Content here represents the voice of SIGNATURE SUNSETS, an informational initiative designed to broaden and brighten horizons in the funerary domain.

The material is an outgrowth of a pre-planning reference book, Pondering Leaves: Composing and Conveying Your Life Story's Epilogue, written by the author of this blog.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Journey Journal... Newfield, New York


Imagine having this dream while buried in the depths of restful sleep:

You are ambling through exhilarating hilltop meadows 
under a breathtakingly alluring blue sky 
that’s crisply peppered with cumulus puffs.  

Tall wildflowers decorate the domain, boldly bespeaking patch-like formations suggestive of islands in a sea of grass… 
perpetually waving in response to the excitement of air.    

You observe the fluttering presence of winged aviators 
as they waft through the atmosphere and chirp melodically 
within enfolding branches of established trees rooted in history.  
Might these buoyant cherubs be angels?  

It is beautiful here.  
Borne of quiescence, calm prevails.  
You conclude that you are in heaven.

Then you wake up.  Suddenly, you realize your mind had transported you to a place in the real world that is Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve... the first green burial property in New York State and one of the first in the country.  

Your refreshing nocturnal interlude had put you in touch with a destination opportunity that can, indeed, be grasped when heaven calls.  

This parcel of land encompassing one hundred and thirty acres that welcomes the dead is situated between forested territory south of Ithaca, in Newfield, New York.  Here, the unpretentious fusion of conservation initiatives with unadulterated surroundings poses a refreshing diversion from granite-studded grounds of conventional cemeteries. 

Formerly farmland, the expanse of primarily grasslands is bordered by both Arnot Forest, a 4,000-acre bird mecca owned by Cornell University, and the Newfield State Forest that encompasses 4,000 acres of protected woodlands. 

Here, where wildlife thrives in a habitat preserved for them, humans merge with beings living and dead in this creature compound.  Reverence for nature prevails.   

Seeded In Collaboration

Aware of the burgeoning concept of green burials, two women in Corning, Jennifer Johnson and Susan Thomas, had been nurturing an aspiration for the establishment of a natural burial site.  They even conceived the name, “Greensprings,” for a property that was not yet a reality.  

Meanwhile, in Ithaca, other individuals subsequently began thinking along similar lines.  Tom Eisner, an environmentalist and Cornell University professor, was contemplating a measure to memorialize people by placing a plaque at an entrance to a nature preserve.  Mary Woodsen, an Ithaca environmentalist and science writer, had been harboring thoughts about prospecting for a natural preserve specifically designated for scattering of cremated remains.  To this end, Mary collaborated with a like-minded preservationist and founder of the Finger Lakes Land Trust, Carl Leopold.  This man had won national acclaim as a plant physiologist and conservationist and had settled in Ithaca as a Cornell faculty member.  

In 2000, these three Ithaca locals joined forces when Tom Eisner inspired Mary and Carl to help establish a site for scattering of cremated remains.  At that time, thoughts had not turned to the prospect of using a preserve for burials.  But the focus changed in 2001, after Mary took a trip to visit South Carolina’s Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first natural cemetery established in the United States.  Having witnessed a lovely green burial, she returned energized and motivated to take action.  Her cohorts, however, initially felt disinclined due to the monumental complexities of such a project, thinking it would be too difficult.

At the time, they were not aware of the two Corning trailblazers who shared such an aspiration.  But, as Mary has said, these women were “way ahead of the game.”  In 2002 someone told Mary about Jennifer and Susan, prompting a phone call and subsequent joint meeting with Tom, Carl, and a few other like-minded folks.  Everyone was eager to work together, thereby setting the wheels in motion.    

Acquisition of property for this purpose was facilitated by the largess of the town supervisor, Herb Engman, who, as an ardent ecologist, was anxious to preserve the area’s beautiful terrain. Originally, he had intended to sell his one hundred acres of undeveloped holdings. After initially adopting a strategy for Greensprings to make payments over time, he eventually donated the land in a spirit of  commitment to the project.  He is now president of the cemetery’s Board of Trustees. 

Another member of the Land Trust, Joel Rabinowitz, became involved in 2004, joining the Board as the first non-founder.  He was immersed in the development and process while also participating in burials, eventually filling the role of director a year after the cemetery opened in 2006.  

The elected Board of Trustees, currently numbering nine individuals, is complemented by a bevy of volunteers who function in many different ways.  One of the founders, Jen Johnson, is the burial coordinator – a job that entails communication with providers as well as families and sometimes participation as the ceremonial officiant.  

The project has evolved over time into a successful enterprise, attracting attention through national publications and garnering approval for certification by the Green Burial Council.   

Bedding Down With Mother Nature

In accordance with green burial principles, bodies are buried under conditions that promote decomposition and a return of organic elements to the earth.  Their intimacy with the soil is facilitated by forbiddance of obstacles, particularly, metal caskets and concrete or steel vaults as well as plastic or other synthetic items.  Only biodegradable materials are permissible.  Preservation that stunts decay is contrary to such “composting” objectives, so embalming is prohibited, except under extenuating circumstances.  In spite of the low-density, fifteen-foot-square plots, little or nothing besides a body goes in the ground.  Bodies are wrapped in cotton, silk, wool, or other natural fiber fabric within simple cardboard coffins, natural caskets, or clothed in shrouds.

Though it is difficult for a backhoe to dig a shallow grave, the question of depth for interment is an ongoing one.  The old model of “six feet under” thwarts participation by biologically active, aerobic microbes living beneath the surface where oxygen is readily available. In an effort to capture potential for their engagement, burials at Greensprings are at a depth of four and a half feet.  

Bird's Eye View

At first glance, there is little to suggest the presence of bodies underground.  Conventional headstones and markers or alternative statuary are nowhere to be seen.  Instead, there may be a natural fieldstone flush to the ground over a site, sometimes nestled in tall grasses or brush.  It can be engraved at a family’s expense.  

An assorted collection of stones is situated alongside the cemetery office.  

Sometimes family members dig up rocks from the soil here that is full of them, placing them around the perimeter of a gravesite for additional delineation.

During the month of June, the idiom, “pushing up daisies” may come to mind among astute observers who realize the tall islands of daisies amid the otherwise green landscape are actually covering graves. The oxeye daisy is apt to be the first flora to bloom over a disturbed site, representing an unintended invasive species while announcing colorful significance.   

Gravesite locations are designated and recorded in accordance with a grid system. Simple markers serve as directional guides to sites. 

Phlox Marks The Spot

Families are permitted to plant certain native perennials, grasses, and ferns over graves.  An inclusive list of allowable varieties is given to them with guidelines, and samples are grown in small demonstration gardens.  

Gravesite planting can be a therapeutic form of expression for bereaved family members who reside in the vicinity of the cemetery.  Tending to living flora above the surface affords an opportunity to render ongoing ministrations in the name of the one whose body lies below, to whom tender loving care can no longer be directly administered.

A large area of colorful blossoms exemplifies a mother’s committed nurturance in response to the loss of her son who had died in his early twenties. 

Trees and shrubs can be selected by families and planted by staff, but only in a memorial grove by an area designated for sequential burials, that is, where more than one plot is allocated for additional family members

Generally, graves are situated amid wild and untamed meadows, except for intervention of ongoing efforts to remove invasive species. 

Mowing is minimal, thereby averting substantial carbon emissions from equipment.  Trails are maintained through routine cutting, but around grave sites the mowing is done only once a year, in October and November.  

Home On The Range

Attending a burial here is apt to endow mourners with an experience unlike any they’ve witnessed at conventional cemeteries.  Significantly removed from a main thoroughfare, the drive along a rural road to access Greensprings sets the stage for that which is to follow.  A sense of retreat from the frenzy of familiar sights and sounds greets them upon stepping out of their cars.  Here on a hilltop surrounded by and exposed to everything natural, one becomes keenly conscious of a peaceful balm… unless the wind is having a say in the matter.  All senses are activated, instilling the essence of life in this neighborhood of the dead.  

Final proceedings are conducted in a manner more homespun than commercial.  The contained or shrouded body is placed on a rudimentary cart for the journey to its final resting place.  Dubbed, “the pallbearer’s friend” or the “spirit barge,” students in a BOCES welding class were commissioned to construct this all-terrain means of conveyance featuring durable tires.  

A commonplace farm utility vehicle, often called a mule, is utilized as a mechanical mode for transporting people through the fields.  It helps individuals for whom walking in this terrain is difficult.  Most mourners, however, walk to the burial sites.  

Upon arriving at the gravesite, the pallbearers (who are often family members) lift the casket or body and lay it on cross pieces straddling the open grave.  Ethnic, religious, or military practices may be part of variable observances that transpire.  A meaningful service of committal usually precedes the lowering of the casket by hand (rather than mechanically) using lowering straps.  A ceremonial shoveling of dirt may follow, or the entire grave can be filled in by mourners, if desired.  The grave is covered with a mound of dirt that recedes over time as the body decomposes underneath it and eventually becomes flush with the ground.  Evergreen boughs are placed over and around the grave.  

Individuals in attendance become absorbed in the proceedings and the aura of it all.  "We've seen people come to a burial in pain and leave with joy," says Mary Woodsen.  "It can be transformative for people to lower their beloved dead into the grave themselves.  It's so different than the conventional approach, where you walk away after a committal service and a mechanical lowering device does the committal instead."  

Anyone who attends a natural burial may experience attitudinal remodeling.  Witnessing the basal return of a body to earthly elements can prompt a mutation of one’s death perception… that, in this context, the end of life begets new beginnings.  A green burial awakens the senses, causing people to take note of its logic while tapping into their internal reservoirs of feelings and spurring pervasive absorption that won’t be forgotten.

One woman documented her experience with these words:  “I went to a burial at Greensprings in the winter, with snow on the ground. There was a horse there to pull the body on a sleigh. The horse had black and silver livery, and it was so cold you could see the breath from the horse. The person who had died was in a shroud—you could see the shape of her body and there was greenery on the body for simple, natural decoration. People participated in filling the grave. There were a lot of tears, and there was something about that environment that seemed to welcome their heartbreak; the earth welcomed the body. They weren't putting the body in a lead-lined box and keeping the body from the earth. It was raw, painful, and beautiful. I wonder if the stark simplicity of such burials allows us to more deeply take in what has happened — and thus provides for some measure of healing.”  (Saoirse McClory, “Greensprings Completes a Natural Life, by Jayalalita for Green Leaf, GreenStar Natural Foods Market, originally published May 5, 2013)

Perhaps the green burial movement in this country has ignited a newfound appreciation for the utility of human substance within an amazing sphere of creation.  Perhaps people are progressively welcoming opportunities for riveting connections impelled by expressive proceedings of death.  Increasingly, interest is being stoked by efforts like those of the Greensprings trailblazers who broke ground and unearthed an opportunity for ecologically conscientious bodily disposition.  Long live their spirit of devotion to the natural life cycle and organic renewal!  


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