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Green Burial A Growing Option in the HV

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The Natural Burial Section Woods of Rosendale’s Plains Cemetery

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.” 

A gravesite within the Natural Burial Section Woods of Rosendale’s Plains Cemetery

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.”

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Hudson Valley Viewfinder is a collaborative, community digital magazine sharing what inspires us about the beautiful Hudson Valley. We publish original stories and multimedia content about all things sustainable in the region along the Hudson River — including agriculture, science, wildlife, outdoor recreation, green transportation, environmental justice, and more.

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Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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We’re always looking for ideas around our main topic areas of Climate Solutions, Land + Air + Water, Plants + Animals, History + Culture, Outdoors, and Community.
  • Journalists and writers who have deep familiarity with New York and the Hudson Valley, we’d love to have you contribute! Please do introduce yourself by email, sharing writing samples and any relevant pitches you may have.
  • Photographers and videographers, we’d love to hear from you and see what you do. Please send along a portfolio with images or footage that showcases your best and/or most relevant work, with an emphasis on anything captured outdoors. 
  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
  • Media Partners & Social Media Influencers, we welcome opportunities to team up on series and campaigns. Reach out with any background about yourselves and your ideas.
  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
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  • We love to collaborate with media outlets, especially on episodic series (like these) of interest to our shared audiences. Past collaborations have included radio interviews, panel discussions and other events, original artwork, and e-blasts, all furthering the campaign’s excitement and reach. 
  • We also love to partner with other organizations whose missions align with Scenic Hudson’s. Feel free to reach out with some background on your group and its work.
  • Writers, photographers, and creatives, if you have an idea for a series or content campaign that might be a good fit, drop us a line!

Businesses, please note that as a nonprofit, Scenic Hudson is restricted from advertising or promoting for-profit companies, through Viewfinder or other outlets. While we understand content managers may wish to alert us to your company’s role in a relevant topic, we are unable to add links to businesses to our stories.

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