Kenyon’s land trust turns a golf course into a public nature preserve—including space for environmentally friendly burials that bring the past into the future.
Story by Robin Davis
The sixth president of Kenyon contracted typhoid fever while serving in the Civil War and returned to Gambier to recover. Lorin Andrews succumbed on September 19, 1861, at the age of 42. The next day, after services at Rosse Chapel, a procession of family, friends, colleagues, and students carried his casket to College Cemetery where it was lowered into the ground.
In the spring of 1998, Kenyon developed plans for a new music building adjacent to Rosse Hall, which would require moving Andrews’ grave. When the tomb was carefully excavated, all that remained were the brass buttons from his military uniform, the handles from his wooden casket, and a few bone fragments. They were reinterred in a box made from a fallen tree on campus and solemnly marched to a new spot in the cemetery.
“It was such a moving experience for people to see that the body was returned to the dust,” said Royal Rhodes, The Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies.
Kenyon, like many colleges, has had a cemetery on its campus almost since the day it was founded. Along with Andrews, it contains the remains of several notable alumni and benefactors. But the College recently took an additional step into the cemetery business, one that is consistent with its mission and also puts it on the cutting edge of a growing trend to return to simpler times in burial.
Last year, Philander Chase Corporation (PCC), a nonprofit land trust associated with the College, purchased Tomahawk Golf Course, a 51-acre course in Knox County, as part of its quest to preserve land from development adjacent to Kenyon. In February, the Kenyon College Board of Trustees approved turning a portion of the property into Kokosing Nature Preserve, one of only three nature conservancy cemeteries in Ohio and forty-two exclusive “green burial” cemeteries in the country. The move makes Kenyon the first college or university to combine green burial and land conservancy, while also providing PCC with a revenue stream for the ongoing work of the land trust.
“Our primary goal in purchasing the property was to protect it from development,” said Lisa Schott ’80, managing director of the land trust. “It is a scenic property with beautiful views, and we did not want it subdivided and sold as separate parcels.”
That it fulfilled the desire to create a place for green burial—burials done without the use of harsh chemicals and non-biodegradable materials—in central Ohio was an added bonus.
The current landscape of funerals and burials in this country was born around the time of Andrews’ death. Throughout the Civil War, families longed for one last view of the bodies of their soldier kin who had been killed in action. Embalming began to be used to preserve these bodies for the journey home. (Andrews died at home, making embalming unnecessary.) Over time, the embalming practice, which until then had been reserved for cadavers meant for research, became commonplace and the cornerstone for the burgeoning funeral industry.
“We do the embalming for three reasons: disinfection, preservation, cosmetics,” said Jeff Spear ’78, owner and funeral director of Hansen-Spear Funeral Home, a third-generation funeral home in Quincy, Illinois.
Today, conventional burial usually consists of embalming the dead with chemicals such as formaldehyde along with dyes to make them appear lifelike, as though they have just drifted off to sleep. The dead are then laid to rest in polished caskets of metal or wood that are, in turn, placed in reinforced concrete vaults entombed in neat rows at manicured cemeteries. The process leaves surviving loved ones with a “memory picture” of the deceased that some believe helps them acknowledge the death and begin grieving.
Others aren’t so sure. “The idea that you’re preserving the body in perpetuity is linked to the idea of conquering death,” said Rhodes, who teaches a class on death and has worked with Hospice of Knox County for many years. “I think the dark side of that is the denial of death.”
Many also believe that modern burial practices come at a huge cost to the environment by using materials that are not biodegradable and interfere with the natural process of decay and regeneration. The cost can be exorbitant, too: A modern funeral, including plot and headstone, averages $10,000.
“Families often go overboard just out of the sense of guilt or that this is what they should be doing,” Rhodes said. “The whole development of the funeral industry and the ornamentation and the costs and the removal of any kind of natural sequence of things, I think, is unfortunate.”
Green burial resumes the practices of old, removing the environmental barriers of conventional burial practices and allowing the dead to “return to the dust,” as Andrews did. Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, is forbidden in green burial, as are concrete burial vaults and lids, which are not biodegradable. In addition, caskets must be made of plant-based materials.
“We’re born and we’re going to die and decay, but in a way be reborn. That’s what green burial provides,” said Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit agency working to encourage environmentally friendly death care.
Definitive statistics of people interested in green burial are scarce, but interest in more ecologically friendly burial services is clearly growing. In 2007, the Funeral and Burial Planners Survey conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons reported that 21 percent of respondents would be interested in more natural burial services that did not involve embalming. People between the ages of fifty and seventy—baby boomers —are even more receptive.
We’re born and we’re going to die and decay, but in a way be reborn. That’s what green burial provides."
Joe SeheeFounder of the Green Burial Council
Green burial is also in line with most major religious beliefs, Rhodes said. In fact, some practices associated with modern burial, such as embalming, are contrary to the tenets of certain religious systems, such as Orthodox Judaism and branches of Islam.
Many established funeral homes are on board with green burial options, recognizing them as an expanding business opportunity. Spear is considering offering green burial choices to his current service list. More than half of the caskets he sells today are already made of wood, a huge increase from just the five he provided when he entered the family business thirty years ago. “The idea of a green burial to me is so cool,” he said. “The type of person embracing it is actually immersing themselves in the process.” But he acknowledges that his funeral home is “pretty forward thinking.”
The land trust anticipated some resistance to Kokosing Nature Preserve from the surrounding community or perhaps from alumni. “It’s a very personal decision,” Schott said, stressing that the College simply wanted to provide an environmentally friendly option to burial for those who are interested.
Yet, opposition to the cemetery has been virtually nonexistent. The College Township Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously approved the application for conditional use as a nature cemetery in March, and Snyder Funeral Homes in nearby Mount Vernon quickly engaged in offering full green burial services.
“Traditional services are going by the wayside because of things like cremation,” said Jeff Briggs, funeral director and embalmer at Snyder Funeral Homes. “People are interested in burial that does not leave a carbon footprint behind. This gives folks another option.” He has received calls from those interested in green burial services since running an ad in the Mount Vernon News in April, but has not heard a single negative comment.
But misconceptions about death care as a whole remain prevalent, said Sehee of the Green Burial Council. Many people mistakenly believe caskets and burial vaults are legally required; they’re not, though some cemeteries require them because they make grounds keeping easier. Embalming is also not mandated by law, nor is it necessary for those who want a viewing. Refrigeration can preserve a body for a few days in order to hold a visitation.
“There is nothing with green burial that can’t be done,” Sehee said. “You can have a viewing, a box, or a shroud. You can do anything you want and even more. And you can connect your last act to the earth.”
A frequently asked question about green burial, Sehee said, is whether natural burial cemeteries smell of decomposing bodies. “There is no scent when a body is buried more than 18 inches below the ground. Animals can’t even smell it at that depth,” Sehee said. Graves in natural burial cemeteries such as Kokosing Nature Preserve are usually 3- to 4-feet deep.
Rhodes said too many modern cemeteries are just “cities of the dead.” He remembers talking to an Anglican priest in New England trying to clean up the broken headstones in a church cemetery. The priest told Rhodes he wished they could just remove the tombstones so they would have a place for the children to play. “We should be thinking about cemeteries as not just a place to memorialize the dead but also to support the living,” Rhodes said.
Kokosing Nature Preserve will be such a place for Kenyon alumni as well as the community at large. “It’s College land, but the point is it will be anybody’s land for enjoyment—and rest,” said former Kenyon trustee and PCC board member Buffy Hallinan ’76, who lives in Gambier.
Another College trustee and director of the land trust, Peter White ’66, who divides his time between Gambier and Choteau, Montana, added that the concept of green burial fits the mission of Kenyon as a whole. “It’s right for Kenyon because Kenyon has such a unique, cutting-edge sort of niche in the environmental movement,” he said. “We’re not just talking about it; we’re doing it here.” As an example, he points to PCC, which was formed in 2000 and has since preserved more than 5,000 acres of land near the College. Other examples include the Brown Family Environmental Center, the Kenyon Farm, and the Rural Life Center, all of which have sustainability and conservation as their missions.
It’s right for Kenyon because Kenyon has such a unique, cutting-edge sort of niche in the environmental movement. We’re not just talking about it; we’re doing it here.”
Peter White '66
The land trust aims to have Kokosing Nature Preserve certified at the highest conservation level with the Green Burial Council. Beyond its burial practices, the cemetery will incorporate standards of nature conservancy. It will be designed to reflect a naturalistic appearance with native plants compatible with regional ecosystems. In addition, it will be protected in perpetuity, exclusively for conservation, meaning the land may never be developed.
Landscape architect and PCC trustee Stephen Christy ’71 is primed to start work to transform the property from a well-kept eighteen-hole golf course into a natural conservancy cemetery. The initial development leaves a nine-hole golf course intact—renamed Deer Hollow Golf Course—because Mount Vernon residents have strong emotional ties to it. The course, however, will be separated from the burial site by a “green curtain” of trees and other plants to visually distinguish between the uses. This summer, Christy will begin to remove evergreens and install oaks and hickories, as well as pasture grasses, such as orchard grass and red-top, interspersed with black-eyed susans and asters.
Kokosing Nature Preserve should be ready to host burials in 2015. Graves can be designated with flat, natural stone markers, though not the heavy polished headstones used in most cemeteries. The final result will be a peaceful, natural setting ideal for walks and quiet contemplation, more closely resembling a meadow than most of today’s headstone-rowed cemeteries.
The cemetery serves two purposes for the land trust: It will not only preserve the land, but also fund future conservation efforts. “We are a very expensive organization,” White said. PCC accepts contributions but does not have a way to generate money to pay for projects. “From our standpoint and from the College’s standpoint, the more we can do to raise revenue for our conservation projects, the better off we are. And we are quite confident that we will generate significant revenues from Kokosing Nature Preserve.”
Amy Henricksen, Kokosing Nature Preserve steward and PCC project coordinator, reports interest from people ready to buy plots. Plot prices have not yet been finalized, but half of the purchase price will go to the land trust as a tax-deductible gift. And while the anticipated price of the plot is expected to be more expensive than plots at most traditional cemeteries, green burial eliminates many of the expenses of a conventional burial such as embalming and the vault, reducing the overall cost. Christy is still mapping the plots of Kokosing Nature Preserve, but the property is expected to have a total of 2,000 to 4,000 spaces, making it a significant revenue source for the land trust in the coming years.
Making money, however, was not the driving factor in purchasing the land. “We would do it even if we thought we wouldn’t make money,” White said.
“It’s a new idea for many people,” Hallinan said. “But I think it’s an opportunity for the College and PCC to do something responsible and sustainable for a very long time.” She plans to make Kokosing Nature Preserve her final resting place, as does White.
“I’ll be the first customer,” White said. “Just hopefully not the first occupant.”
Cremation has long been an alternative to ground burial, but is it green?
Greenburialcouncil.org states that cremation uses fewer natural resources than many other forms of burial but still potentially poses an environmental impact. Cremation requires a substantial amount of energy, uses fossil fuels, and produces carbon emissions. The Green Burial Council feels cremation falls outside the organization’s main objectives, so they do not have a certification program for it.
However, the Kokosing Nature Preserve will accept cremains for burial in a purchased plot, as long as the containers in which they are buried are made of biodegradable materials. The cemetery will also have a designated space for scattering cremains.
"Cremation allows remains to be returned to the earth in a simple, dignified, and natural way," said Amy Henricksen, Kokosing Nature Preserve steward and Philander Chase Corporation project coordinator. "Burying or scattering them at a natural preservation property like Kokosing helps improve the health of our environment."
The Kokosing Nature Preserve completes the triumvirate lovingly called “sacred corridor” adjacent to the northeast part the campus. Also along Quarry Chapel Road are the cemetery of the same name and the Jewish Cemetery of Knox County that was consecrated in October.
Judaism maintains that observant Jews must be buried in a consecrated cemetery, according to Howard Sacks, professor of sociology and the chairman of the Jewish Cemetery Society of Knox County. Until last fall, none of the burial grounds associated with Kenyon was suitable for the Jewish deceased. The lack of such a cemetery created a void on two levels. Alumni, trustees, parents
of alumni, and students of the Jewish faith could not be buried near the College. And the contributions of Knox County Jews to the community could not be fully recognized.
Sacks helped establish the Jewish Cemetery Society in 2010. He said they were met with immense support from the Friends of the Quarry Chapel, the Kenyon community, and the College Township trustees.
“The general enthusiasm for this effort has been really heartening because at first we weren’t entirely sure about how people would respond,” Sacks said. “People have overwhelmingly looked at this as an enhancement to the community, a celebration of something good about our community. That has made those of us who were participants feel that we belong, which for small minority groups is often an issue.”
The cemetery has a total of seventy plots, seventeen of which have already been reserved. To learn more, go to www.jcsknoxcounty.com.