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More people are turning to ‘eco-friendly’ burials. This Baltimore County property hopes to fill that need.

A sprawling field in Windsor Mill may soon become Baltimore County’s first natural burial ground — an increasingly popular option for loved ones to bury their dead without embalming, headstones and concrete vaults.

The land off Ridge Road was passed down to Dr. Howard Berg and his brother by their parents, and has been in their family since 1955, the doctor said. Soon, he hopes, the sprawling field will be a park open to the public and an idyllic resting place for the deceased.

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The County Council has approved a bill to allow some of the 177-acre green space to be used for that purpose.

“The whole concept is that you’re caring for the dead with a minimal environmental impact,” Berg, a surgeon at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, said.

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Left to right: Howard Berg, Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones Jr., Shelley Morhaim and Dan Morhaim walk through the area that will become Serenity Ridge: Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum in Windsor Mill.
Left to right: Howard Berg, Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones Jr., Shelley Morhaim and Dan Morhaim walk through the area that will become Serenity Ridge: Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum in Windsor Mill. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

The council unanimously passed the bill, sponsored by Democratic Chair Julian Jones, in September. It amends zoning laws to allow Berg to preserve the land, which he hopes to soon call Serenity Ridge: Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum, as a natural burial ground. The new county law broadly defines that designation as a “green” alternative to embalming or cremation.

Eco-friendly burials use far fewer resources and none of the chemicals involved with a traditional interment. Remains are buried in biodegradable containers. Grave markers are made from natural materials and headstones don’t protrude from the ground.

“People can choose a burial that’s more consistent with how they’ve lived their lives, their values,” Berg said.

Natural burials draw on both Old World and modern concepts, said Shelley Morhaim, a member of the Natural Burial Association of Maryland who spoke independently of the organization. For instance, she said, a traditional Jewish funeral involves burying a body in a pine casket without treating the remains with chemicals.

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There are few natural burial sites in Central Maryland, and there appear to be none that are exclusively reserved for natural burials, according to a list of U.S. green burial sites from New Hampshire Funeral Resources Education & Advocacy, a nationwide nonprofit group, and Dr. Dan Morhaim, Shelley’s husband, and a former state delegate and physician who has written about end-of-life options.

There are some hybrid graveyards in Maryland that reserve a portion of land for natural burials, Shelley Morhaim said. Bestgate Memorial Park in Annapolis, a traditional cemetery, dedicated a small portion in the rear of its property for natural burials. The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has begun offering green burials at two of its cemeteries in Baltimore and Reisterstown.

According to the nonprofit Green Burial Council, burials in the U.S. annually use about 20 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid and 64,500 tons of steel.

While cremation has surpassed casket burials as the most popular end-of-life option in the U.S., it, too, comes with environmental costs.

“There’s a big incineration process — in other words, a big carbon footprint,” Dan Morhaim said.

Another issue advocates of a natural burial raise: funeral costs. The national median cost can reach more than $8,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, a nonprofit group representing those in the industry.

“It’s a burden on people who are more concerned with their loved one,” Berg said.

A natural burial could cost as little as $2,700 for a plot, interment and flat headstone, according to the Green Burial Council. The price depends on the cemetery operator, property value and any extra services the family might request, said Caitlyn Houke, president of the nonprofit council, which sets standards for how green and conservation burial sites should operate.

The council has certified more than 200 natural burial sites across the U.S. Certified sites don’t cut the grass or use chemicals to control weeds, and they require graves to be dug and filled with only hand tools, according to the council’s website.

Fewer than 10% of people nationally opt for a green burial, estimated Jack Mitchell, a funeral director with Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home, who owns Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Baltimore County, and is a member of the National Funeral Directors Association’s board of directors.

As more people become aware of natural burials, Mitchell said, traditional cemeteries might charge more for what customers may see as a premium service because it’s new and unusual. At Baltimore Hebrew Congregation cemeteries, for instance, a green burial lot is about $100 more than a lot in the cemetery’s monument section.

One challenge green burial sites may face, Mitchell said, is a Maryland law that bars a funeral parlor from simply holding a body for 48 hours after the person died. After then, remains must be either embalmed or refrigerated.

Those who wish to have their loved ones naturally buried at Serenity Ridge would need to arrange for the body to be refrigerated at a funeral parlor until it’s taken to the cemetery for burial, Berg said.

Neighbors have previously raised objections to natural cemeteries.

The Baltimore County Council approved legislation in 2015 to allow “conservation burial grounds.” At the time, a county couple planned a natural cemetery off Falls Road, near the Carroll County border. After community members raised concerns about water quality, the Council the following year approved a zoning change that blocked natural burials at the site.

Per the zoning changes approved this fall, natural burial grounds are permitted by special exception on some land zoned for rural conservation use in western Baltimore County. Burials are capped at 500 per acre and cannot be on any land smaller than 150 acres, according to the law.

Left to right, Dan Morhaim, Shelley Morhaim, Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones Jr. and Howard Berg walk through the 177-acre property that will become Serenity Ridge: Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum in Windsor Mill.
Left to right, Dan Morhaim, Shelley Morhaim, Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones Jr. and Howard Berg walk through the 177-acre property that will become Serenity Ridge: Natural Burial Cemetery and Arboretum in Windsor Mill. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

The law also requires Berg to provide a third-party study showing the expected effects of the burials on ground, surface and potable water quality.

Berg did not face the same opposition as previous natural cemetery proposals.

“As a community, we are very glad to have the cemetery there other than any other type of development,” said Butch Oakman, president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association.

Berg said he’s also working with the county to donate 80 acres to Baltimore County for preservation.

He plans to use goats to maintain the fields and a battery-powered excavator to dig graves.

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Berg envisions the future scene not as a graveyard, but as a gathering place. An avid gardener, he plans to plant an acre of native, deer-resistant flowers (hence the “arboretum”) that visitors can pick to lay atop their loved ones’ graves. He imagines families coming to enjoy the open space independent of visiting burial sites.

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“The family can choose to be as involved with the process as they want,” Berg said.

He hopes to be buried there, on “founder’s hill,” as he calls it.

“You want to promote nature,” he said. “It’s a park — and there just happens to be people buried there.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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