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What's a green burial and why is there a moratorium on these new cemeteries?

Minnesota paused ‘green burials’ because of a bitter fight over a cemetery in Carlton County. It has led to questions of religious freedom

Graphic showing assisted species migration which is moving species beyond their historic range and beyond natural seed dispersal.- U.S. Forest Service
(Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash)

The moratorium has led to complicated questions about burials and cemeteries. It has also raised eyebrows among Jewish and Muslim leaders because burials in their faiths could be impacted by the law.

By Walker Orenstein for MinnPost

Matt Connell had found a nearly perfect location for his new cemetery.

The former hayfield southwest of Duluth was quiet and peaceful — just what he envisioned for the practice known as “green burials.”

“I had searched high and low for land all over the place,” said Connell, who lives in Crystal. “Just hit problem after problem after problem until we came across this property in Blackhoof Township. It was ideal in every way — except for the drive.”

Connell’s search started when a “lightning bolt” of inspiration led him to change careers from advertising and marketing. He bought the land in 2022 with a business partner and has begun preparing the site, planting more than 1,000 trees, building trails and planning for wildflowers.

But what started as an aspiration is engulfed in bitter dispute, spilling into contentious local government meetings — with some neighbors raising concerns about water pollution and animals digging up bodies — and even the Minnesota Legislature. Ultimately, the Legislature approved a law in May that appears to block Connell, and other new cemeteries, from offering green burials for the next two years as health officials research the minimalist custom.

Altogether, it’s a saga that has led to complicated questions about burials and cemeteries in Minnesota, which face little state regulation. It has also stirred up questions of religious freedom that go beyond the Carlton County case.

Notably, Minnesota’s new moratorium raised some eyebrows because typical burials for Jews and Muslims meet the state’s definition for what was temporarily banned. “It seems to be a careless decision here by the state,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

What exactly is a green burial?

In Minnesota, the majority of people who die are cremated, said Ron Gjerde, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota Association of Cemeteries. As people become more aware of environmental concerns like chemicals, metals and carbon emissions related to either cremation or casket burials, however, other options are becoming more common.

That includes things like more environmentally friendly liquid cremation. Elsewhere in the country, what’s known as “human composting,” done in indoor “pods,” has also gained some traction.

And then there’s green burials. They’re nothing new, and in fact, were the norm before the idea of embalming bodies was introduced, Gjerde said. “It’s really the way everyone was buried prior to the Civil War,” he said.

There are many varieties of green burials, said Carrie Rowell, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s mortuary science program. But generally, the term refers to a burial where the body is not embalmed or embalmed with a non-formaldehyde preservative. The body is commonly placed in an all-wood or wicker casket, or a shroud made of natural fibers like silk or linen.

Another key aspect of a green burial is the lack of a liner or concrete vault — common in modern cemetery burials. Another difference is that, while many vault burials take place six feet below the surface, a green burial might be more shallow. That’s because microbes that help with decomposition are closer to the surface, Rowell said.

The website of the Green Burial Council, a national trade organization, identified just two cemeteries practicing green burials in the whole state on their website. That’s an undercount, especially if Jewish and Islamic cemeteries — some of which use vaults — fit the bill. But green burial is still far from widespread.

Supporters of green burials say they have environmental advantages over other burials. Dan Kantar, who manages Mound Cemetery in Brooklyn Center that does green burials and a Jewish cemetery in Edina, said there’s a trend toward “simplification” in the after-death process. And there’s another selling point: Green burials are cheaper than common casket burials.

How the Carlton County project came to be

Connell’s journey to green burials started with a TED Talk.

Feeling “stuck” in his career around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was bored one day and watched a speech on alternative types of burials. The next video that popped up featured Ed Bixby, founder of the Steelmantown Natural Cemetery in New Jersey and then-president of the Green Burial Council. Connell had always been comfortable with cemeteries and death. In fact, he found the topic fascinating. Something clicked.

“It was a supercharged experience, you know, like ‘angels, beams of light shining through the window,’ the cliché cartoonish type moment,” Connell said.

He called Bixby the next day. They became friends and, later, business partners. Bixby has 12 cemeteries that allow green burials across the country.

The business duo tried to establish a cemetery elsewhere in Minnesota, including one failed venture in Winona County that was met with resistance by the county prosecutor and the Department of Natural Resources. Both said Bixby and Connell’s effort to revive a historic cemetery in a wildlife area managed by the DNR was improper. The situation drew controversy and threats of legal action. Bixby and Connell asserted they were within their rights but walked away from the cemetery.

By contrast, Connell said the 20-acres of land in Blackhoof Township was privately owned and properly zoned for a cemetery, which meant it did not need any type of permits. That was big. It was close to Duluth, a potential source of customers. And the hayfield also “offered kind of a blank canvas,” Connell said, for establishing pollinator habitat and for reforestation.

The cemetery, which they named Loving Earth Memorial Gardens, would start with 512 burial plots and an estimated 10 burials per year. Bixby said there’s room to expand.

Opposition bubbles in Blackhoof Township

At first, Connell said things went smoothly with Carlton County. Then, some neighbors started to raise concerns.

Roughly 20 people regularly attended county board meetings for months. Soon, in December, the chair of the Carlton County Board of Commissioners sent a letter to the Green Burial Council, accusing Bixby and Connell of breaking from the organization’s guidelines meant to protect the environment. Portions of the land have a slope, and the site has a wetland, for instance. The letter says the council urged relatively flat ground and little to no surface water.

Shortly after, critics also filed a petition with the Department of Natural Resources, asking for environmental review of the cemetery. That petition alleges that decomposition of unembalmed remains containing chemicals and disease could seep into the ground, impacting water quality in a nearby wetland, natural spring, wells and the Blackhoof River.

The burials, the petition said, would disrupt wildlife and native wetland plants. They could attract scavenging animals such as coyotes, which would dig up remains and traumatize residents. The cemetery could smell bad, or pose a fire risk. Visitors could increase traffic and create hazards if people parked on the road.

There were also concerns with Bixby’s company, aside from the situation in Winona County. Local officials in California’s Half Moon Bay once accused Bixby of performing green burials at an abandoned cemetery without necessary permits. MPR News reported in 2021 that San Mateo County disputes his ownership claim and actually denied certain permits. Bixby maintains he was and is legally operating.

Matt Arnold runs an organ business — think instruments, not body parts — next to the cemetery, and wrote to county officials this year: “We can’t allow 2 people who have tried to illegally take over a cemetery in our state and illegally buried bodies in California to be trusted to properly bury a few hundred feet away from my 6 kids and water supply.”

A petition with 106 signatures from Blackhoof Township (population: 985) had been sent to the county asking for a moratorium on burials, according to Board chair Gary Peterson.

Minnesota passes a 2-year moratorium

That moratorium never happened. But opponents of the cemetery took the issue to the Legislature, saying the county was unable to stop the project or at least slow it down.

Two neighbors of the project testified in favor of a moratorium bill sponsored by Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, in a March hearing of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee.

One was Eric Braun, pastor of a church in Duluth, and a leading critic of the project. He told lawmakers that he was unaware of green burials until late last year. He knew some faiths have burials with no embalming. “But this green burial concept to me was totally foreign,” he said, “in the sense that we would dig a hole and place a body in the ground without necessarily any coverings whatsoever or possibly just a linen shroud.”

“And there were no regulations as to how deep, how many times that a person may be buried on top of them.”

Braun, who did not agree to an interview for this story, urged lawmakers to create some regulations to ensure that green burials actually are an environmental benefit. And he said the state could regret not taking action if a relatively new industry takes off without any standards.

There are Minnesota laws around handling a body after death — like a licensure system for embalming — and other restrictions meant to protect people from unsavory or fraudulent business practices. But it’s true there are few state limits on how people can be buried.

The DFL lawmaker chairing the Senate committee, Sen. Melissa Wiklund, DFL-Bloomington, said the “very reasonable” questions should be answered before more cemeteries with green burial are built.

What lawmakers eventually adopted was a two-year moratorium on new cemeteries offering green burials. The law defines a green burial as one meant to minimize environmental impact that doesn’t inhibit decomposition and includes cases where the body is not embalmed or embalmed with nontoxic chemicals, a biodegradable casket or shroud is used for burial, and the casket or shroud is not placed in an outer burial container.

But the law allows existing cemeteries that use the practice to keep doing so.

The Legislature also directed the Department of Health to study the environmental and health impacts of green burials and human composting, and to make recommendations for the practices that touch on location, distance from water, burial depth, density of burials, and more.

Bixby and Connell dispute the notion that green burial would pose an environmental hazard or attract scavengers. The DNR declined to undergo an environmental assessment of the cemetery, saying the project was exempt from such review.

And the pair are not alone in contesting the idea of water pollution. Heather Cunningham, a Carlton County zoning official, told Arnold in an email that his well was 420 feet deep and not at risk.

Rowell, from the U, said animals die every day in nature and people never worry about them polluting groundwater. “I think there’s more of a concern with fertilizer runoff in our water sources than what a body can potentially do,” Rowell said. “The dirt itself is so microbial rich and those microbes do a really good job on reducing the body.”

Religious questions arise

Meanwhile, Carlton County did adopt a new ordinance for public cemeteries, adding rules on things like parking and land type that could be obstacles for Loving Earth.

That has led to a clash with the county prosecutor over whether an affiliation with the Universal Life Church would exempt the cemetery from tougher regulations. That prosecutor, Lauri Ketola, said in a May 3 letter the pair were “less than forthright” about their status and must comply with rules for public cemeteries. More recently, Cunningham said Bixby and Connell haven’t submitted necessary documentation for a cemetery plat. Bixby says the county is dragging its feet.

Either way, since the cemetery wasn’t approved by the county by the time the moratorium went into effect July 1, it appears there can’t be any green burials at the Loving Earth site for at least two years.

To Bixby, the drama has been motivated at least in part by neighbors afraid of new things, and with a strain of religious discrimination or racism. The Pine Knot News in Cloquet reported in October that some residents at an otherwise respectful board meeting wondered about “north Minneapolis” residents being buried at Loving Earth, or suggested the cemetery would be used by Muslims.

The cemetery could be used by people of any faith, but doesn’t cater to a specific religion, Bixby said. He reached out to the Department of Justice to ask for an investigation of what he characterized as violations of his religious rights. The feds responded asking for more information.

It’s unknown how the DOJ might act. But in the past, Islamic groups have faced backlash and resistance when trying to open cemeteries in Minnesota in a way that echoes some aspects of the Loving Earth debate.

An Islamic association received a permit to build a cemetery in Dakota County last year only after a CAIR lawsuit against a township. In 2017, Chisago County officials backtracked under pressure from the DOJ to allow another Muslim organization to build a cemetery. Once concern raised by some neighbors at the time was about the potential for water pollution from green burial, the Star Tribune reported at the time.

That raises the question: Could Minnesota’s green burial law potentially block new Islamic and Jewish cemeteries for two years? And did Minnesota lawmakers consider that when passing the moratorium?

Ethan Roberts, deputy executive director for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), said the exemption for existing cemeteries means there’s no “cause for alarm right now.” He wasn’t aware of anyone trying to build a new Jewish cemetery. Still, he said it’s true that Jewish tradition strongly discourages embalming, and said it’s very common in the U.S. for Jewish people to be buried in a wooden casket. Elsewhere in the Jewish world, a shroud would be normal.

Roberts said his organization will pay close attention to the study to make sure that Jewish traditions are respected. “People should always have the option to embalm or not embalm their loved ones,” he said. “This is like the basis of freedom of religion.”

While Roberts said lawmakers did not reach out to JCRC, he said they probably would have just asked for the exemption for existing cemeteries that was written into law.

Hussein, from CAIR, said the Muslim community has had to fight to have any type of cemetery, let alone one with green burials, which he said are not a religious requirement but are a “norm and practice.” He said some rural communities might be considering that option in the near future, and the moratorium could make it difficult for any new cemetery to pursue green burials.

“It does definitely undermine the goals and aspirations of Muslims, which is to make sure that we actually can bury our dead in the best possible way,” Hussein said.

Kyle Anderson, funeral director and cemetery manager for the Minnesota Islamic Cemetery Association said burials at the Garden of Eden Cemetery in Burnsville could be considered green burials under state law. They use a form of outer burial container that has no bottom, which is a function of cemetery rules but might not be used for burials of Muslims elsewhere. He said bodies are typically washed and wrapped in a white cloth, but not embalmed.

Anderson said there will be a need eventually for more cemeteries serving Muslims in the area, since Garden of Eden, which he estimates handles more than 90% of burials for Muslims in the Twin Cities, will be full in as soon as a decade.

Rarick, the Pine City Republican who represents Carlton County and sponsored the initial bill in the Senate, said the law is not meant to stop green burials from happening, but to put a few guidelines around them.

Wiklund told MinnPost that the legislation was not meant to target certain religions, and she said no one testified against the bill in its primary hearing or raised serious concerns during the legislative process. However, she also said she didn’t know that Jewish and Islamic customs could fit the definition of a green burial under the new law when it was passed during a busy legislative session.

“I try to do research on the items that we take up in the committee but I wouldn’t say that I can research every item to the great depth maybe that are needed,” Wiklund said. “But I also depend on people to come forward and let me know about concerns.”

The moratorium was passed as one small part of a more than 900-page “omnibus” health bill, a final version of which was released at 11:54 p.m. on May 21, the night before a House and Senate vote on the last day of the 2023 legislative session.

Meanwhile, Bixby and Connell say they aren’t going away. They have even turned down offers to buy the land, rankling some nearby. “At the end of the day even if we had to wait two years it wouldn’t change the outcome,” Bixby said.

This story was originally published by MinnPost. Visit the site for more photos with this story and to explore other stories on greater Minnesota.

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