Photograph by Yvonne Albinowski
To the question often posed by evangelical preachers “do you know where you’ll spend eternity?” an increasing number of Adirondackers have an answer: in a pine forest by a wetland meadow in Essex.
Although actually, eternity is a long time, and there’s a very good chance that the wetland meadow will itself grow into pine, or maybe the blister rust will take out the pine and a stand of willow will arise, or—that’s actually the point of Spirit Sanctuary, the area’s first (maybe one of the world’s first) “conservation burial grounds.” When you pay the fee for a place in this cemetery, most of the money goes to fund conservation projects, including the Split Rock Wildway where it sits. The land is going to go on changing, for millions of years to come. If you enjoy that kind of spectacle, it’s the place to be.
I wandered the three-acre parcel last summer, in the company of John Davis and Billy Amadon, two of the volunteer gravediggers who help run the community effort that has so far seen 13 people, two dogs and a cat interred; 27 more humans are enrolled. “I already dug myself a grave over there in the old field,” said Davis. “Mostly so I could say I’d dug my own grave. But then my partner said, ‘No, too wet; we’re going to end up in the pines.’”
As he said this, we were staring down at a small mound in the forest, with a fieldstone about the size of a volleyball marking its head and a small spray of wildflowers drying on top—a recent burial. “We allow markers—we encourage them in fact, as long as they’re stone or wood, as long as they’re local.”
Some other basics:
You can be buried in a simple pine box, in a shroud or in your favorite clothes.
It costs $3,500 to get buried here—but only $1,200 if you make a bequest to Split Rock Wildway or one of several other Adirondack conservation organizations.
Winter is not a problem. Essex lies along the lake, and as Amadon said, “In the pines there’s usually only maybe four inches of snow, and only an inch or so of frost beneath. It’s not hard,” even though the diggers just use shovels. “But there was one grave where we dug it in the fall because the woman thought she was going to die, and then she had some treatments, and she didn’t need to be buried till January, and the piles of dirt next to the grave were frozen rock hard. So we learned that lesson.”
And six feet under? It’s not a thing, at least not here. “That’s too deep,” said Davis. “It’s below the microorganism level, and you want to decompose. But you do need at least two feet of soil on top to filter out all possible odors or you could get scavengers. Three to three-and-a-half feet seems ideal.”
Davis, in fact, has written a Gravedigger’s Manifesto. It begins, “We dig Life; we accept Death,” an attitude that seems to sum up Spirit Sanctuary. The Eddy Foundation, which oversees the Wildway conservation project, donated the three acres, with an option to expand to six as demand requires. It’s lovely land, just down the road from Black Kettle Farm, which is now home to a Waldorf-associated school—in fact, one of the growing network of CATS (Champlain Area Trails) paths cuts across the edge of the Sanctuary, so visitors can head straight into the mountains. Some of the land was cut for hay until sometime in the 1990s, and it’s a classic early succession meadow—Joe Pye weed, red osier dogwood, all kinds of ferns, hardhack, willow.
The land is part of a growing trend towards green burial across the country—as Colleen Coorigan, an “end of life doula” who coordinates the Sanctuary put it, “natural or green burial are our modern day terms for an ancient practice of how we cared for our beloved after death. In those days, after-death care took place within the community, each member had a responsibility of participation to aid in this crossing over.” You can find many small family burial grounds scattered across the region, but the Civil War brought change. “Embalming was used on the battlefields to get soldiers back home, and that took hold and formed into the funeral industry we see today. This shifted the perception to the belief that a professional has to do this work.”
It also, increasingly, turned what had been a low-tech ritual into an increasingly unecological process. “Normally you build a grave with a mechanized digger,” Amadon said. “You put in a concrete liner, which means a lot of carbon. And then there’s the formaldehyde.”
The other option—cremation—comes with its own hazards. “The amount of fuel to burn a body is apparently the equivalent of traveling across the country,” Davis said. “And really, right now do you want your body turned into carbon dioxide?”
Despite the advantages of green burial, it took a little bit of education to get the Essex town board to sign off on the plan. “One person kept asking, ‘How do we know you’re going to do the maintenance?’” said Amadon. “But that’s kind of the point. No maintenance.”
The volunteers do keep several paths mowed through the Sanctuary, but most of the time the graves are left to themselves. And to the mink, bobcat, fisher, otter, moose and deer that wander through. “And of course this area is one of the few outposts of the timber rattler,” said Davis.
“The trees get old, and they fade into the next generation. The wildlife does that too. And we can do the same thing,” said Amadon.
One of the best explanations came from another volunteer, Eric Rucker, whose father, Paul, was among the first people interred there. A minister, Paul had often talked with his son about his discomfort with what author Jessica Mitford once called the “American Way of Death.”
“When he was in hospice and we realized he was fading faster than anybody expected, my partner, Catherine, and I shared the details of how we decided to fulfill his wishes as we understood them,” Rucker told me. “He had gone non-verbal by then but tears flowed over his cheeks and his chin became quivery and he squeezed our hands as we moved from the human world details into the scientific details of what would happen to his body and molecules and the microbes and fungi and plants and trees and air.
“When we arrived at the burial ground, I think we were all overwhelmed by how wild it felt. It was more than daunting, it just didn’t seem possible that we could dig a grave and do all this ourselves,” Rucker said. “But it felt great because there was no more thinking. Well, the digging became the thinking, and feeling.… Digging brought me back to my body. We were literally grounded. We embodied the work. We were perfectly present because the work was hard enough, and tactile enough that emotions could be felt but there was no room for rumination or checking out or spinning, and those things were replaced anyhow, so they were beside the point.”
Rucker remembers “the smell of the plants as you cut through them. The resistance of the web of roots. The smell of the rich top layers. The different feels of each type of soil. The coolness as you worked your way down into the earth. The colors! Changing colors and feels of each layer of silty, sandy, smooth clay, stiff clay, hard dry layers, moist layers.”
Now when he visits the Sanctuary, he says it’s helpful, “like getting it in your bones that the person and the body are different things and the person is gone. Visiting the land directly grounds you in reality, and without any philosophizing at all you see that everything transforms, everything feeds everything and though dying is real there is no death, just life.”
“Rationally I’m involved with this project because we can raise more money to save more land,” said Davis. “But personally I like the idea of my parts recycling. I can become the weasel I saw by the cabin yesterday, or the gray fox by the pond. I can become part of the pines. I believe in that kind of immortality.”
Learn more about the Spirit Sanctuary, in Essex, at www.spiritsanctuaryny.org or (518) 278-7502.
Author, educator and environmentalist Bill McKibben is a longtime contributor to this magazine. His first article appeared in 1988.