FERN PRAIRIE — One of Clark County’s oldest cemeteries is reviving a pioneer-era style of burial, in the hopes of appealing to modern environmental sensibilities.
Near the shadow of a grove of towering oaks, two graves stand out among hundreds of others scattered throughout the bucolic setting north of Camas. Each of those graves is topped by a mound of bare dirt surrounded by a frame of 2-by-6-inch boards.
As the coffins and their contents decompose, the mound will settle.
“As soon as it goes down, I’ll smooth it out and plant it just like everything else around here,” said William Zalpys, the cemetery district commissioner who introduced the idea and began offering the service earlier this year.
Zalpys, who works as a grounds keeper for Park Hill Cemetery in his day job for the city of Vancouver, said he got the idea when a customer asked about the possibility of a “green” burial at Park Hill. Like other major public and private cemeteries in the area, Park Hill required coffins to be encased within concrete outer liners to prevent the inevitable collapse as ashes turn to dust.
“That’s why cities want to avoid that,” Zalpys said.
Zalpys learned there was nothing to prevent the Fern Prairie Cemetery from offering the service.
Others think the small rural cemetery may become a trend-setter, especially in the environmentally conscious Pacific Northwest. The service caters to people who are looking to achieve sustainability even in death, as well as people for whom bare-earth burial serves a religious purpose.
“It really goes back to the original traditions of the funeral industries,” said Nick Brown, manager of Brown’s Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Camas.
Brown said he began looking into green burials about five years ago. The practice had already become popular in England and in Europe, where space limitations long ago pushed cemeteries to consolidate family plots.
Even though it could affect the funeral industry’s profitability — liner-less burials are naturally more affordable — Brown said he’s all for it.
“Dad’s always said whether a family has a dollar or a million dollars, it doesn’t matter because the emotion is going to be the same,” Brown said. “Maybe they don’t want a traditional headstone. Maybe they want to plant a tree. A vault would interfere with the growth of the tree’s roots.”
Brown offers biodegradable caskets, acquired through Natural Burial Co. in Portland.
The company makes a variety of biodegradable coffins, including a kayak-shaped “ecopod” featuring mulberry leaves and recycled silk. Company owner Cynthia Beal credited Zalpys for starting what she sees as a necessary transition toward a more sustainable model for cemeteries of the future.
“Any city-owned cemetery in 100 years is going to be full,” Beal said. “Who mows and fertilizes it for the next 500 years?”
A green burial is perfectly legal in Washington, said Dennis McPhee, funeral and cemetery program manager for the state Department of Licensing.
“There is no state law of any kind that requires what is known as an outer burial container,” McPhee said. “However, most cemeteries do require these outer burial containers.”
That’s largely because of maintenance issues and visitor safety.
Solid outer liners, usually made of concrete, have been standard practice at most Northwest cemeteries for decades. The liners support the weight of the earth above the coffins, while ensuring easy maintenance of grounds.
“They want to ensure that there’s some protection that graves aren’t going to cave in as people are walking over them,” McPhee said.
That shouldn’t be a problem at Fern Prairie, Zalpys said.
Working with two other elected commissioners, Zalpys envisions setting aside a 1-acre section of the cemetery solely for natural burials. Maintenance should be relatively straightforward, with families free to devise memorials of their own design for their loved ones.
“Like they say, ashes to ashes,” he said.