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Northeast Ohio Land Preserve Offers Alternative To Modern Burials

Picking a final resting place is something we’ll all have to do. An Ohio cemetery is giving people a more natural option. Nestled in the rolling hills of Stark County is the state’s only nature preserve cemetery. WOSU reports the eco-friendly-cemetery allows people to rest in peace in a rural setting and make a final gift to the environment. Tradition goes out the window as one drives up to Foxfield Preserve. Except for a sign at the entrance, there’s no real indicator a cemetery lies behind the modest gates. There are no shiny, polished headstones or large, granite monuments. There is no mausoleum, no manicured lawn. Instead, Gordon Maupin who developed and runs the Foxfield Preserve, a natural burial cemetery, said, "There’s Black-Eyed Susan growing there, Big Bluestem sticking up above other things, tall coreopsis, tall sunflower, there was a bit of Butterfly Weed back there, a nice bright orange thing in the milkweed family and Tallgrass Prairie." Foxfield Preserve is part of a land conservancy called The Wilderness Center. Foxfield is the only natural cemetery in the U.S. run by a nonprofit conservation organization. As a conservationist, Maupin’s mission has always been to preserve the area surrounding The Wilderness Center. But then he heard about a natural cemetery in South Carolina. “It just struck me as the right thing," Maupin said. "Right for land conservation, right for nature, right for wildlife, right for wise use of resources, right for the whole biological system.â€? Nature clearly dominates at Foxfield Preserve that once was farm land. The only sounds are of birds and the wind through the trees. Standing next to waist-high prairie grass overlooking Apple Creek Valley where Old Order Amish farm nearby, I asked to be taken to some grave sites, to see how a natural burial grave differs from a traditional one. “We’re surrounded by them right now," Sara Starr said. Starr is Foxfield Preserve’s steward. “The whole idea is for the grave to go back to part of nature. We’re embracing the natural cycle of life. So we are actually right now, in this beautiful prairie, surrounded by grave sites. And if we take a walk right over here I can actually show you some of the sites.â€? As we walk through the prairie grass on a foot-wide path, likely created by visiting friends and family, we come upon a 10 feet by 20 feet plot. Wild flowers grow on top of a dirt mound that is nearly level with the rest of the earth. “This is the grave site of a gentleman who was buried here last fall. And as you can see it’s already started to be taken back by the prairie grasses," Starr described. It’s a typical Foxfield grave. A modest, flat, unpolished stones marks the plot. The man’s name, along with his wife’s, are engraved on this one. His wife will be buried at the foot of the grave when she dies. Traditional cemeteries use concrete vaults to prevent the earth from sinking once a casket breaks down. At Foxfield Preserve, soil is mounded high over graves which are shallower at 3.5 feet deep. Maupin said the depth allows remains to return to the earth quickly. And within a year, a gravesite is usually level again. Beneath the earth, there are no elaborate caskets. “We prefer families to use a biodegradable container," Starr said. "Now that can be a common burial shroud or they can choose just a plain wooden casket, unfinished. But we want something that will go back to the earth naturally.â€? And because Foxfield is a nature preserve, no one is embalmed. Starr said many people don’t know a natural burial is an option. "Many people think that cemetery rules and funeral home practices are law, that it’s kind of a requirement. But we’re working hard to spread the word that they do have an alternative," she said. While individual cemeteries usually require concrete vaults, no states in the U.S. require them. And only a few states have embalming requirements. At $3,200, the plots are more expensive than ones at a traditional cemetery. But they’re larger, allowing for two sets of remains. Ohio requires all graves to be precisely surveyed. And by law, Foxfield Preserve must have a trust fund to ensure its care if it becomes financially insolvent. Since its inception, 150 plots have been sold at Foxfield Preserve, and 40 burials have taken place. Colleen Thomas’ father was buried at Foxfield in February. It was during a visit with her family that Thomas’ mother announced she was buying two plots at the natural cemetery. Thomas, who has considered a water burial, welcomed the idea. “Environmentally, I think it’s a lot more sound," she said. "And it also allows the family to connect more with the earth.â€? When she visits her father’s grave, Thomas said she doesn’t feel like she’s at a cemetery. In her words, it’s private. “I’ve been out here for the last hour writing in my journal, talking to the land and thinking about my father and all of this. And I was in this brush that was four feet high. So even if you’d wandered by you probably wouldn’t have known I was there. I mean I would have been looked at really weird if I’d been doing that in a regular cemetery,â€? Thomas chuckled. Other cemeteries may follow Foxfield’s lead. Officials at Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus say have considered establishing a natural burial section.