Schenectady County

Niskayuna cemetery to offer natural burials

Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery is developing a natural burial preserve for people seeking a simpler and

Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery looks like a typical cemetery, with neatly manicured lawns, clean and stately headstones and a peaceful road that winds through its flat and tasteful landscape.

But a slightly more unruly burial ground is taking shape.

The Niskayuna cemetery is developing a natural burial preserve for people seeking a simpler and environmentally sustainable burial.

The 20,000-square-foot site has been seeded with wildflowers and will eventually become a meadow, free of herbicides and pesticides. Small granite memorials featuring the name of the deceased and dates of birth and death will be permitted, but larger, more elaborate headstones and inscriptions will not. People can choose to be buried in a shroud, wicker basket or pine casket, but not a vault because vaults are not biodegradable. And though embalming is allowed, provided it is done using “green” embalming fluids, it is not required.

Called the Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve, the site is named for Kateri Tekakwitha, the Auriesville native who will be canonized as the first Native American saint in October. In September, Albany Roman Catholic Diocese Bishop Howard Hubbard will dedicate the new burial ground.

Maureen McGuinness, family service manager for Albany Diocesan Cemeteries, said that the creation of the natural burial ground was spurred by a growing need.

“Our executive director started getting calls asking whether we offered a natural burial, and we decided to look into it,” she said. “Those people who have strived to be good stewards of the earth are going to be most attracted to this option.” She noted that Kateri is the patroness of the environment and ecology.

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve will be the first cemetery in the Capital Region to offer the option of a “green burial,” and only the fourth in New York. The expectation is that the natural burial preserve will draw people from throughout the Northeast as natural burial options are few and far between.

Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery is one of 18 cemeteries operated by Albany Diocesan Cemeteries in Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties.

Full Catholic funeral rites, which include a wake, funeral Mass and committal service, will still be possible for those who choose to be buried at Kateri, and eventually the site will feature a stone “chapel” — a semicircle of stones from which a priest could preside over a committal service.

In 2002, only two cemeteries in the United States offered a natural, or green, burial. Today there are more than 30 Green Burial Council-approved natural cemeteries in the country.

Advocates say that the green burial option is becoming more popular and that the demand for it will only grow, particularly among the baby boomer generation.

“We’re about to have a little growth spurt,” said Joe Sehee, the Australia-based executive director of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit agency with a mission of promoting and creating global standards for green burials. “There’s more interest and more demand. Growth has been slow, but steady.”

Sehee said that most Americans are unaware of their rights and options when it comes to funerals, and have been convinced by vault companies that a burial cannot take place without a vault.

“Green burial allows us to get in sync with the natural cycle of birth, life and death,” Sehee said. “It’s a return to ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ The funeral industry has tried to tidy up death, and green burial is more in line with the values of an increasing number of people.”

Sehee said people who seek out a natural burial aren’t always motivated by environmental concerns.

“I don’t think environmental concerns are the big driver,” Sehee said. “I think people like the idea of being allowed to take a more active part in end-of-life rituals. We have a need to honor the dead.”

The Green Building Council frowns on embalming, which Sehee described as unnecessary, but does support the use of several formaldehyde-free embalming fluids, including one that’s made entirely of nontoxic and biodegradable essential oils.

As part of the planning process for Kateri Meadow, McGuinness visited White Haven Memorial Park, a cemetery in Rochester with a natural burial ground that opened in 2010. White Haven has done about 10 natural burials and sold around 100 of the burial ground’s 600 plots, according to Andrea Vittum, the cemetery’s president.

The cemetery’s decision to create a natural burial ground was driven by requests for the service and also by the cemetery’s longstanding interest in taking care of the environment, Vittum said. In the late 1990s, White Haven became the first cemetery in the world to be designated an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

“We were able to kill two birds with one stone,” Vittum said. “We’ve preserved meadow land and provided another option for customers. The whole process of maintaining a lawn is not very green. You use fossil fuels in the mowing, and pesticides and herbicides. If you can let the grass grow wild, you’re better off.”

Officials are trying to get the word out about the new Kateri burial ground as well as educate people about what a natural burial is. Though nobody has purchased a plot, people are already expressing interest, McGuinness said. “One lady was happy to know that this is an option for Catholics,” she said. “She wants to leave less of an impact when she goes, which will fit with the way she’s lived her life.”

In creating Kateri Meadow, Albany Diocesan Cemeteries is taking the long view, trying to anticipate what the customers of the future will want.

“We think there will be more demand for it in the future,” McGuinness said.

Plots at Kateri Meadow will cost $1,500, while Albany Diocesan Cemeteries’ traditional plots range from $750 to $1,200. McGuinness said the natural burial plots are more expensive because the bodies will not be contained in burial vaults and will need more space as they decompose. People who choose the natural burial option will still save money, she said, because they will not have to purchase a fancier headstone or vault.

Right now, Kateri Meadow has 260 grave spaces, but there is room for expansion. Forty-eight of the cemetery’s 100 acres remain undeveloped.

Cremation is an accepted practice in the Catholic church, provided the ashes are treated like a body and buried or entombed, rather than scattered. Most Holy Redeemer has an urn garden for the burial of cremated remains in urns.

Cremated remains will not be permitted in Kateri Meadow because the cremation process is fueled by natural gas, oil or propane. However, the cemetery is considering the creation of a cremation trail — a nature trail where people could have their ashes interred.

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve abuts preserve land designated “forever wild,” which will prevent development from encroaching upon the area. Most Holy Redeemer is located on busy Troy-Schenectady Road, but the natural burial area is located toward the rear of the cemetery and will not be landscaped. The memorial stones used to mark the graves will be cut from rocks found on Albany Diocesan Cemeteries’ various properties.

In AARP’s 2007 Funeral and Burial Planners Survey, only 12 percent of respondents said they were familiar with the concept of a green burial. However, 21 percent of respondents said they would be very interested or interested in this option. Interest was higher among younger adults, with respondents over the age of 65 much more likely to report that they were “not at all interested in this type of alternative burial process.”

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