By Claire Stuart
Consciousness is growing about all aspects of green living, be it recycling, using renewable energy or simply eating locally grown food. Taking this to its logical conclusion, it is no surprise that more people are interested in green burial.
It wasn’t that long ago that all burials were “green” and “dust to dust” was the natural way to depart this life. This gave way to today’s common custom of the embalmed deceased laid to rest in virtually indestructible metal coffins encased in concrete burial vaults, ostensibly preserving them forever.
Although people are giving more thought to more natural and environmentally friendly methods of burial, there are still few cemeteries where “green burial” is permitted. Only one is located within a reasonable distance in the entire four-state area: Cool Spring Natural Cemetery, maintained and managed by the Cistercian Monks of Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia.
The monks take seriously their stewardship of the earth and the environment and the sacredness of all life. The cemetery is an expression of their simple way of life, returning the human body to the earth with the utmost respect.
Father Joseph explains that in a green burial, there is no embalming. No vaults, metal caskets, or caskets with handles or other parts made of metal are allowed. Caskets are made of natural biodegradable materials, and even shrouds may be used.
Father Joseph noted that, “Enders and Shirley, [the local funeral home in Berryville] is very cooperative. They handle shrouds and inexpensive caskets. And they receive bodies that come in from distances to be buried here.”
The cemetery has been operating since 2012. Father Joseph admits to being skeptical about it himself, at first, because of the fact that embalmed bodies are not allowed. However, he has been gratified to see that the cemetery has been well received. Information about it has mostly been disseminated by word-of-mouth from people who have spent time in the monastery’s retreat house or who have picked up a brochure in the gift shop or chapel.
The 44-acre cemetery offers three burial areas, one in a meadow with views of the mountains and the Shenandoah River, one in the woodlands, and another adjacent to the chapel. They allow for traditional burials of the body as well as the burial of the deceased’s ashes.
He went on to explain that the cemetery is just that. All other arrangements for burials are handled by the funeral homes of one’s choice.
“We open and close the graves,” he said, “but the funeral home arranges for the apparatus to lower the casket. And we don’t sell coffins.”
He reported that a whole industry is being built up around caskets made specifically for green burials. “Our own order in Iowa makes beautiful but less expensive caskets,” he said.
The only grave markers permitted are engraved local river stones. No vases, crosses, plastic flowers or other decorations are permitted, but people are allowed to place cut flowers on graves. Low-growing flowering ground covers may be planted around stones.
If someone wishes to plant a memorial tree on a loved one’s grave, they may plant it only in the woodland area. However, the trees would be the responsibility of the people who plant them, since the monks are not able to maintain them. The monks maintain gravesites with regular mowing, but the rest of the meadow area is simply brush-hogged a few times a year, in keeping with any other farm meadow.
The Bishop and the local parish do not contribute anything to the upkeep of the monastery, so the monks must find ways to support themselves. They do their own cooking, cleaning, and gardening. They generate what income they can with their gift shop, bakery, retreat house and cemetery. Father Joseph observes that even the monastic life can be stressful if the financial situation is insecure, and the cemetery helps support the monastic community.
Although the grounds of Cool Spring Natural Cemetery have been blessed as a Catholic cemetery, anyone of any faith, or even no faith, may be buried there.
“You can use the chapel,” said Father Joseph, “and have any type of service you want, but monks do not participate or officiate.”
Father Joseph says that this is in keeping with the basic openness of Christ. “Our guest house is also open to people of faith or no faith,” he affirmed. “We open our lives to others.”
For people concerned with the increasing encroachment of subdivisions into the unspoiled countryside, Father Joseph reports that the adjoining properties will continue to stay peaceful and natural.
“Immediately adjacent is the Cool Spring Battlefield Easement, so people are comforted to know that some township will not spring up next to the cemetery. It will retain its rural character.”
He added that the monastery’s popular fruitcake will once again be available, now in smaller 1 1/2 pound loaves as well as in the familiar 2 1/4 pound size.
Holy Cross Abbey and Cool Spring Natural Cemetery are located at 901 Cool Spring Lane, off Route 7 outside of Berryville, on Route 603 (Castleman’s Run) just west of the Shenandoah River bridge.
Visit their web site for further information. https://www.virginiatrappists.org