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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 14:49 EDT

Burial Ground Goes Green

September 28, 2008

By STEVEN G VEGH

By Steven G. Vegh

The Virginian-Pilot

BARHAMSVILLE

On a finger of lakeside forest at Makemie Woods, a Presbyterian camp, stout birch and oak trees stretch heavenward, trunks tied with blue ribbon.

At their base, decaying leaves and twigs return to the Earth. Soon, so will human ashes.

On Oct. 5, the grove will be consecrated as an Eco-Eternity memorial forest, an environmentally friendly burial ground for cremated remains. Over the coming years, up to 15 biodegradable urns could be interred in a ring around each of the ribbon-bound trees.

“We talk about ashes to ashes, dust to dust: In that sense, you’re creating a living memorial, you’re fertilizing a tree,” said the Rev. Michelle “Mike” Burcher, the camp’s director.

The memorial wood is the third created in a year by EcoEternity Forest, a Virginia-based private venture, in collaboration with a church-owned camp.

Makemie Woods, located outside Williamsburg, is owned by the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia, which encompasses 62 churches, including more than three dozen in South Hampton Roads.

Jack Lowe, EcoEternity’s co-owner, said religiously-hosted memorial forests revive in a novel form the old church ministry of providing a burial ground. Most city and suburban churches can no longer find or acquire land for a cemetery, he said.

EcoEternity customers who come to Makemie can choose from 150 trees – including hickory, oak and beech – in two waterside sites.

Options range from leasing a site under a “community” tree, where the deceased have no connection to one another, to leasing an entire tree just for members of one’s own family. A church also can lease a tree for its members.

Each site is mapped to help visitors find their loved one’s location. Each burial site also comes with a 99-year lease between the customer and Makemie that protects the woods from development.

No headstones are permitted, but each tree bears a plaque listing the names of people buried at its base.

Fees range from around $600 for a community tree interment to $4,500 for exclusive rights to a single tree, Lowe said. EcoEternity charges an additional site opening and closing fee from $175 to $250.

The fees are divided between the camp and Lowe’s business.

“I’m not embarrassed to say we’ll get some much needed income that will help out other camp programs” and preserve the woods, Burcher said.

While the total interment cost can be far less than a traditional funeral and cemetery burial, Lowe said, expense is not the first thing his clients mention.

“Invariably, they are ecology-minded people,” he said. Customers have cited a love of nature, an urge to conserve the Earth, or said, ” ‘I want to be there because it’s so peaceful.’ “

Such c lients are one reason part of the funeral and cemetery industry is going green, said Thomas A. Parmalee, executive editor of American Funeral Director magazine.

Some green cemeteries, he said, are abandoning cement grave vaults, offering biodegradable caskets and skipping embalming with toxic chemicals.

“A lot of the funeral industry is partially reluctant to go into green burial,” Parmalee added. “Depending on who you ask, typically it does not earn them as much money as a funeral with a vault and embalming.”

The green movement is strong enough, however, that Parmalee’s magazine is offering the Green Funeral Service Desk Reference, a 100- plus page guidebook on the eco-funeral and burial trend.

EcoEternity, which buries only ashes, not bodies, seems poised to ride the nationwide rise in cremation.

Cremation followed 32 percent of deaths in the United States in 2005, up from 6 percent in 1975, and will rise to 57 percent by 2025, according to the Cremation Association of North America Web site.

Human ashes are sometimes interred in cemeteries, mausoleums or columbariums. A common alternative is scattering ashes in a place of special beauty or meaning for the deceased.

But cremains often occupy a netherworld of urns perched on fireplace mantles or bookshelves as family survivors endlessly ponder a final resting place.

“I had my husband’s ashes here for 10 years, I guess,” said Carol Sawtell, a retired medical records administrator in Reston . “I didn’t know what to do with them.”

She then read about the EcoEternity Forest in Northern Virginia at the Methodists’ Camp Highroad.

She thought of the Douglas firs that rose behind her childhood house in the Pacific Northwest. She thought about her husband’s love of trees and his outdoorsman’s past.

“I thought about it quite a while and decided, ‘What the heck! I’ll be buried there, too,’ and bought a tree and took my husband’s ashes out there,” she said.

“I think he would have liked that,” she said of the forest interment. “The idea we’re nurturing the trees, I like that idea.”

EcoEternity clients can plan their own interment ceremony, from elaborate to no ceremony at all.

At Highroads, camp director Rick Dawson said some families have brought clergy, while others have held simple remembrances with friends.

Some clients wait for Mother Nature’s splendor.

“I get questions like, ‘When do you think the dogwoods will be in bloom?’ or, ‘When will the leaves be in top color in the fall?’ ” Lowe said. “If you’re not pressed for time, why not choose a nice day?”

That kind of day is easy to find at Makemie Woods’ memorial forest, Burcher said on the wooded point.

“You can sit there, and within an hour, you’ll see egrets, geese, red hawks,” she said. “It’s a beautiful spot.”

Steven G. Vegh, (757) 446-2417, steven.vegh@pilotonline.com

about the forest

The EcoEternity Forest leases treeside cremains burial sites for 99 years at Makemie Woods. Each tree is expected to live at least 100 years. The forest is open to people regardless of faith .

If a tree dies or is destroyed, clients can choose to shift the grave marker to a comparable tree, a nearby tree or have a new sapling planted close to the site of the old tree.

To contact Makemie Woods, call (800) 566-1496, or go to www.makwoods.org.

To contact EcoEternity Forest at (888) 435-1869 or go to www.EcoEternity.com.

Originally published by BY STEVEN G. VEGH.

(c) 2008 Virginian – Pilot. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.