Under the shadow of tall trees, snow blankets Doug Carroll and Deirdre Smith's property in rural northern Baltimore County. Leaves crunch underfoot as their dog, Dewey, bounds down pathways and through the meadow grass, stiff in the cold winter air.
One day, the couple hopes to share their tranquil, rolling lands with families in grief. They plan to convert the farm fields and forests into a natural burial ground — a place where bodies can quickly decompose and return to the earth. There would be no large headstones, no concrete burial vaults, no embalming.
"Hopefully this is a celebration of people's lives and values," Smith said. "I hope it won't look too different than it looks now."
The couple's proposal — which needs county government approval to move forward — reflects a nationwide movement for natural burials.
Nationally, about 2 percent of families choose such options, said James Olson, chairman of the National Funeral Directors Association's work group on green burials. He's been offering them for about 15 years at his own funeral home, Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, Wisc., and educates other funeral directors about the option.
"The families that are looking for this truly live the green lifestyle. They tread lightly on the earth and want to tread lightly in death," he said.
Americans are becoming more aware of natural options for caring for loved ones in death, said Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council. His group has certified about 50 natural burial grounds in the country.
"People don't want the conventional options," he said. "People do like the idea that death can connect to life."
But to move ahead with their plan for Resh Mill Preserve, Carroll and Smith need a change to Baltimore County's zoning code, which does not account for such burial grounds.
County Council members Wade Kach and Vicki Almond are sponsoring a bill that would allow "conservation burial grounds" on properties within one of the county's rural zoning designations. Council members plan to discuss the bill at a work session on Tuesday, with a vote scheduled for Feb. 17.
Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, said she wasn't sure what to think about the concept at first.
"When it was first brought to me, I was a little shocked," she said. "But the more I researched it, I thought they have a right to be buried the way they want to be. I was really fascinated by the whole thing."
To Almond, a conservation burial ground like Resh Mill Preserve could accomplish dual goals: offering families a greener option for burials while protecting land from more intense development.
Almond and Kach's bill would allow the conservation burial grounds only in areas with an "environmental enhancement" zoning designation. Such zones already offer limited options for development and the burial ground would only be allowed if the property owner gets a special exception approved by an administrative judge.
Under the bill, a conservation burial ground must have a "natural appearance" with native plants, be at least 60 acres, allow no more than 100 burials per acre, have no raised markers and be subject to a conservation easement, a legal document that prohibits development forever.
Carroll and Smith, who raise beef cattle and chickens on their farm in the Green Spring Valley area, have long been interested in the environment. They hit on the idea of a natural burial ground as a way to have preserved land essentially pay for itself.
They first saw the 66-acre property off Falls Road near the Carroll County line a year ago and took ownership last month. It was a country retreat for someone who lived in Baltimore, and has been used for some hay and corn farming, but much of it has remained untouched. A stream — fittingly named Grave Run — meanders through the property.
"I just knew right away it was what we were looking for," Smith said.
The burials — possibly at a cost of $2,000 to reserve the right to be buried, then $500 at the time of burial — would pay for the property's overhead and upkeep. But Resh Mill would retain its natural appearance, unlike a traditional cemetery with asphalt roads, headstones and monuments. No buildings would be constructed on the land.
Smith sees such burial grounds as a return to a simpler way of handling death. She notes that for much of human history, bodies were buried directly in the ground without modern enhancements like embalming and caskets.
And instead of having a hunk of granite sticking out of the ground, the landscape itself can be a monument to a loved one's memory, Smith says. She envisions families returning to the burial grounds for nature walks or picnics to remember a loved one.
"This is a place where whole families are connected to preserved land," she said.
Neighbor Sharon Bailey, president of the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance, supports the couple's plan. To her, the most important issue is to preserve the land permanently.
At many natural burial grounds around the nation, family members are more intimately involved in the burial process. For example, they can help lower the body into the ground using ropes and then cover it with dirt. Many people are comforted by that connection, said Sehee of the Green Burial Council.
Natural burials are among the most touching services at Bestgate Memorial Park in Annapolis, said cemetery superintendent Amanda Williams. Though Bestgate is a traditional cemetery, a small portion in the rear of the property is set aside for natural burials.
About 15 people are buried among tall trees behind a split-rail fence, some marked with river rock headstones.
"It's really a beautiful service to watch. It involves the entire family," Williams said.
In addition to the Baltmore County zoning bill, Resh Mill's supporters are hoping for state legislation that would lower one of the financial hurdles they face. Maryland law requires cemeteries to set aside a certain amount of money in a permanent fund for future upkeep of the property.
Del. Dan Morhaim, a physician who has written about end-of-life care, said he's working on a bill to lower that amount for natural burial grounds.
"The idea is they don't have to do mowing and all that," he said. "Nature takes care of it."