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City cemeteries embrace ‘green burial’

Beechwood Cemetery is quiet on a recent Friday. With its weathered-gray headstones and bright commemorative flowers, Beechwood is the paradigm of a traditional cemetery. Things are about to change.

On October 2, the Durham City Council voted unanimously to allow green burial options in both Beechwood and Maplewood cemeteries, and to expand Beechwood. Durham is the first North Carolina city to offer green burial in its public cemeteries, according to Al Walker of the city’s General Services Department. 

Green burial aims to minimize the environmental impact of the burial process. In this approach, the deceased are typically placed in biodegradable coffins comprised of wicker or cloth, which decompose over time and minimize environmental harm. Embalming is not used. Natural gravesites are managed to encourage the growth of native plants and wildlife, contributing to local ecosystems. 

Beechwood and Maplewood will join Bluestem in Orange County, another eco-friendly burial site in the area, in bringing Triangle residents an opportunity for alternative burial. 

In the fall of 2022, the City of Durham partnered with FUSE Corps, a nonprofit that focuses on equity, to explore alternatives to traditional burials in city cemeteries, hiring FUSE Corps fellow Erica Xavier-Beauvoir to see the project through.

Now, an expansion project at Beechwood Cemetery will provide 330 conventional burial spaces, with 50-60 green burial options. A plan to provide a columbarium, a space to store cremation urns, is also underway. The project’s estimated completion target is summer 2024. 

The city also plans to offer natural burials in a section of Maplewood Cemetery in the future, although no date has been set. Maplewood already has an ash scattering area and several columbarium structures in place.

Jina Propst, a director in the city’s General Services Department, says these projects “are an effort to provide a variety of burial types, prices, and options to an ethnically and culturally diverse community.” 

Beechwood, Durham’s historically Black cemetery, is running out of space, with limited availability for even traditional burials, according to the city. In the past, Durham’s two city cemeteries were segregated: Maplewood Cemetery served white residents, while Black residents were buried at Beechwood Cemetery. And many Black residents, aware of Maplewood’s history of segregation, still hesitate to choose Maplewood. 

Xavier-Beauvoir wants to see both cemeteries become hubs for family gatherings.

“These spaces should not be desolate locations where you go once a year, on birthdays or death anniversaries,” she said. “They should be beautiful spaces that have active activity.” 

Over the course of 2023, Beauvoir surveyed over 300 Durham residents, finding that 87% are interested in ecological burial options, with 72% requesting ongoing education. 

“There were many archaic policies that were in place that didn’t allow for green burial options. So if someone did utilize any green burial option, it was out of policy with the city,” said Beauvoir. 

Fisher, Hall-Wynne, and Ellis D. Jones funeral homes are now on board to provide green burial options. Nina Jones Mason, the owner and manager of Ellis D. Jones funeral home, is thrilled by the city’s policy change.

“I have always had families that have asked about green natural burials, and the area didn’t provide too many opportunities,” she said. “When we create multiple options for families for disposition, it can only be a great thing.” 

Beauvoir believes the most significant opposition to natural burial has come from a lack of education. “I’ve met more people that vocalize that they do not know what I am talking about, that their family has done things one way for years.” 

Beauvoir says that, with natural burial, nothing is being taken; instead, it introduces a new option for people seeking to lay their loved ones to rest.

After completing the FUSE fellowship in October 2023, Beauvoir started a nonprofit called Earthing our Funerals, which provides education about conservation burial and will provide sustainable burial workshops in Durham. “The city has a lot of priorities, but we are not going to let this fall to the wayside,” she said. “We are going to continue our education efforts going into 2024.”

Beauvoir sees cemeteries becoming a place for storytelling, intergenerational healing, and holistic wellness. 

“I want people to see nature as a beautiful love story and that they would never want to hurt something that has given them so much over their life,” she said. “Green burials are our final protest.” 

Above: Photo of Beechwood Cemetery by Maddie Wray — The 9th Street Journal

Jon Kuperschmid