Schenectady County

Sheep return to mow Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery’s lawns

Thirty-three sheep from SUNY Cobleskill Livestock Department nibble on grass and plants at The Dell, natural burial area, for their annual fall grazing day at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady on Thursday, November 4, 2021. By having animals graze the area, the ground becomes more ecologically sound.
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Thirty-three sheep from SUNY Cobleskill Livestock Department nibble on grass and plants at The Dell, natural burial area, for their annual fall grazing day at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady on Thursday, November 4, 2021. By having animals graze the area, the ground becomes more ecologically sound.

SCHENECTADY — The Department of Livestock at SUNY Cobleskill brought 33 sheep to graze on one of Vale Cemetery’s green burial plots Thursday, marking the fourth year of a partnership between SUNY Cobleskill and Vale Cemetery. 

SUNY Cobleskill provides sheep and goats to the cemetery in an effort to aid their eco-friendly campaign. The sheep pasture for a day on the green burial grounds, allowing the terrain to be tended to without the need for gas-powered landscaping tools. In doing so, the grounds become more ecologically sound, promoting a truly natural environment. 

The Historic Vale Cemetery in Schenectady first opened 164 years ago. During the cemetery’s expansion, Vale sought to develop new methods that progressed with modern times and adhered to its Christian foundation. The idea emerged to create  a natural burial section on the cemetery’s 100 acres of land.

“We stand behind the Vale Cemetery’s green initiative and love to take part. The time is now for a more ecological friendly society. SUNY Cobleskill is committed to promoting environmental policies that aid in climate reduction on all fronts,” said Dirk Schubert, livestock manager at SUNY Cobleskill. 

In addition to reducing the untamed flora and fauna, the sheep are instrumental in preventing invasive plant species from thriving in the organic fields. Once the undesirable vegetation is removed, native plants and flowers are grown and cultivated throughout the area. Vale Cemetery’s goal is to develop a wildflower garden, promoting the return of bees and butterflies, two species that face rapid decline. 

“The endangered species list continues to grow. There has been a startling decline in the number of bees throughout the world, a species necessary to the growth and pollination of flowers,” Schubert said. “It is our hope, along with Vale’s, that our effort here facilitates the growth of these creatures.”

SUNY Cobleskill is known for its agricultural and agronomy prowess. Nearly a quarter of the University’s undergraduate enrollment is involved in the Animal Science program. Areas of study include agriculture, dairy farming, horsemanship, and a new K-9 program.

“We are immersed in the outdoor environment daily. Engaging with nature daily deepens our understanding of the need for environmental protection. Even the fence we use to enclose our sheep is completely solar-powered,” Schubert said. 

The Vale Cemetery board established the idea for natural burial grounds in 2011. Since the emergence of this design, the cemetery has produced 169 natural burial plots, with 55 of these spaces sold and nine already in use. 

“Natural Burials are definitely increasing. We [Vale Cemetery] receive calls all the time from other cemeteries seeking information about the process. The use of sheep is great as it eliminates the noise of leaf blowers and lawnmowers as well as aids in carbon reduction. Their introduction has proved to be nothing other than beneficial,” said Dr. Bernard McEvoy, secretary at Vale Historic Cemetery.

The use of caskets in burials has contributed to national deforestation and the contamination of soil due to chemicals such as formaldehyde. Cremation on the other hand requires an average of 28 gallons of fuel to ensue, releasing approximately 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to an article in National Geographic.

“Natural burials have a substantial impact on environmental conservation. Within the practice, only biodegradable caskets are used, allowing for a wholly natural process,” McEvoy said. “People often choose to use caskets made out of bamboo, wicker, or seagrass rather than the traditional alternatives.”

Vale Historical Cemetery is one of six cemeteries in New York State that is certified by the Green Burial Council, a national organization. In order to adhere to the council’s requirements, Vale refrains from using pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. Individuals who wish to be embalmed are also forbidden to be interred on natural plots, due to the use of formaldehyde. 

“We believe burial is ‘green’ only when it furthers legitimate environmental aims such as protecting worker health, reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, and preserving habitat,” denotes the mission statement of the Green Burial Council. 

To make individual’s contemplate the idea of green burials, the Historic Vale Cemetery outlined customer spending estimates. The average cost of a burial at the Vale Cemetery is $3,100. In comparison, a green burial is nearly $2,000 cheaper with an average cost of $1,175. Ten percent of the burial fees are also attributed to long term permanent maintenance. 

“We want people to know that this is a legitimate option. We attempt to keep the cost low while contributing to environmental conservation. We are afforded this opportunity due to the economical cost of natural alternatives,” McAvoy said. “Thanks to the sheep, even our fertilizer is free.”

For more information on natural burials, visit https://valecemetery.org/green-burial

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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