Natural Burials: From flesh to dust.

AN IMPROBABLE trip from Northern California to a tiny, rural South Jersey cemetery began Aug. 22 for Raven Houdek when she learned her mother, Nina Evenbach, had died unexpectedly almost 3,000 miles away in New York.

Unsure of what to do with her mother’s remains, Houdek, 46, found the Steelmantown Cemetery on the Internet.

A week later, she found herself surrounded by scrubby pines, giant oaks and rare hickories in the Cape May County burial ground, holding a shovel and staring at the pine casket that held hundreds of flower petals and her mother.

“I put the first shovel of dirt on her coffin,” Houdek said recently from her home in Ukiah, Calif. “There was a spiritual and emotional connection I can’t fully describe.”

Steelmantown, which has been operating as a cemetery for more than 300 years, has managed to become cutting-edge by eschewing modernity. It’s the only Green Burial Council-certified natural burial ground in New Jersey. Embalming fluid, expensive steel caskets and concrete burial vaults are banned.

“It’s really about coming full circle,” Edward Bixby Jr., 38, the builder who owns the cemetery, remarked one recent spring afternoon while walking down a trail of pine needles there. “This is what ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust means, I think.”

Bixby’s family was among Upper Township’s first settlers, and many are buried around the small chapel in the cemetery, including Bixby’s infant brother. In 2007, when Bixby found the cemetery in disarray, he contacted the elderly owner and purchased the 9-acre property, which is nearly surrounded by Belleplain State Forest. The cemetery was spruced up and deed-restricted, Bixby said, and while pondering ways to raise money to maintain the cemetery’s uniqueness, he simply looked beneath him.

“The place has always been a cemetery,” he said. “We just decided to continue that use, in the same natural way, to preserve the land.”

Despite the traditional headstones that rise up crookedly from the ground closest to the chapel, the property feels more like a park than a cemetery. New grave markers often consist of indigenous stones. Down the winding trails that lead into the wooded burial areas, there are often no markers at all.

“Man, it seems like I’ll be picking these things up forever,” Bixby said, digging into the sandy soil near the chapel to retrieve plastic flower petals. “These were leftovers from another era.”

As a certified cemetery with the Green Burial Council, Steelmantown is required to adhere to certain regulations, including the ban on embalming fluids and non-biodegradable coffins. Graves are dug by hand and any plant life that’s disturbed in the process must be restored when the grave is filled in.

Bixby said he’s never labeled himself an environmentalist and doesn’t try to fit that role just to sell the $1,500 to $3,000 plots. His philosophy of simplicity, which includes a ban on gaudy plastic decorations, large, elaborate headstones and non-native flowers, has turned some people away. He doesn’t bend the rules for certain religions or for loved ones who can’t grasp why the deceased chose to be buried in such a seemingly odd manner, in such an out-of-the way place.

“Everybody is a human being, the way I see it,” he said. “I’m very proud of the way we do things here.”

Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, said there are only a few dozen “green” cemeteries operating in the United States. A rare few, like Bixby’s, are completely natural, while others, like West Laurel Hill in Bala Cynwyd, offer some degree of environmentally conscious burials.

“Ed is really the model for the best way it can be done,” Sehee said. “He’s in a beautiful part of the state, next to a protected area.”

In the future, Sehee said, more and more traditional cemeteries will offer “green sections” that might allow burials without embalming fluids, concrete vaults, or certain caskets. On a more ambitious note, there could be a push toward opening state parks and large nature preserves for natural burials.

“This is not a niche, hippie market,” he said. “It’s not going away.”

The “green” label has also been somewhat embraced by the funeral industry, Sehee said. His organization has certified more than 300 providers across the country. John Healey, manager of McCann-Healey funeral home in Gloucester City, said baby boomers in particular seem to be embracing the greener options, which could include something as small as formaldehyde-free embalming fluid or caskets made of different materials.

“We’ve certainly seen that more and more people are getting cremated and trying to have less of an environmental impact,” he said. “People can still have a traditional, but more eco-friendly, service.”

Funeral director Bob Fertig, of Mullica Hill, said green funerals will never replace modern embalming, open-casket funerals and typical burials. But, after taking part in almost a dozen natural burials, he wants to go the simple way.

It was during Nina Evenbach’s funeral, as her daughter dropped countless rose petals into her mother’s casket before sealing it shut, that Fertig felt the impact.

“It was absolutely beautiful,” he said. “That’s an emotion you don’t often feel at a funeral.”

For more information about Steelmantown Cemetery, visit www.steelmantowncemetery.com.

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