Valley News – Lebanon’s municipal council to reopen discussion on green burial in March


LEBANON – The debate over green burials will run into the spring after Lebanon’s city council asked staff to change proposed regulations after a heated debate during Wednesday’s public hearing. The board will discuss and vote on a revised ordinance at its first meeting in March.

“It has been going on for two years now. It really shouldn’t have lasted that long, quite frankly, ”City Manager Shaun Mulholland said at the end of the public hearing. He suggested that staff also draft and announce “options” so that city council can revise the ordinance without another public hearing.

In green burials, also called natural burials, the bodies are prepared without chemical preservatives or embalming fluids. With conventional burials, toxins, including formaldehyde, can seep into the soil and groundwater. Green burials also use a biodegradable casket, coffin or shroud, avoiding vaults which slow down decomposition and varnishes which can also be polluting. In Islamic and Jewish traditions, coffins and vaults break with tradition and many choose a natural burial. Before the Civil War, the natural burial would have simply described a typical burial.

Councilors stressed that several parts of the ordinance need to be reconsidered: a residency requirement would make people who move during their last months of life ineligible for natural burial; it does not provide for a natural burial option during the winter when the ground is frozen. Councilors also expressed fairness concerns, including that, if passed as written, the ordinance would not require staff to dig or fill natural graves as they do with natural graves. conventional burials.

The increased complexity for cemetery staff has been a major sticking point in discussions about green burials.

“There are definitely pros and cons in terms of maintenance,” said Patrick McCarthy, the Lebanese cemetery sexton, in an interview before the meeting.

He kicked off the audience with a series of photographs of collapsed tombs to show maintenance issues. Typically, a concrete arch stabilizes the ground so that heavy equipment (some weighing up to 12 tons) that digs graves and mows cemeteries can safely roll over buried remains. But in a natural burial, there is no vault and the grave can collapse as the biodegradable container disintegrates and the body decomposes.

Vaults were not always needed in graves in Lebanon, and in a handful of unfortunate cases, equipment had fallen into unvaulted graves, McCarthy said. There are also “natural collapses” that cemetery staff fill in, he added.

In an interview ahead of the meeting, Fran Hanchett, a cemetery board member, argued that the “gaping hole” that can form under the grass in a natural burial is a safety hazard.

McCarthy presented “inverted vaults” as an intermediate choice: the coffin rests at the bottom of the dug grave, then a vault is installed upside down. The body decomposes, but “we still keep the structural integrity of the earth for the facilities and the (future) residents,” he explained. This is common practice at the Jewish community cemetery in Lebanon.

Later in the meeting, however, Mary Childers, an advocate for green burial, drew attention to the large carbon footprint of inverted vaults: the concrete industry accounts for 8% of global emissions.

Next, Antonio Palazzo, a cemetery board member, said the council voted to recommend that Lebanon open only one cemetery, Old Pine Tree Cemetery, for natural burial. As drafted, the ordinance would also make natural burial an option in the West Lebanon Cemetery, which Mulholland had included due to concerns about accessibility and the possibility that the roots of the namesake pines make the digging. of difficult graves.

“The West Lebanon Cemetery is next to a primary school which would not be appropriate for this process to be exposed to the eyes of children before we have determined the process,” he said. “We are for natural burials,” he said, but that would be like “exposing a corpse to children”.

Caitlyn Hauke ​​also sits on the board of directors and is president of the Green Burial Council, a national association that promotes green burial. During the public hearing, she stressed that the ordinance required an outdoor container so that children would not see any corpses.

“I’m not totally sure how relevant the pictures (is) are,” she said of McCarthy’s presentation. “We don’t use any equipment, as stated in the proposal, and we don’t do maintenance. So if most of these unvaulted graves are collapsing because of the equipment, that’s a moot point for what we’re proposing for natural burials.

She also touched on ways to tackle maintenance issues, such as gunk that would leak out as the body breaks down.

McCarthy had also argued that the height of the coffin, which can reach 32 inches, required a grave 5 feet deep, which the proposed ordinance requires. Hauke ​​explained that the optimum depth for a green burial is 3 ½ to 4 feet, as this helps bodies break down faster than at greater depth.

“You could put five of me in it,” replied Sue Painter, who also sits on the board, to McCarthy’s reference to a 32-inch-high coffin.

Several advisers, including Erling Heistad, have expressed interest in a standard that would allow smaller burial containers to be buried at a shallower depth.

Green burial advocates and councilors have expressed concerns about how the order fairly treats residents who have chosen a natural burial over a conventional burial.

“I would like the city to offer me the same services,” said Lorraine Kelly, an advocate for green burial, who took issue with the reduced services the city would provide to residents who choose a natural burial. The ordinance’s requirement that the plots for natural burials be 6 feet also increases the cost of a natural burial by $ 300, she added.

“It’s an old practice, an old practice, but it’s also a new process in our cemeteries,” Councilor Karen Liot Hill said as the council began its discussion. “I think it’s reasonable to take a measured approach.”

Counselors have been thinking about ways to get around some of the challenges of natural burials. Because they would often be hand-dug to prevent tomb collapses, equipment for winter burials could not be used, and the municipal tomb is not air conditioned and cannot house unembalmed bodies. . Heistad pointed out that there are workarounds, such as electric building blankets that defrost the ground for digging.

Councilors disagreed on whether cemetery staff should be asked to dig or fill graves for natural burials. Karen Zook pointed out that their “job descriptions do not include the management of human remains” and that there is an “emotional” component that should be taken into account. But George Sykes has expressed concerns about the fair treatment of the two types of burial.

“It concerns me a bit that if we are concerned about collapse, one of our steps would be to outsource the process of establishing this grave to a third party, or in this case, to third party amateurs,” said Devin Wilkie. (Family members can dig and fill the graves themselves if the city does not).

Claire Potter is a member of the Report for America Corps. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.

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