By Christine Condon, Baltimore Sun
In the 1990s, Kim Holcomb battled for curbside recycling pickup as president of Owings Mills Green Action.
She’s been interested in environmental issues ever since. And so, when she learned that Baltimore County would host Maryland’s first natural burial ground, Holcomb felt called to sign on for a plot.
“It’s like the ultimate recycling to have a green burial,” said Holcomb, who now lives in Pikesville. “It’s ashes to ashes and dust to dust. And it makes a lot of sense to me.”
A few other cemeteries in the state allow for natural burials, which bypass elaborate caskets, concrete vaults, and traditional embalming in favor of simpler, biodegradable methods that allow a body to decompose in the earth. But Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum in Windsor Mill will be Maryland’s first cemetery dedicated to the practice, according to the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight.
After receiving final approval from the state, Serenity Ridge is likely to open in early December, said Howard Berg, the landowner, and a retired surgeon.
The property is an assortment of open fields and tangles of brush, together with a forested swathe protecting the Bens Run, a tributary of the Patapsco River. A haven for deer and other wildlife along Ridge Road, the land is just a short drive from the suburban bustle around Security Square Mall.
Berg said it will remain much the same after burials begin. Though some foliage may be removed, the cemetery won’t have the manicured appearance of a typical burial ground.
It’s a turnaround for the farmland long owned by the Berg family. In the 1980s, the 177-acre plot was the site of a small landfill for construction debris, which perturbed a neighborhood group called the Greater Patapsco Community Association, said Kathleen Skullney, the chairperson for the association’s zoning committee.
The landfill pitted the community against the family, Skullney said. But the two found common ground on the cemetery idea.
“It’s a very nifty thing, because of how it came about — because of where it is,” she said.
Granted, it wasn’t initially an easy sell. For instance, locals worried about whether decomposing bodies would contaminate groundwater or local waterways.
“When I originally presented everything, they had concerns,” Berg said. “We said: Come on out to the farm and take a look at everything.”
Many of the community association’s concerns were allayed when Berg agreed to have ecological studies completed, and pledged to receive a certification from the national Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that advocates for natural burial and has created a set of standards for aspiring green cemeteries, Skullney said.
Skullney said neighbors also are thrilled that the bulk of the land will remain wild, free from the untouched by the ever-reaching tendrils of development. Some 80 acres have been donated to the county as green space for public trails. Only about 40 have been approved for natural burials, not including the old landfill and the area near the stream.
“It’s a really big deal to nail down this 180 acres, because this has come up in the comprehensive zoning process year after year after year,” Skullney said. “It’s nice to know we can stop fighting.”
Serenity Ridge isn’t Baltimore County’s first attempt at a green cemetery. In 2015, the County Council approved a zoning change for a plot along Falls Road that would have allowed a “conservation burial ground.” But community concerns about water quality sunk the proposal.
The idea of a green burial harks back to times of old, before modern embalming, before graves were lined with concrete to keep the cemetery earth stable. Those processes introduce tremendous amounts of waste, natural burial advocates say, and use harmful chemicals like formaldehyde.
Cremations have rapidly gained popularity in the United States, eclipsing burials in 2015, according to statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association. But green burial advocates argue that process is wasteful and polluting, too, as fossil fuels are burned to keep the fires alight, and smoky byproducts float into the air.
In popularity, natural burials hardly measure up. Together, burials and cremations followed about 94% of deaths in 2021, according to the funeral directors association. But the practice is attracting attention. According to a 2022 survey conducted by the association, 60.5% of people said they would be interested in exploring green funeral options because of their potential environmental benefits, cost savings or for some other reason, up from 55.7% in 2021.
In its 2021 annual report, the National Green Burial Council counted 45 cemeteries dedicated to green burial, and an additional 57 “hybrid” cemeteries offering the option.
For locals interested in natural burial, the opening of the state’s first truly green cemetery is something of a dream come true.
So far, about 50 people have signed up for a plot, Berg said, including Michael Cordes, a board member of the Green Burial Association of Maryland.
“I specified in my will about 30 years ago that I wanted to be buried under a red oak sapling and let my molecules help feed the tree. My attorney at the time told me I was crazy and that no one would ever allow that,” Cordes said. “But I kept it in my will anyway.”
Berg said he plans to provide families with lists of native trees and shrubs they can plant near gravesites, and maybe plant a wildflower garden on the site for mourners to harvest. Instead of caskets made of fine woods, bodies will be wrapped in biodegradable shrouds or placed in baskets or boxes. Instead of ornate headstones, burial plots will be marked with river rock, the person’s name etched into the stone.
There’s a different culture around natural burials, Berg said. There’s an emphasis on humanity’s closeness to the Earth, on involving mourners in the burial. The cemetery plans to have shovels on hand for family members who’d like to help dig their loved one’s grave, though battery-powered excavators will be available to finish the job, Berg added.
Each plot will cost $1,925, Berg said, though early customers may receive a discount as organizers work to get the word out about Serenity Ridge.
“We want people to at least come on out and take a look at the place,” he said. “Because we believe that in the Baltimore metropolitan area, that there’s nothing out there that compares.”
The hope is to offer more in time, perhaps by adding a small, nondenominational chapel for mourners, with an accessible restroom and a business office, Berg said. But otherwise, the land’s poised to remain wild. As Berg put it, it’s “a nature preserve where people happen to be buried.”
Local funeral homes, meanwhile, are paying attention to the trend. Sol Levinson & Bros. Funeral Home, headquartered in Pikesville, offers green caskets made of wicker, bamboo and pine, in addition to green burial shrouds, said president Matt Levinson, part of the fifth generation of his family to run the business.
“We are starting to get more inquiries, I would say,” Levinson said. “People are curious about this.”
The funeral home already is accustomed to preparing bodies for burial without embalming, Levinson said, in accordance with the Jewish funeral tradition. In that way, green burial is not terribly unique, he said.
But not all area funeral homes expect the practice to take off right away.
As of now, Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home on York Road in Towson has wicker burial baskets and other biodegradable options, said director Jack Mitchell, but they aren’t widely used.
“Where we display our caskets, we don’t have space for those offerings, because someone only asks about it once every few years,” said Mitchell, who serves as president of the National Funeral Directors Association.
Mitchell’s family also owns the Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, and they considered dedicating a section to green burials about a decade ago, but decided against it, fearful the idea wouldn’t take.
If Serenity Ridge attracts a following, the family could change course, he said.
At least one other Maryland landowner is working on what could be the state’s second all-natural burial ground, to be named Reflection Park, in Silver Spring.
“We have a generally similar vision for having a burial ground developed in a naturalistic, serene, tranquil and inviting setting,” said Dr. Basil Eldadah, who purchased the 40-acre parcel of land in 2020 with several others.
For Berg, who retired from University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center after decades as a colorectal surgeon, establishing the state’s first green cemetery feels like a meaningful cap to his career in medicine.
“I treated a lot of people over the years, and I felt that during my 35-year career, I was able to improve the quality of people’s lives,” Berg said. “With something like this, you can actually improve the quality of how we die.”