Joel Kovel was laid to rest directly in the Hudson Valley ground, his body in a wicker casket pulled on a hand-drawn cart led by a jazz band. His funeral wasn’t the usual. But everything about what happened to Kovel’s body after his death was different: it was a return to the earth. “In harmony with the cosmos, with rights to clean water, for the renewal of life,” his cart read. Kovel was among an influential band of area residents who have recently chosen green burial.
Before the Civil War, American burial rituals were age-old and necessarily all-natural: a hole was dug in the ground, and a body placed in it. Embalming began during wartime so soldiers’ remains could be brought home from battlefields. The “American Way of Death” (described in a 1960s bestseller by the same name) gradually took on the professional morticians, elaborate caskets, chemical embalming and makeup, and green-carpeted vaults we associate with modern funerals.
It all makes a big environmental impact. Each year, American burials together use more than 827,000 gallons of toxic chemicals and 1.6 million tons of concrete. Every conventional burial contributes to the production of about 230 pounds of CO2 equivalent, according to the California-based nonprofit Green Burial Council. Even cremation is equivalent to driving 600 miles, producing about 150 pounds of CO2 per body burned.
Now that people want to lighten their carbon footprint, the old ways are mounting a comeback. Modern green burials swear off concrete vaults, non-biodegradable caskets and toxic embalming. More than 200 natural burial grounds have opened around the country over the last couple decades, more than half of those in the past 5 years alone.
In the Hudson Valley, cemeteries with natural burial sections now include Sleepy Hollow’s in Westchester County, and Rhinebeck’s and Rosendale’s in the mid-Hudson. Both the Rhinebeck and Rosendale grounds were established in 2014, with similar standards, if not starts.
“How do we want to use and live with and care for the land? It would make sense that those things might be tied together.”Suzanne Kelly
Rhinebeck’s was led in part by Suzanne Kelly, a former academic, author of “Greening Death” and leading national expert on natural burial. Kelly spent years examining the green burials’ “dust to dust” ideals. She has studied everything from the movement’s emergence in the U.K. in the early 1990s to the more recent American development of “conservation burial grounds” that agree to preserve natural lands in perpetuity. “How do we want to use and live with and care for the land? It would make sense that those things might be tied together,” Kelly says.
Rosendale’s natural burial ground was established by Richard Hermance, a former police officer turned accident reconstructor who had long served on the local cemetery board. He saw the idea on the History Channel and thought it made practical sense. “There are a lot of environmentally-minded people here,” he says. “I figured natural burial would be really popular.”
Both mid-Hudson green burial grounds have taken off. New York City residents regularly call each, willing to trek the couple hours up to bury their loved ones this way. They have attracted prominent local names as well. Joel Kovel, laid to rest with the jazz funeral in Rosendale 2 years ago, was a well-known professor at Bard College. Scenic Hudson’s late general counsel, Warren Reiss, chose to be buried in the Rhinebeck Natural Burial Ground at his death in 2016.
Rosendale’s natural burial ground includes a meadow section, but both Kovel and Reiss lie in the wooded sections of their respective grounds—peaceful forests where sunlight dapples through cherry and locust branches. Reiss’ daughter, Taylor Reiss Gouge, has said no resting place could be more fitting for someone who loved nature as much as her dad: “He found peace being among the trees.”