the Civil War, and is still part of the tradition in many Jewish and Muslim burials. But the idea of returning your body to the earth has gained traction in recent years.
“You're part of the fabric of the world, the earth,” Meg Lucas said. “It’s pretty big,”
Lucas first heard about the Vermont Forest Cemetery early this year, after attending a talk at her local library in Rockingham. She’s 69 and her partner of 38 years, Barbi Schreiber, has early–onset Alzheimer's. Recently, she hasn’t been doing well — she’s in hospice now.
Lucas plans to bury her at the new cemetery when the time comes, and she joined the board in the last few months.
“The cemetery in Roxbury is like going on a hike,” she said. “Part of the White River runs through there. It just feels good.”
“There are lots of cemeteries where you can have a green burial. But those cemeteries, they have a section for green burials — it’s not a dedicated thing. And there's still going to be mowing and landscaping and all that kind of stuff.” Kate Abrams, Barnet
Right now, it’s the only cemetery in the state solely dedicated to natural burials — and where the land is protected in perpetuity. It's one of about 100 other cemeteries like it across the U.S. Another natural cemetery is set to open in the town of Newfane, but it’s been delayed after continued resistance from other community members, according to its director.
At the Vermont Forest Cemetery, a burial costs $2,400 — more if it’s in the winter or over the weekend. Families are responsible for transportation of the body, any materials like a coffin or shroud, and a service, if they want it.
And word has spread. Doug d'Leo first heard about the cemetery from an online search. He drove up to Roxbury a few weeks ago to check it out. He’s 57 and lives in western Massachusetts.
“I'd prefer Vermont, but it looks like I'm gonna be living there permanently,” d’Leo said. “Pardon the gallows humor.”
d'Leo is currently going through chemo. He has a rare cancer of his esophagus that doesn’t have a good prognosis. Even before getting sick, he was interested in interment options that didn’t involve embalming or a big container in the ground.
When he learned about the cemetery in Roxbury, it made sense to him.
“It’s like, 'Yeah, this is what I want to do,'” he said. “Minimal impact and give back a little, as it were.”
Just having the choice has given him some agency, which is important to him. He’s also pursuing the medical aid in dying process, if he needs it.
“I like the fact that it's a natural cemetery, it's not just like an annex to a conventional cemetery," he said.
And because it’s not a conventional cemetery, people are allowed to adorn graves with natural stones or wood markers. But in time, the understory will grow over the grave sites. Then, one day, they’ll just look like another patch of forest.
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Lexi Krupp is a corps member with Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.
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