Green burials are permitted in the Vermont Forest Cemetery. How did it happen

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Do you have a plot? Let Jack know before he dies

January 19, 2018 – Jack Griffin, who is in hospice care and dying of cancer, searches for a green burial place to be buried. The problem? He can’t find one in Vermont despite a new law passed last year making it legal.

RYAN MERCER and JOEL BANNER BAIRD / FREE PRESS

ROXBURY – The 40 or so bodies under historic Orcutt’s cemetery likely decomposed quickly and efficiently.

This is how a new Montpellier-based funeral director and end-of-life specialist observed in mid-December while she was deliberately walking in the woods on the edge of the cemetery.

These early 19th century tombs – apart from the vertical stone markers – serve as models for the one Michelle acciavatti plans alongside.

Orcutt Cemetery in Roxbury predated popular use of the embalming liquid by decades, noted Michelle Acciavatti. And watertight concrete vaults and airtight coffins were not yet in fashion.

Most likely, she said, the gravediggers of old in Orcutt would have placed bodies at a depth within reach of the soil’s most living microorganisms – creatures that enhance fertility and strengthen all food chains.

Aware of this science, Acciavatti, 39, and his business partner Tim Graves, also 39, will open in late spring or early summer Vermont’s first public cemetery dedicated specifically to improving the health of children. forests and wildlife habitat conservation.

They are following in the footsteps of dozens if not hundreds of Vermonters who have lobbied over the years, even from their deathbed, for unhindered earthly purposes.

Return a big favor

At the heart of the Acciavatti and Graves project: “rewilding” and restoring 60 hectares of land heavily exploited for generations.

Now designated as a veritable cemetery, state law protects this land from development in perpetuity. In addition, its limits are located in one of the main north-south wildlife corridors of the North-East.

Acciavatti has crisscrossed the state since 2016 to advocate for green burials. These road trips confirmed his appreciation for environmental ethics and the practicality of Vermonters.

The newly created Vermont Forest Cemetery, she continued, literally founds these beliefs.

Soil biology and chemistry, according to Acciavatti, conform to an often overlooked but majestic universal truth: that humans – and all living things – end up fragmenting and reorganizing into other living things.

She speculates that those grieving at the soon-to-open cemetery might find solace in seeing with their own eyes how our seemingly inert bodies play such an important role in nature.

“We have been supported by the earth,” said Acciavatti, “and this is an opportunity to give back.”

Back to old ways

The Vermont Forest Cemetery seems remote, but it is a few miles from the geographic center of the state at Roxbury.

It is quiet enough to be a sacred grove.

This spring, Acciavatti and Graves will rehabilitate the property’s dilapidated forest path.

They will widen old logging trails to facilitate passage to areas that soil scientists and hydrologists have found suitable and safe for so-called “green burials”.

The bodies here will rest at the legal depth of 3.5 feet – shallow enough to nurture new life; too deep to give off odors that might attract scavengers.

Markers, when requested, will lie flat on the floor.

The location of a body’s remains – wrapped in a shroud, locked in a biodegradable coffin or cremated – will be recorded on a map and located with the coordinates of the GPS satellite.

Burial sites will be accurately mapped.

If it all sounds perfectly simple, Graves said, that’s because it is.

“I really don’t see anything we’re doing as anything different from what people have done in the past,” he added.

Push back an industry

The standards of “modern” cemeteries, in place for at least a century in Vermont, have not yielded easily.

Family cemeteries have long been the exception. State law allows loved ones to write their own rules on their own property, within guidelines for health safety and flood zones.

In 2015, after intense lobbying, the Vermont legislature allowed public cemeteries to dispense with fencing, formal markers and create “natural cemeteries,” maintained through “ecological land management practices.”

PREVIOUS: Green burials are gaining ground in Vermont (2015)

In theory, it looked like progress. But the law maintained the minimum depth standard of 5 feet – too deep to suit soil bacteria.

Public cemeteries, on the other hand, were (and still are) free to impose rules governing the disposal of human remains.

Almost all chose to keep the embalming and concrete arch requirements – the latter designed to prevent sagging and ease the passage of heavy-duty mowers.

In 2016, Acciavatti formed Finishing well LLC, a company that offers a variety of counseling and education services, including the crucial link between palliative care and practical home preparations for death and burial.

Bowing to pressure from lawyers, including Acciavatti, lawmakers in 2017 reduced the tomb’s depth tenure to 3.5 feet, from the upper body to the earth’s surface.

PREVIOUS: Vermont legislature adopts “biologically active” standard for grave depths

The following year, Acciavatti enrolled in mortuary school, in part to gain a better understanding of the industry she hoped to reform.

Michelle Acciavatti and Tim Graves were on converging paths

Acciavatti and Graves met in 2019 while they were both working at Guare & Sons funeral home in Montpellier.

They exchanged notes; they discovered that they came from very different backgrounds.

Acciavatti came to Vermont in 2001 to attend Bennington College. After graduation, she worked at Boston Children’s Hospital as a neuroscience consultant in the ethics office.

She has remained a student of the traditions surrounding death, dying, and the disposal of remains.

Her grandmother’s funeral in Minnesota – a traditional ceremony by the rules – left her “empty” and accelerated her quest to legitimize alternatives.

Graves had grown up in Hyde Park. Her grandfather had helped maintain Maple Street Cemetery at Waterbury Center.

Early on, Graves developed skills as a field naturalist, carpenter and musician. In 2004 he joined the military and served in Afghanistan, first as a military policeman, then in mortuary affairs.

He rendered military funeral honors in Afghanistan and at home from 2006 to 2014, the year he took up the post at Guare Funeral Home.

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The intrigues are accelerating

The collaboration with Acciavatti came naturally, Grave said: The two shared a deep respect for the way people care for the dying and how they cry.

When the old Roxbury forest plot went up for sale in March, they jumped at the chance.

In August, the Roxbury Selectboard voted its unanimous approval of the plan.

The minutes of that meeting note a dissenting voice from a member of the audience: “Dave Santi wanted it on the record that he thinks it’s a stupid idea.

Santi isn’t the only one who is skeptical, Acciavatti said. “We are really raising eyebrows for some of our colleagues. “

But his extensive research into land use regulations has paid off. On December 23, Acciavatti and Graves obtained their Environmental permit law 250 from the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

When the roads and trails are ready this spring, the burials can begin.

Jack Griffin’s story: Green burial plans escape Burlington area hospice resident

People can already start planning, Acciavatti said: organize tours and even pick and book a plot.

Interment, including many, will cost less than $ 1,000.

In 2023, the two plan to build a funeral home on the edge of their new cemetery.

In keeping with old New England traditions, the on-site building will provide a low-key place for people to think about how best to approach death.

Long before its opening, Acciavatti will continue its awareness-raising and advisory activities; what she calls “finding ways to make funerals meet the specific needs of people.”

As long as the ground remains frozen, Graves will refine the cemetery trail system and identify, with the help of foresters and potential clients, what constitutes a prime burial site.

Inside, Graves added, he will be sculpting the range of handcrafted urns and coffins by Ending Well.

Most of what he makes will come from salvaged wood from the land he hopes to heal.

RELATED: ‘I Don’t Want to Waste’ – Cancer Patient in Vermont Tries and Fails to Find a Green Burial Site (2018)

Fertile soil: related reading

To learn more about Vermont Forest Cemetery and the people who created it, visit its website: vermontnaturalburial.org; or by email at [email protected]

Journalist Joel Banner Baird can be contacted at [email protected]


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