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FAYETTEVILLE -- Reaction from neighbors to her plans to create a "green" cemetery in Washington County surprised Jane-Ellen Ross.

She and her husband, Mike, own about 110 acres in the Nob Hill area east of Springdale. 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.

As part of that plan, they are seeking a conditional use permit from the county to establish the Ozark Sanctuary Cemetery, which Jane-Ellen Ross said would provide the option for natural burials.

"Modern burial is environmentally detrimental because of the chemicals they use in embalming," she 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, with a natural burial the body is not embalmed and is buried in a natural setting. Any shroud or casket that is used must be biodegradable, nontoxic and of sustainable materials, according to the association's website. Traditional headstones are not permitted. Instead, flat rocks, plants or trees serve as grave markers.

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

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

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

WATER WORRY

Terry Easterling said he owns land just 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 a quarter of a 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 [in the region] get their drinking water."

Easterling said he also has concerns about the proposed cemetery's plan for shallow graves and biodegradable coffins or burial shrouds. A grave that has no more than 18 inches of soil over a body could attract animals that could dig up the graves, he said. Easterling disputed claims that animals could not 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 is worried about his property value decreasing if a green cemetery is next to his land. 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 burials 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 that the burial rate will be about 16% and cremations almost 79%. The association also notes the growing interest in green burials.

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.

Source: Staff report

"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 regarding the Rosses' permit request, with 12 supporting the plan and two opposing it. Comments supporting the plan were received from 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.

'ASHES TO ASHES'

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 that 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 resting on a pair of sawhorses, decorated with flowers and stones from around the farm. Friends and relatives shared their memories of the deceased, and before the burial the coffin was placed in the back of a pickup and driven around the farm "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 convince her neighbors that 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."

SundayMonday on 12/02/2019

Print Headline: Plan for 'green' cemetery in Northwest Arkansas draws neighbors' nays

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