'Life after death': Natural burial and cremation in Vermont‘s first forest cemetery
It’s an early February day, and I’m snowshoeing through a sea of bare birch, pine and oak trees with Michelle Acciavatti, an end-of-life specialist.
“These deadfalls have been down for a while, so we might cut a path through so that you can walk through," she says. "But stuff like this, we're gonna leave just to let the animals keep their home. We share it with them.”
Michelle, alongside co-owner and mortician Tim Graves, hope to improve the forest's health while also turning this 60-acre scenic plot in Washington County into a place where Vermonters could be laid to rest naturally.
Unlike traditional funeral homes, caskets, makeup and clothing will be all optional. Ceremonies may involve faith or not. Instead, Michelle and Tim hope nature will work its beautiful, decompositional magic.
"We all depend on the earth to survive for a long time," Michelle says. "Burial was a way, whether it's farm animals, or you know, human remains — it was a way of making sure that the earth stayed healthy. We're giving back to the earth."
All states allow green burials, but only 19 have natural cemeteries, according to data from the nonprofit Green Burial Council. In 2015, Vermont passed its own law allowing natural burial grounds.
Tim and Michelle met in 2019 when they worked at the same funeral home in Montpelier. Prior to that, Tim did similar work for the U.S. Army. But it wasn’t until meeting Michelle that he considered how laying a person to rest could be more natural.
Michelle was also one of the people who worked to get an additional bill passed that changed the required minimum burial depth. Traditionally, bodies are buried 5 feet underground. The law change allows natural burials to be 3.5 feet underground — deep enough to prevent critters from disturbing the site, but shallow enough to allow for decomposition.
“As part of that, I'd gone around to nine or 10 different towns in Vermont and held the library conferences and gave kind of that little spiel of talking about what's the relationship between burial depth and natural burial,” Michelle said. “And so I got to meet a lot of people that were really interested.”
Steven Wisbaum, 66, was one of those people. He and his wife met Michelle during a virtual information session.
“The idea of cremation, burning more fossil fuels, was like the ultimate contradiction for me. And so when I heard about this option, I was just so happy,” he said.
“The idea of cremation, burning more fossil fuels, was like the ultimate contradiction for me. And so when I heard about this option, I was just so happy.”Steven Wisbaum, Champlain Valley Compost Co. owner
Steven owns Champlain Valley Compost Co., based in Charlotte. He found the idea of giving himself a second life — as human compost — appealing.
He was originally thinking of being cremated, but says he was concerned by the amount of pollution it creates.
Estimates vary, but both funerals and cremations are resource-intensive, producing millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Supporters of natural burials say they are better for the environment: No toxic chemicals from embalming, reduced emissions from skipping concrete vaults and burial containers... the list goes on.
Instead, in the forest, nature will do what nature does. Bodies will be wrapped in shrouds. Caskets here are optional. In place of a traditional headstone, the location of loved ones will be marked, logged on a map and pinpointed with GPS satellite coordinates.
“The idea of being able to be buried through natural burial and just go back to the soil made so much sense to me,” said 69-year-old Andrea Stander of Montpelier.
She plans to be buried at the Vermont Forest Cemetery. She spent her career advocating for agriculture and says a green burial aligns with her values.
"I'm anxiously awaiting the opportunity to be one of the first to reserve my spot in the forest cemetery," Stander said. “From everything I've learned about the cycle of life, and the role that soils play in the health of plants and forests and all the other life forms that we depend on ... it just all came together for me."
It’s also a choice that makes more sense for her financially. Before cemetery fees, the average cost of a funeral in the U.S. is nearly $8,000, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors. Average cremation funeral services cost in the ballpark of $3,900.
While Tim and Michelle have not nailed down how much a green burial and cremation will cost, they hope it will fall somewhere closer to the cost of a cremation rather than a funeral.
“I'm anxiously awaiting the opportunity to be one of the first to reserve my spot in the forest cemetery.”Andrea Stander, former executive director for Rural Vermont
Michelle says interest has been steady. While they were aiming to open this summer, some Roxbury residents have recently voiced concerns.
The cemetery has gotten its Act 250 permit, but is awaiting final approval from the Roxbury Select Board.
Back at the site, Michelle already has her final resting place picked out.
“I'd always had this picture of being buried surrounded by birch trees. And there's a spot in the cemetery that's got a white birch, twinned white birch and a triple yellow birch,” she said.
Michelle says people are welcome to come and visit the cemetery and pick out their own burial spots anytime. But that one is taken.