Howard Berg of Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery
By Susan Cushing, International Cemetery, Cremation & Funeral Association

As we become more conscientious about reducing individual carbon footprints, the effort to preserve natural resources is now a commitment that is literally carried to the grave. Simply put, a green burial prioritizes environmental sustainability by avoiding the use of embalming chemicals, caskets made from non-biodegradable materials such as metal or concrete, and excluding grave liners or vaults that prevent natural decomposition. Instead, the body is placed in a biodegradable container or shroud and buried directly in the earth. This allows for a more natural and less resource-intensive return to the earth.

“Like so many other things, this is not a new concept but rather the original and natural way people buried their loved ones hundreds of years ago.”
-Ryan Helfenbein

Green burials are becoming increasingly popular throughout the United States as people seek more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways to say goodbye to their loved ones. Maryland is one state where the green burial movement has gained momentum. Memento Mori had the opportunity to speak with the owners of two of the most prominent. Located about 50 miles apart, Fellows, Helfenbein, and Newnam Funeral Home and Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum both offer green burials that are enhanced by the stunning natural beauty of the land they occupy.

Maryland’s First

Although both cemeteries specialize in this burial option, they do differ in some respects. Ryan Helfenbein, one of the four partners of Fellows, Helfenbein, and Newnam described the various options they offer for those seeking this increasingly popular method of burial. “I’m very proud to say that my father, Tom, was responsible for introducing the green burial concept to Maryland residents back in 2005,” says Helfenbein. “We continue to offer the more traditional burial option, but also have two of our privately owned cemeteries that offer exclusive areas for those who wish to ‘go green’. These are Bestgate Memorial Park in Annapolis and Woodlawn Memorial Park in Easton.” Known for their all-inclusive experience, Helfenbein elaborates. “We are the only all-natural green cemetery in Maryland owned and operated by funeral directors. This is defined as oversight from place of passing to one’s final resting place, including all legal paperwork, services, and ceremony.

“We define all-natural burial as being a hand dug grave and not using a backhoe,” he continues. “The deceased can be wrapped in a shroud or placed into a basic ecofriendly casket often constructed out of pine or bamboo. No concrete liner or outer enclosure is used, as the deceased is placed directly into the hand dug grave. Once the grave is hand closed, a river rock is customized with the individual’s information and placed on the gravesite.” Based on their status as the first green cemetery in Maryland with years of experience and because all owners are licensed funeral directors, Helfenbein says they are considered the go-to experts. “Even the state associations turn to us for guidance on green burials,” he says. “We have had a steadily growing demand for this option since we first began offering it.”

Maryland’s Newest

Open for less than two months, Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum owner Dr. Howard Berg has also experienced immediate and consistent interest.

“We really haven’t had to spend much on marketing,” he says. “I think the media attention in response to the growing interest in green burial options has a lot to do with that.”

In the few short weeks, the woodland-like cemetery has been operating, Berg has already been interviewed by serval publications including the Washington Post as well as appearing on various news and community interest TV programs.

A life-long resident of Maryland, Berg instinctively knew that the property his family has owned since 1965 with its abundance of open meadows, trees, flora, and lush greenery would be the ideal location for an idyllic final resting place. His vision from the start was to retain the natural state of the land striving to blend in and quietly merge with the stunning scenery.

Berg who owns the property with his two brothers says it was serendipitous how everything seemed to fall into place.

“We really weren’t certain what to do with the property,” he says. “To be honest, I really hadn’t heard too much about green burials until just about four years ago when we were deciding what options were available for the land.

“Once I realized how providing a green burial opportunity benefits so many entities in so many ways, I really became excited,” he adds. “First, it may be the end of life but it’s not the end of a person’s ecological impact. With natural burial you are caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact, conserving natural resources, while simultaneously, you are restoring or preserving habitat for wildlife.”

The doctor describes himself as a huge fan of the great outdoors; and while not radical, he has always been something of an environmentalist.

In these park-like settings, the unobstructed views are further enhanced with winding paths and trails for visitors to meander.

“I have always enjoyed outdoor vacations and activities,” he says. “I’m a biker, I like hiking, and kayaking. I just like being out in nature. I grew up on a farm, so it’s been a part of me throughout my life. Now that I’m retired, I not only have the time to enjoy Mother Nature, but also have a worthy project that lends itself to being outdoors where I can appreciate all this magnificent beauty.”

Berg believes in a light-handed trimming of the tall grass that blankets the earth. “As I’ve said, our goal is to allow nature to continue to thrive with a little help as needed,” says Berg. “For instance, we have removed invasive plants and replaced them with trees and shrubs that are native to Maryland so that it has a much better-balanced ecological impact in the area. We’re already seeing the natural fauna coming back as well as birds, rabbits, coyotes, deer, and other wildlife that are typically drawn to this environment. It’s reverting back to what nature intended.”

“We make the best use of the amount of land we have,” says Helfenbein. “For example, with traditional burial, you can accommodate about 1,200 graves per acre whereas with green burials we only have about 600 per acre.”

In these park-like settings, the unobstructed views are further enhanced with winding paths and trails for visitors to meander. Helfenbein describes the numerous events that he makes the cemetery available for. Berg offers the peaceful setting of his cemetery to various groups as well.

“The Green Burial Association of Maryland holds its meetings here, as well as a local stargazing club,” Berg explains. “They have been extremely helpful as we continue to learn more about the land and how to maintain the natural environment and provide magnificent settings for beautiful services.”

One thing both men agree on is that this “new” trend is not new at all. “Like so many other things, this is not a new concept but rather the original and natural way people buried their loved ones hundreds of years ago,” says Helfenbein. “It’s really a more peaceful experience, and I feel those who experience one of these green services really come away feeling uplifted and somehow connected to everything.”