Georgia County Bans Green Burial - FCA Responds

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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.

What Can You Do?

  • Leave your comments here, and blog about it on your own site. Pass the word along to environmental blogs.

Media and Online Coverage

Bibb Commission Approves New Cemetery Requirements
- Macon Telegraph

Green Revolution Hits Dead End In Georgia Cemetery Proposa
l - 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




Last Updated ( Sunday, 15 February 2009 21:42 )  
Comments (14)
1 Sunday, 04 January 2009 10:37
joanne dibble
a good fair-minded report from the funeral community.
this breaks down the ordinance pretty well. that bibb
is the only county to address this issue in this way
is truly shameful! NO ONE should legislate such a personal
choice, or discriminate on the basis of religious
preferences. i want this burial option available to
me in the area that i have chosen to call home.
and i dont want a marker either.
2 Sunday, 04 January 2009 11:34
Phillip Hull
Nothing illogical out of the Bibb County Commission is surprising. Few have mentioned a very relevant point which is that this same road was deemed okay for a landfill by the Bibb Commission over the same objections of the neighbors. What a double standard! In Bibb, its cronyism which rules county government.
3 Sunday, 04 January 2009 12:12
Jim Wood
I would like a to ask all of you to please contact the commissioners to express your support for our project and most importantly that they reverse this ordinance immediately. This issue is much larger than our small project. This is a threat to all of us having a choice on how our loved ones are cared for after death. Please e-mail any and all contacts and encourage them to get involved in fighting this action by Bibb County by expressing their views on this matter. Thanks all...Jim

NATURAL BURIAL: OUR FINAL ACT OF CONSERVATION™
4 Monday, 05 January 2009 10:49
human31204
This was sent 1/5/09
Commissioners:

The funeral directors and embalmers associations have been very effective politically in guaranteeing that their services will remain the ONLY legally approved ones available to the public in most states. In the past they have gone on record to be against cremation and those practices that effectively deny them the huge profits they reap by selling expensive vaults, coffins, burial plots, and mausoleums with perpetual upkeep. With the popularity of cremations cutting into their profits they have sought to block any further erosion of their very lucrative economies. In the past the only way to avoid all the chemicals used to embalm and prepare the body for viewing was to claim a religious conflict which the Jews and some other religions used to preserve their customs.

Your past ordinance (Nov.4, 2008) was nothing but an uninformed knee-jerk, scared-of-change reaction to an age old process that is beneficial ecologically and economically. Since Mr. Edwards is a minister, maybe he got his roles mixed up when he commented: "It just flies in the face of common sense to say it poses no hazard to residents," he said of natural burials. Could talking to snakes have caused him to forget that universal chemical embalming is a relatively recent practice? People and all living things have been dying and returning to the basic elements as the natural cycle of life has continued unabated for eons. Somehow, chemical embalming seems to fly in the face of common sense when natural burials are concerned. Just remember, it was the Catholic Church which forced Galileo to deny his scientifically gained physical evidence that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe nor even the solar system because the idea wasn't R.C. (Religiously Correct)

When Jessica Mitford ('The American Way of Death') saw the pyramids she proclaimed: "Now there's a society where the funeral industry got completely out of control." Let's hope that doesn't happen here.

human31204
5 Monday, 05 January 2009 12:45
C Dent
Welcome to my world of insanity. Knee-jerk reaction to one or two constituents--that what sets our local government apart from any wise council. I would like to think that reason would prevail, but going on past performance I think we should wish/pray for something more beneficial.
With all that is wrong with our world, seems as though we should have our choice of how we want to spend our remaining time....giving back to replinish Mother Earth, or taking up space and further polluting Her.
6 Monday, 05 January 2009 20:52
B. Chambers
I hear the banjos of fear, ignorance, and probably cronyism. I'll vote against this slate of commissioners next chance I get.
7 Friday, 09 January 2009 16:54
Rev.Barb Hanke
I currently own a country cemetery which started in 1873. the people who died that long ago were not embalmed and only used wooden caskets. (green burial?)
I currently open my cemetery to green burials and am an acitive advocate for both green burials and home funerals.
Best of luck to our Georgia friends, we will keep pulling for you
Rev.Barb
8 Thursday, 15 January 2009 21:09
Carol Motley Bury Me...Naturally ~ Down to Earth burial alternatives
Perhaps because of the 'eco' attitude here in Asheville, NC, opening up part of Green Hills Cemetery to green burials has been smooth and wonderful. In fact, I am honestly surprised at the amount of support behind the idea from the public here and appalled at the Bibb County citizens and leaders for poor planning and choices. Shame on them. How can I go to any car dealer and buy ANY type of car, but when it comes to burying the loved ones, my choices are so few?
Please feel free to contact Green Hills Cemetery in Asheville, NC where Green burials are both respected and encouraged.
9 Thursday, 15 January 2009 22:05
John the cardboard casket advocate
Simply use their legislation against them, challenge what you know to be junk, distort what you can to your own use. Same as it ever was.

Not to worry, this is the old boy network, and it only works locally, and it only works when not exposed to the light of the world around it.

It will fall by the wayside shortly...

"Requires burials in new cemeteries to be done with "leak-proof" caskets and vaults". Biodegradable plastic bags/shrouds. Would take a decade or two, but the "danger" would have long since subsided and "protection" would have been enforced. Critereon met.

"Requires all new county cemeteries to be walled off by a fence to keep out "wild animals." Okay, an fence 4' X 7' X 4' X 7' made of raw lumber around each new grave. They did not specify the entire plot, just that the dead be fenced off. Critereon met.

"Requires all burials in new cemeteries to have an "appropriate" and "permanent" grave marker." A simple proof of concept that a southern pin oak will last 400 years; a marble marker only 120. Define "permanent" because "appropriate" is entirely subjective to the people signing the check. Critereon met.

"Violates citizens' rights to bury their own dead privately by requiring funeral directors to supervise all deaths from "communicable disease." Okay, a court challenge.

Or, include any willing, decent and honorable funeral directors to be included in private affairs for free so they can sign off on this B-S legislation. They will get the gratitude of the grieving as payment, a free meal, and the business of those that want their usual services. Critereon met.

"Bans private burial on rural land..." Define "private"; or the definition of 'private land' as land being used in one's personal affairs. Again, a court order. Would not even reach trial before being thrown out (as long as it was a state court, not county), something about one's home being one's castle.... Obstacle discarded.

This stoopidity. Makes me boil, but these string pullers are dead wrong and sure to fail.

Expect to see more of this, but be glad for it as it will only help green burial in the long run. You see, there really is no such thing as "bad" publicity.

The higer this fight reaches in the judicial system, the more likely it is to drive up the demand for natural burials.

Thanks, backwards redneck oldboy network!
10 Monday, 26 January 2009 21:34
Cynthia Potter
I have watched as this fight in Bibb County has unfolded with dismay, but not suprise.
"Green" equals "commie" in the minds of many in the Macon/Bibb area.
People of religions other than Fundamentalist Christian are almost as bad as commies. It is my personal opinion that the idea that religious people who aren't Christian being buried in a manner of their choosing is what is the underlying problem. The fear that this cemetary might draw people to it with "bizarre", not Christian rituals/practices scares some I have spoke to. I can't remember when it was publicized, but when the controversy began with "neighbors" of the site, there were some who were concerned that people might be buried "neked"!
There is not one logical reason to not allow this cemetary. I should have the right to be buried in a natural way that doesn't burden my child if I want too. I will remember this come election day and make sure everyone I know does too!
11 Friday, 30 January 2009 07:07
Thomas Friese
Fundamentally, our problems in this field all derive from our society's unprecedented denial, and consequent lack of psychological understanding, of death: the vaults, the embalming, the caskets, but also the whole morbid and forbidding aura of our cemeteries. If, as Mark Harris points out in his Grave Matters blog, we could begin to understand human death in the context of a natural cycle, we might be able to face it more bravely, more sincerely, more constructively. The current conception of green cemetery is a step in the right direction. But we are not there yet, even conceptually the idea needs refinement...

In their initial enthusiasm, new movements, particularly reactionary ones, may go too far in the opposite direction, just to be different from what they oppose. Simplistic absolutism may even take control for a while. For the movement to have a future, this must then be moderated, corrected. This is normal and healthy. With the green burial movement, this takes form in the banning of all enduring grave markers from green cemeteries. As I’ve said before, this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Such “green cemeteries” may really be green but they will not really be cemeteries.

To return here to Mark's thoughts about human death in the cycles of great nature: if we are to have a sense of death and rebirth in a cemetery that is relevant to human beings, then enduring symbols of humanity have to be integrated into the natural cycles of the cemetery. That is to say, symbols that outlast many cycles of nature, that resist even as nature goes through its processes.

Otherwise what results is a beautiful natural landscape going through its cycles without reference to humans and their hopes of continuing beyond these cycles. Once upon a time we had these: in an old-style country cemetery, visitors could contemplate their own mortality in a gentle, thought-provoking way as they watched an old tree scattering its yellowed leaves over the weathering grave of a relative; in the spring they could then silently rejoice as the same grave was surrounded by singing birds sitting among the fresh green shoots of new leaves and flowers. Such an integration of the human and the natural provides hope and strength and meaning. A 21st century reconception of such a cemetery could indeed provide a new venue for us to confront death in a beautiful, hopeful, and not at all off-putting context.

The current vision of a green cemetery only needs the addition of beautiful weathering boulders, even small menhirs, inscribed with names, dates, and simple profiles of the deceased, set among the slowly maturing trees and the naturally evolving landscape. A modern-primitive look that would appeal to our naturalistic tastes and retain the human element of a cemetery is what we need.
12 Friday, 30 January 2009 07:13
Thomas Friese
In response to Bibb County. I would only comment on one point, which relates to what I said in the post below on grave markers.

We should distinguish between issues that are a matter of taste and those that have environmental consequences. The issues of ground pollution through decomposing bodies, concrete, metal or formaldehyde, of scavengers digging up bodies, or of leak-proof containers etc are subject to empirical analysis and objective conclusions. If we care about our environment, we should find out the truth about these and ultimately legislate appropriately nationwide. I have no doubt your conclusions are the correct ones in the current case.

But grave markers are a matter of taste, and it is thus fair neither to require grave markers nor to forbid them. Thus, in my opinion, both Bibb County and more radical green burial proponents are wrong, albeit in opposite directions. Or both are right, and each has the right to enforce what they feel is best on their own land. In this context, our free market should decide.

We can certainly sort out the environmental side of burial through science and legislation, but the spiritual and psychological factors (which grave markers relate to) can only be worked out in our own hearts and souls. And then the market should provide what people want and need in this respect. We can't enforce taste and spirituality on society.

Aside: naturally, the Bibb County argument about law enforcement requirements for markers is a red herring. But I would also be skeptical that current technologies like GPS are reliable long-term. Who knows where our world is taking us and how it will evolve? Not all software and hardware is retro-compatible. Why are we so sure this one will be compatible for centuries, when software generations are measured in months or years? And when the old incompatible technology is buried by the underground among thousands of remains, we are hardly likely to retrofit them! These remains will be as irrevocably lost as those in a mass grave. I make this last point more in regard to relatives looking for their family graves decades down the road than law enforcement authorities....
13 Friday, 30 January 2009 23:12
Josh Slocum
Thanks, Thomas, for your thought-provoking response. I hadn't thought of the potential obsolescence of GPS technology, but you're right.

I do want to respond to a couple of points you made:

"These remains will be as irrevocably lost as those in a mass grave. I make this last point more in regard to relatives looking for their family graves decades down the road than law enforcement authorities...."

Yes, the graves will eventually be lost over time. I'm not convinced that's a terrible thing, though. People who choose green burial, and who know upfront there won't be any permanent marker, are probably not concerned about that. We all vanish from the face of the earth eventually, and I'm not convinced we have the right to expect that the location of our mortal remains will be recorded in perpetuity. It strikes me as a rather desperate attempt to battle our immortality.

You also wrote:

"But grave markers are a matter of taste, and it is thus fair neither to require grave markers nor to forbid them. Thus, in my opinion, both Bibb County and more radical green burial proponents are wrong, albeit in opposite directions. Or both are right, and each has the right to enforce what they feel is best on their own land. In this context, our free market should decide. "

I think you're mixing up separate categories. It is not fair for lawmaking bodies to require or prohibit headstones, because that interferes with allowing the free market to offer families different options. That's not the same as an individual cemetery writing its own rules. If you want the free market to decide, then you have to accept that some cemeteries will allow headstones, and others won't. It's up to the consumer to pick which cemetery he wants to deal with. No one is forcing consumers who want a headstone to bury their dead in a cemetery that doesn't allow headstones. Green cemetery customers know what they're getting - and what they're not - when they sign on. It's not "unfair" that green cemeteries don't allow bronze or granite markers. If families want those, they can choose from any conventional cemetery.

By contrast, the Bibb County Commission is closing down the free market by legislating that all cemeteries must require permanent markers, even if the cemetery and the consumer don't want them.

"The current vision of a green cemetery only needs the addition of beautiful weathering boulders, even small menhirs, inscribed with names, dates, and simple profiles of the deceased, set among the slowly maturing trees and the naturally evolving landscape. A modern-primitive look that would appeal to our naturalistic tastes and retain the human element of a cemetery is what we need."

What you describe sounds charming, and pleasing to look at. I'm betting enough people will agree that some cemeteries will start offering that. Even though I have no intention of being buried, and I don't visit my relatives' graves (I bring out their letters and photos when I want to remember them), I'm a sucker for gorgeous cemeteries. But remember, your aesthetic opinions are just that - your opinions alone. They're not binding on anyone else, and they're not to be used as the basis for laws dictating what cemeteries should or shouldn't offer the public. No matter how deeply you feel about this issue, you don't have any authority to proclaim what humans "need." I don't either.

I really do appreciate your comments; they're more thoughtful than many. I'm only offering a counterpoint to a few specifics, and I hope you'll continue reading our blog and having your say.


Josh Slocum
Executive Director
Funeral Consumers Alliance
14 Monday, 09 March 2009 05:39
Thomas Friese
Josh, in response to your responses....

Just as we will die, so will our markers eventually disappear - even the pyramids can't escape this. Both battles are lost causes. But a battle that is lost at the outset might still be worth fighting. Not for the material results but for the spiritual and cultural rewards. The attempt to leave a longer mark than your body's lifespan attests to a higher aspiration than mortal human life. And an aspiration can sometimes work apparent miracles. Isn't your whole American way of life based on trying the impossible? Are we not brave enough to aspire to the same regarding death?

But here I really am mixing my categories - or I set a different priority. As I see it, the practical realization of something is guided by the aims of a higher spiritual imagination or vision. In the green burial movement, this higher spiritual vision is focused on the earth's well-being, and the movement attempts to realize this. I come first from a vision of man's cultural and spiritual needs, rather than the earth's. But I do not for a moment doubt that our needs and the earth's can be reconciled; I simply want to maintain the cause of the humanity in the huge challenge which faces mankind and the earth together.

Regarding the right to have or not to have markers, perhaps you misunderstood me - I agree that the law should actively preserve the possibility of a free choice regarding markers, and that if free choice is allowed, then market demand will naturally provide what is desired. When I say it is unfair to either require or forbid markers, I meant that for the lawmakers, not the cemetery owners. Let the various shades of green cemeteries make their offers and the public will go where they want for what they want.

But just as the green burial movement sells its view emphasizing the earth's well-being to the public, so I feel the need to sell the view that the well-being of the individual and collective human soul should not be forgotten.

Finally, you are quite right that none of us has a right to dictate what is good for the public, for others in general. I realize my tone was a little preachy in promoting my idea of a nice new aesthetic for cemeteries! On the other hand, it is to the benefit of everyone that people express opinions and even disagree with others publicly. Some people have good ideas, which everyone would like to learn about. To withhold them is not productive. Mutual respect is everything here.

In my own case, I only want to remind people of the transcendent, non-material aspects of death and funeral customs - I do not want to tell anyone what they should believe under these aspects. The environmental reformers of burial and cemeteries hopefully take the same open view with their perspectives. They can - and should - raise the issue and clearly state their informed views - but each of us must remember that we are only illuminating one perspective on the whole problem.

If we can see that all perspectives are required for a genuine solution, then we can really win the battle.

Thomas Friese

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