Located at 2406 Ridge Rd. in the Baltimore County community of Windsor Mill, Serenity Ridge is non-denominational but features a Jewish section.

By Anna Lippe, JMORE (Read the full article)

It might not be the most popular cocktail party conversation, but death is an inevitable part of life.

And for those who want to reduce their carbon footprint after they’ve passed on, there are more options than many of us might realize.

Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum — the state’s only exclusively green/natural burial cemetery — seeks to provide an alternative to conventional burials.

For the Berg family, it all started with a 177-acre parcel of land in their family since the 1960s.

“I was trying to come up with an idea of what my brothers [David and Richard] and I could use the property for, because it’s a really gorgeous property,” says Dr. Howard K. Berg, a retired colon and rectal surgeon who lives in Owings Mills. “I read about [the] green burial [method], and it really struck me as something that’s very interesting because I’ve always enjoyed doing things outdoors. I love being out in nature.”

But turning a plot of land into a natural burial cemetery and arboretum is no easy process. Preparing Serenity Ridge took the Berg family about four years and required lots of legal and certification work, such as working closely with Baltimore County Councilman Julian E. Jones Jr. (D-4th), conducting hydrogeologic studies and obtaining all the necessary certifications.

Serenity Ridge officially opened last January and has had 16 burials thus far. The cemetery is located at 2406 Ridge Rd. in the Baltimore County community of Windsor Mill, about three miles from Security Square Mall.

Generally, green burial requires no embalming fluid; no grave liners; only biodegradable caskets, shrouds or urns; and graves are dug about 3.5 feet — instead of 5 feet — to allow oxygen to help with a more natural decomposition. At Serenity Ridge, headstones are flat to the ground.

“Green burial is caring for the dead with a minimal amount of environmental impact, and also conserving natural resources,” says Dr. Berg.

A Baltimore-based spiritual leader, author and environmental activist, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin says natural burials are much more aligned with Halachah, or Jewish law, than conventional interments.

“Natural burials are very much in line with Jewish law, which is basically to say take the body as quickly as possible, provide a respectable and honorable burial in the earth with the least impediments between body and earth,” she says. “That’s really the more traditional Jewish way of doing it.”

First and foremost, Serenity Ridge is a nature preserve with walking trails in wooded areas and rolling meadows. The plan is to remove invasive species of plants and trees, replacing them with native Maryland flora. The cemetery recently planted its first wildflower garden.

“You’re basically developing a nature preserve where people happen to be buried,” says Dr. Berg. “We want people to come out and use this place as a place of introspection and feeling that they’re with nature as opposed to conventional cemeteries which are strictly a place of mourning.”

Ben's Run at Serenity Ridge Natural Burial Cemetery

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

For community outreach liaison Chelsea Berg, Serenity Ridge is more than simply a cemetery. She hopes Serenity Ridge will be a place for family-friendly activities and events like stargazing at night.

“Where I want to do the most work and where my passion lies is building this community,” she says. “So people can come back and have serenity, and it represents multiple things to them — as a place where their loved one will rest for eternity, and a place where they can come back to enjoy everything that the world, God, spirituality, religion, dust-to-dust has to offer.”

Chelsea recalls the burial of a woman who was over 100 and whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were at the gravesite at Serenity Ridge.

“The family was just sitting in the grass on blankets and chairs. The great-grandkids were playing in the grass,” she says. “It was a beautiful sunny day, and just the energy from the family — you don’t get that at a regular cemetery.”

Serenity Ridge is non‑denominational. Rabbi Cardin serves as lead rabbi of the Jewish section of the cemetery, which was developed in conjunction with several local rabbis.

“There’s going to be a consecrated Jewish section,” says David Zinner, chair of the Jewish Association for Death Education and executive director at Kavod v’Nichum, a Columbia-based organization that provides education, training and technical assistance for bereavement and Hebrew burial groups. “That’s a really nice and welcoming signal to the Jewish community that this is a place where they can feel comfortable being buried in.”

A green burial is similar to current interment practices in Israel, he notes.

“What we’re doing is encouraging Israeli-style burial,” says Zinner. “There’s a number of elements that go into green burial that we can pick up on just by observing what happens in Israel. But we can also look at Talmud.”

Says Rabbi Cardin: “There is no life without death. Death is not just a part of life, but death is essential to the ongoing enterprise of life. Cemeteries can help you feel that. Maybe it helps people ease their fear of death, which would be a gift that a cemetery like this could do.”

Anna Lippe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.