Rhinebeck is now home to the second municipal natural burial ground in New York State, largely because of the efforts of a growing number of dedicated individuals working in conjunction with the town.
Natural burial is defined as a sustainable way of caring for the dead, which promotes natural decomposition of the body with minimal impact on the environment. Its popularity in this country is growing in tandem with other ecological practices. Also known as green burial, it favors biodegradable coffins (pine, bamboo, cardboard) and biodegradable burial shrouds (cotton, silk, wool), while rejecting the use of embalming fluid, metals and concrete along with vaults and/or liners.
The Rhinebeck Cemetery has two locations, both non-sectarian: the original section, which dates back to the mid-1800s, is at Route 9 and Mill Road half a mile south of the village, and the newer section, called “Grasmere” and opened in the mid-1980s, lies on Mill Road, just southeast.
Behind Grasmere is the newly designated — and still unused — Natural Burial Grounds, an approximately two-acre plot set in a young hardwood forest.
Suzanne Kelly, chair of the six-member Cemetery Committee and also vice president of the newly formed Friends of Rhinebeck Cemetery, is both enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about the subject of natural burial, having studied and written on the subject for some years.
“The Cemetery Committee is an advisory group to the town, and we’ve done a lot of good things together,” explained Kelly, a Rhinebeck resident. “A few years ago, the town asked the committee to explore natural burial as an option because there was some community interest.”
Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia added, “We are so lucky to have the Cemetery Committee, and what a fantastic job Suzanne and all the members have done. The natural burial ground is a great thing.”
Dave Queen, a longtime member of the Cemetery Committee, performed a lot of the preparation work on the land survey for the site, which is still a work in progress but is ready for internments.
“Dave created the design for the survey,” said Kelly. “He’s been a really important part of this process. A bio-assessment was done by the Hudsonia environmental research institute, and they gave recommendations for ecological restoration in order to sustain native species and remediate invasive ones.”
“The independent, non-profit Green Burial Council has been working to set standards in order to assist the ethical growth of environmentally sustainable end-of-life rituals,” Kelly said. “We are seeking to get certification from them as a Natural Burial Ground, the three tiers being Conservation, Natural, and Hybrid. Most are Hybrid, and Conservation is very hard to achieve; the guidelines are very complex.”
Green burials, Kelly said, actually mean “…going back to the old ways, but in a way it is different because there’s a real focus on the environment. I feel strongly about being certified by the Green Burial Council, they’re the gold standard.”
The Town of Rhinebeck specifically drew up 15 rules and regulations for natural burial, using Green Burial Council guidelines, to ensure that the most professional standards are maintained. And at the town board’s Feb. 10 meeting, the board voted to authorize the committee to pursue the certification.
At the board’s March 10 meeting, an updated list of regulations for the cemetery as a whole were adopted. The board agreed that those who own plots in the cemetery may exchange them for plots in the green cemetery section but they will need to fill out the new deed paperwork and pay the additional $300 that a green plot costs.