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Returning to the earth ‘cleanly and naturally’ in Nevada County

Sam Corey
Staff Writer
Nevada Cemetery District Manager Matt Melugin walks among cemetery plots designated for green burials among the district's Cherokee Cemetery near Ananda. While two green burial plots are shown here, only a few remain to be purchased at this location.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

When Matt Melugin began offering green burials in August of 2016, he was concerned no one would want one.

To be sure, Melugin, district manager of the Nevada Cemetery District, had done his homework prior to offering the unique burials, researching the feasibility and surveying the county for interest.

After one resident who advocated for green burials bought a plot for her and her husband the first day it was offered, more people followed.

“The next day we got a call from the local mortuary who knew what we were doing saying, ‘Hey, we got a green burial for you,’” he said. Melugin found himself pleasantly surprised to find his inclination wrong.

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After two and a half years of offering the alternative burial, the cemetery district has sold 80% of inventory at their Cherokee Township Cemetery in North San Juan. There are about eight green burial plots left for sale at the site.

“It’s been popular so we’re going to offer it at our other two cemeteries,” said Melugin, referring to the Red Dog and Rough and Ready sites.

Nonresidents have also inquired about green burials, even though they are not allowed to be buried in the public cemetery as they don’t pay taxes in the county.

“I get calls from all over the state, and most of the western states I’ve had phone calls from people” specifically requesting a green burial, said Melugin.

AN ALTERNATIVE BURIAL

Traditional burials require a plastic or concrete vault and are typically 4-by-10 feet, said Melugin. Metal or wood caskets are lowered into a liner, sealed up and then back fill covers the ground to keep it flat. Vaults help maintain ground integrity and also serve to indicate a digger has hit something.

At the Nevada Cemetery District, green burials require 6-by-12 feet of land with no tombstone. The body, which is not embalmed, is laid in the middle of the plot without a liner, and either placed in a fiber or wicker casket or box, said Melugin. A temporary marker with the deceased’s name is often placed near the head of the body.

It’s “the old western” pine box style, said the manager.

For a green burial, the family is often intimately involved in the process, said Melugin. They do the lowering and have a graveside service after which the funeral home adds another layer of topsoil and clay on top.

“We’ve got a couple of layers that help generate oxygen for a more natural decomposition and aerobic decomposition,” he said, allowing people to more quickly return to the earth.

If there is no temporary marker, the cemetery lines the edge of the grave with a rock and leaves a heightened dirt mound, often with flowers on it, to signify a deceased body below the surface.

The Cherokee Township Cemetery is scattered with green burial sites. One of them is shrouded with a diverse array of flowers.

Many of Melugin’s clients who want a green burial hope to return to the earth as cleanly and naturally as possible, he said.

THE BENEFITS OF GOING GREEN

While traditional, vault burials are sustainable in Nevada County, they aren’t in larger cities, said Melugin. These burials have begun taking a toll on our environment.

“Huge population centers,” said Melugin, “they’ve resorted to basically, you’re renting the ground for a few years. You get buried, they decide that X amount of years is all you get to decompose and then that plot gets used again.”

Nearly 54% of Americans are considering green burial as of 2018 and 72% of cemeteries are expressing an increasing demand for it.

In addition to being more environmentally friendly, green burials are often less costly than a traditional burial, which has an average cost of $6,500. That’s compared to an average green burial cost ranging between $1,000 and $4,000.

“It can be very economical for families,” said Akhila Murphy, an end-of-life caregiver and doula with Full Circle of Living and Dying – an organization dedicated to educating about death, and helping individuals move through the process and rituals associated with dying. Murphy was the first resident to buy a green burial plot in the cemetery district.

For a green burial, friends and loved ones of the deceased often do their own transportation, said Murphy, adding that the option is more aligned with the desires of the baby boomer generation. Boomers, she said, frequently care about the environment, want a more natural decomposition and more control in the dying process.

“The ability to do things on their own” appeals to people, she said. “Just several generations back that was the norm.”

Murphy does not care if people have green burials or not, but she does want residents to have more autonomy and options in the dying process.

“I do feel like that it’s an exciting alternative for people at the end of life,” she said, “especially those who are doing things differently.”

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at scorey@theunion.com.


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