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FAYETTEVILLE -- Her neighbors' reaction to her plans for a "green" cemetery surprised her, Jane-Ellen Ross said.

Ross and her husband, Mike Ross, own about 110 acres in the Nob Hill area. They established a conservation easement for the property earlier this year with the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust to keep the property as a native plant and wildlife preservation area.

Jane-Ellen Ross said the couple are seeking a permit from Washington County as part of that plan to establish the Ozark Sanctuary Cemetery, which Ross said would provide a more natural burial option.

"Modern burial is environmentally detrimental because of the chemicals they use in embalming," Ross said. "Cremation is very fossil-fuel intensive. When you die, your body needs to return to Mother Earth, and your soul to your creator."

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in natural burial the body is buried, without embalming, in a natural setting. Any shroud or casket used must be biodegradable, nontoxic and of sustainable material, according to the association's website. Traditional standing headstones aren't permitted. Instead, flat rocks, plants or trees may serve as grave markers.

The Planning Board approved the permit request in October. The Quorum Court postponed its discussion of the plan at its Nov. 21 meeting so county Coroner Roger Morris can gather information from other states where green cemeteries are allowed and operating.

No cemeteries in Arkansas are marketing themselves as green cemeteries., according to Chad Gallagher, spokesman for the Arkansas Funeral Directors Association.

Some neighboring property owners attended the Planning Board hearing to oppose the permit and plan to continue voicing their opposition when the Quorum Court considers the request at its Dec. 19 meeting.

Terry Easterling said he owns land just to the north of the Rosses' property. He's concerned about groundwater contamination of the wells and springs on his land and about potential runoff contamination reaching Beaver Lake, which he said is about one-quarter mile from the proposed cemetery.

"The water flows from their property across mine and into a creek that is on my property," Easterling said. "It all flows into Beaver Lake, which is where all the big cities get their drinking water."

Easterling said he also has concerns about the methods proposed for the new cemetery with shallow graves and biodegradable coffins or burial shrouds. A grave that has no more than 18 inches of earth over a body could attract animals that could dig up the graves, he said. Easterling disputed claims animals couldn't smell the bodies.

"I don't want to find somebody's hand or head in my yard," Easterling said. "At 18 inches -- they say -- 'animals can't smell it.' Bears can smell better than that and there's bears in this part of the county."

Easterling also said he's worried about the value of his property decreasing if a green cemetery is next to it. He said he's glad the county has delayed the permit process to gather more information.

The National Funeral Directors Association tracks changes in attitudes and preferences regarding burials. More than 53% of funerals involved burial and about 40% involved cremation in 2010, according to the association's website.

By 2015, burial rates were about 45% and cremations nearly 48%. By 2040, the association projects the burial rate will be about 16% and cremations almost 79%. The association also notes the growing interest in green burials.

"Being green in funeral service is a natural consequence of today's American eco-consciousness," according to the association's website. "Consumer lifestyles and values, whether environmental, spiritual, philosophical or conservation oriented, are reflected in consumer attitudes toward products and services in the market and affect decision making. This includes attitudes toward death and funerals. Green funeral choices are expected to grow in popularity in the U.S. as this eco-consciousness grows."

The county reported receiving 14 written comments on the permit request, with 12 supporting the plan and two opposing it. Comments supporting the plan were received from both the Beaver Watershed Alliance and the Beaver Water District.

The Beaver Watershed Alliance was formed in 2011 to protect the quality of the region's drinking water in the Beaver Lake Watershed. Clell Ford, executive director of the group, said the transmission of communicable diseases should not be a concern as long as the guidelines of the nonprofit Green Burial Council are followed. The guidelines include choosing a site with appropriate soil, digging test pits at the site and having them professionally tested.

The Beaver Water District worked with the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust to establish the conservation easement on the Rosses' property. In written comments to the county, the district noted the "impacts from the planned conservation earth burial cemetery will be minimal compared to other land uses."

Other comments in support of the permit were submitted by Lowell Grisham, former rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. Grisham said he has discussed the green burial concept with people over many years, and he sees no problem with people making that choice.

Grisham said one of the most striking funeral services he was ever involved in was a green burial. He said when the patriarch of a farming family in Mississippi died, the family prepared the body at home, with the man's sons digging a grave and building a simple wooden coffin. The service was held with the coffin standing on a pair of sawhorses, decorated with flowers and stones from around the farm. Friends and family shared their memories and, before the burial, the coffin was placed in the back of a pickup and driven around the farm "for one last time," he said.

"Then we all lowered the coffin into the grave and helped cover it," Grisham said. "There's a prayer we use in some of our services that says 'Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,' and this kind of service honors that Biblical heritage."

Ross said she will continue her efforts and hopes to persuade her neighbors their concerns are unfounded.

"I'm not upset with it being tabled," she said. "Obviously, people are upset and it needs to be talked about."

Green burial

Information on green burial is available from the Natural State Burial Association website at www.greenburialcouncil.org on on the group’s Facebook page.

NW News on 12/01/2019

Print Headline: Green cemetery plan draws praise, criticism

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