UPDATE 1/16/2009 - Billy Campbell, founder of the nation's first green cemetery, wrote an editorial in the Macon Telegraph inviting Bibb County Commissioners to tour his burial ground. Let's see if he gets a better response than we did.
For the first time, an American county has banned green burial. Bibb County, Georgia, enacted an ordinance November 4, 2008, essentially making it impossible for environmentally friendly cemeteries to open. Astonishingly, residents and Commissioners claimed they were protecting the environment by banning the most environmentally benign form of burial. Misinformation stoked fears among citizens about decomposing bodies leaking into the groundwater. Never mind that naturally decaying bodies don't harm aquifers, never mind the environmental impact (and out-of-pocket cost) of burying corpses full of formaldehyde and encased in steel and concrete. The Commission went on a legislative frenzy with the perverse consequence of enshrining the most expensive and resource-intense burials as the only kind allowed in Bibb County. Click "Read More" below. . .
Summerland Natural Cemetery company bought a 58-acre parcel of land in 2006, and won a conditional use permit for it in the spring of 2008. Principals Jim Wood and Beth Collins were all set to bring simplicity and nature to the burial business, until county Commissioners caved to unfounded fears and wrote the most mind-bogglingly bad, evidence-free cemetery ordinance we've ever seen. The new law:
- Requires burials in new cemeteries to be done with "leak-proof" caskets and vaults. Such boxes don't even exist - all caskets and vaults eventually fail. The Bibb ordinance contradicts the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule and Georgia state law, both of which bar funeral directors from misrepresenting the "preservative" qualities of burial boxes.
- Requires all new county cemeteries to be walled off by a fence to keep out "wild animals." Lots of luck. We can't figure out what the Commission has against badgers, squirrels, and birds - all part of the natural environment. Oh, and each new cemetery has to be ringed by a 10-foot-thick wall of shrubbery. Why? To protect the living from the horrifying sight of a peaceful cemetery? What an insult to the dead.
- Requires all burials in new cemeteries to have an "appropriate" and "permanent" grave marker. That's right, the Commission thinks it has the authority to tell families what kind of gravestone they have to buy (even if they don't want one). This provision is transparently a dig at natural cemeteries, which don't allow conventional markers, relying instead on GPS coordinates to map graves.
- Violates citizens' rights to bury their own dead privately by requiring funeral directors to supervise all deaths from "communicable disease." For goodness' sake, the flu is a communicable disease, but we don't haul living patients away from their families if they want to recuperate at home. In addition, Georgia funeral directors can have their licenses yanked if they refuse to release a body to the next of kin on request, no ifs ands or buts.
- Bans private burial on rural land, snuffing out a fine American tradition that has surely been practiced for hundreds of years already in Bibb County.
The ordinance is so astonishingly bad it took seven pages to go through it line by line to point out the flaws and legal conflicts. One wonders what County Attorney Virgil Adams was doing when the Commissioners came up with legal provisions that violate state and federal consumer protection laws. Perhaps they ignored his advice, the same way they've ignored FCA's letter and legal analysis, sent December 17, 2008. If you want the details and the scientific facts about green burial, be sure to download and read the letter. Here's the ordinance.
This wouldn't be surprising, considering the "damn the facts" attitude of Commissioner Lonzy Edwards. Here's the Macon-Telegraph's account of his view of evidence:
Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said the commission did "the same research the (east Bibb) residents did" when they opposed the green cemetery at the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. He also said he tried to independently verify the data, although he couldn't remember the sources and was out of his office and couldn't check. Still, Edwards, who led the charge on the unanimously approved cemetery ordinance, said it wouldn't have mattered to him if he didn't see a single study. "It just flies in the face of common sense to say it poses no hazard to residents," he said of natural burials.
The research is clear: green burial poses no public health risks, and prevents the burial of an enormous amount of chemicals, steel, and concrete. It seems Edwards simply ignored any evidence that contradicted his preferred outcome.
The saddest part of this whole affair is how badly it serves the citizens of Bibb County. In their attempts to protect their environment, they goaded their politicians into doing the exact opposite. It's OK to have concerns, it's OK not to be aware of all the facts at first. But it's not OK to ignore those facts and continue pandering to unfounded hysteria, especially when it defeats your stated purpose.
- Send an email to the Bibb County Commissioners urging them to revise this terrible ordinance.
- Send a letter to the editor of the Macon Telegraph, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Wall Street Journal. Each has covered this story (links below for those that are still available online).
- Leave your comments here, and blog about it on your own site. Pass the word along to environmental blogs.
Bibb Commission Approves New Cemetery Requirements - Macon Telegraph
Green Revolution Hits Dead End In Georgia Cemetery Proposal - Wall Street Journal
Group Still Wants 'Green' Burials in Bibb - WMAZ 13
Open Letter in Favor of Green Burial In Bibb, Georgia - Author Mark Harris' blog, gravematters.us