A new process seeks burials that align with modern sustainability efforts without surrendering valued traditions.
Historic Springdale Cemetery is the final resting place for some of the most significant figures in Peoria history. Since 1854, it has observed the development of a city, made possible by the more than 70,000 citizens honored throughout its winding hills and foliage.
Still active after more than a century and a half, Springdale and its management continue to seek ways to evolve while maintaining the traditions and practices of the past. With the mainstream rise of environmental consciousness, a new approach to burial meshes the traditional with the sustainable, as the cemetery looks to become one of just two dozen or so in the nation to offer so-called “green burials.”
Shades of Green
Green burials, also known as “natural burials,” can be performed several different ways. Jon Austin, Springdale’s general manager, rates them on a “scale” of ecological friendliness. At the “greenest” end of the spectrum, no chemicals are used to prepare the body, and the burial happens soon after the individual has passed. The grave is dug by hand, and the body is wrapped in a shroud and placed directly into the ground.
“At the other end are green burials of a different shade,” he explains. “While ecologically friendly, there are concessions made, either for convenience or cost’s sake.” These burials are more like familiar practices, he says. Caskets can be made of bamboo, reed or heavy felts—all biodegradable—and certain chemicals can be used to preserve the body for a viewing without harming the environment. After the burial, plant life is allowed to grow back as it was before. Families are encouraged to select native plant species to place over the gravesite; a natural stone can also be used as a marker. All sites can be located using GPS technology.
The closest to a conventional burial, Austin adds, would consist of a wooden casket without metal parts or a polyurethane finish. And for any type of green burial, the deceased are put to rest wearing natural clothing like cotton or linen, without metal or jewelry. Even special cosmetics are used to ensure that no harmful chemicals are placed in the ground.
Sustainability at Springdale
The path to green burials at Springdale has been a winding one, dating back several years to a trade convention attended by Austin. “One of the topics they focused on was the rise of green burials, and alternatives such as cremation,” he says. “This is at a time when the entire funeral industry is seeing a general decline in traditional burial practices nationwide.”
Since then, Austin and the cemetery’s management authority determined that Springdale is an ideal location for green burials. “We have 223½ acres, and many of those acres are not yet developed,” he says. “Springdale is constantly looking for better ways to serve the needs of consumers. So I thought, ‘What better way than to bring this opportunity to the Peoria area?’ There were no green cemeteries in the area at the time, even in Chicago and St. Louis.”
As management considers the potential for green burials, they are also looking at options for cremation, also a more earth-friendly process. In 2004, the cemetery adopted a policy to encourage the scattering of remains, but the designated area was never opened. Austin says that revisiting plans to open the area, in addition to moving forward on green burials, will help Springdale evolve with societal trends. “Because we are concerned about reducing expenses, but also increasing revenue, I went to the board and said, ‘Here are two business opportunities for Springdale to consider.’”
Battle over Burials
But before they could begin to implement such a policy, Springdale and the local environmental group, Peoria Wilds, butted heads over the potential location, a protected savannah near the center of the cemetery. Initially, Austin says, he believed the site would marry the prospect of environmentally-friendly burials with the mission of Peoria Wilds. “If we began doing green burials or scattering in the savannah, it would virtually protect, preserve and ensure that there would be no future development as far as traditional burials in that area.”
But for Peoria Wilds, digging in the area would disrupt the native plant life. As the group states on its website, peoriawilds.org, “Destroying this small vestige of historic landscape will not fix Springdale’s budget problems but will result in the loss of an important virgin natural area that is increasingly rare.”
Austin admits that there would be some short-term disturbance of the tall grasses in the area, but says that the natural environment would quickly reclaim its territory. “So again, the thought was short-term disturbance, but long-term protection and preservation.”
Unable to come to an agreement, Austin says that Springdale will move forward with plans to offer green burials elsewhere in the cemetery. Given its size, he says, there are secluded areas that could respectfully house green burial sites. “We have the luxury of being able to designate one or more green areas on the property,” he says. “We want it to be discreet and dignified, and fit into the landscape rather than become an object of curiosity.”
Austin's goals for the year include the development of a green burial policy and implementation of a long-term strategic planning process. For now, the management authority continues to learn more about green burials as they consider how to implement them.
Pioneering the Process
Chris Butler is president of Butler Funeral Homes in Springfield, Illinois, and co-owner of Roselawn Memorial Park, the closest location at which green burials are offered, and the only one of its kind in the state. Thus far, Roselawn has performed just a handful of green burials, while others have purchased internment rights for future ones.
Currently, Butler says, there is quite a bit of interest in the idea, but beyond that, it remains a concept the general public has yet to embrace. “We don’t think it will be the predominant option,” he explains, “but certainly there is a group of [interested] people that will probably grow larger over time… You have newer generations coming up who have been raised with a different mindset.”
Austin says he’s had several inquiries on the subject, suggesting there is an interested market, albeit a limited one. And like Butler, he believes requests for green burials will continue to grow. This month, Austin will present a proposal to the management authority, and he expects that green burials will be worked into the cemetery’s long-term strategic plan. He is confident that sometime in the near-future, Springdale will be on the list of green burial-friendly cemeteries.
“It certainly is a viable business option,” he says. “But I think it’s also an important opportunity for Springdale and local consumers.” iBi