Peaceful Islands of Biodiversity

Cemeteries often provide ideal habitat for wildlife, particularly in urban areas; some also serve as vital links to the nation’s ecological past

04-01-2008 // Mark Wexler

IN THE SHADOW of Mt. Tamalpais, more than 150 graves lie scattered across a windswept hillside in Marin County, California. Though the hill makes up a large portion of a 32-acre cemetery called Fernwood, most people walking along the wooded ridge above it may not realize that bodies are interred there. None of the burial sites are identified by headstones or monuments. Some are distinguished simply by clumps of native flowers or small trees; others are marked so subtly with flat stones that they can be located only by using the facility’s Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates.

The hillside graves are part of an effort by the owners of Fernwood to create a natural burial ground on the historic cemetery’s undeveloped land—an effort that includes interring bodies in biodegradable caskets or plain shrouds and not using chemicals. It also includes restoring the area’s native vegetation to the grounds, which are located directly adjacent to the 75,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

“As we’ve removed exotic trees and other invasive plants and replaced them with native species, we’ve seen an increase in wildlife on our property, including bobcats and raptors,” says Fernwood Funeral Director Kathy Curry. As she speaks, a Cooper’s hawk circles overhead while its mate perches in a nearby tree. Fernwood is one of several graveyards across the country designated as a Certified Wildlife Habitat™ by NWF because of their natural features that provide food, water, shelter and nesting places for wild creatures. In some cases, such habitats are vital links to the nation’s ecological past.

“Cemeteries often are overlooked as places that can harbor high levels of biodiversity, particularly in crowded urban areas,” says Jamie Dozier, a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources who has researched the subject. “Some are quite old and contain plant communities and soils that have never been plowed. They provide snapshots into an area’s ecological history, which makes them invaluable resources for restoring the natural values of a site by showing us what the land once looked like.”

In Illinois, for example, nearly two dozen cemeteries containing remnant plots of rare native prairie plants that date back to pre-European settlement of the region have been protected as state reserves. In Tennessee, Elmwood Cemetery is similarly protected, in part because it safeguards one of Memphis’s last major stands of old-growth woodland. “We’re an island of nature within the city,” says Kimberly Caldwell, executive director of the 150-year-old, NWF-certified graveyard. “Many local residents come here just to go birding or to relax among the trees.”

Bird-watching has been a popular pastime at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland ever since the early 1980s, when researchers for the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas project counted 76 species nesting within the 285-acre facility—a significantly higher number than they found in surrounding neighborhoods.

Birding also is attracting locals to NWF-certified Davis Cemetery in Davis, California, these days, but not necessarily because 22 species breed there. “We’ve become a sort of attraction ever since a flock of wild turkeys has taken up residence here,” says the facility’s supervisor, Joseph Cattarin.

Not everyone is excited about the graveyard’s newest inhabitants, however. “Is it just me or has anyone else been run out of Davis Cemetery by wild turkeys?” wrote a local citizen, who labeled himself “The Turkey Coward,” in a letter to the editor in The Davis Enterprise last fall. “Perhaps the birds’ aggressiveness is part of the attraction,” observes Cattarin.

Davis is among a small but growing number of cemeteries that are now offering clients the less costly option of a so-called “green burial.” Not using metal caskets or preserving bodies with chemicals, and not putting cement liners in the graves, says Cattarin, “provides a way for people to hasten the return of their deceased loved ones to the natural world.”

“This is not a new concept,” adds Josh Slocum of the Consumers Burial Alliance, a Vermont-based nonprofit group that helps protect consumers from funeral fraud. “It’s how all of our forefathers were buried.” In fact, most of what we think of today as a traditional burial involves practices such as embalming that were put in wide use in the 20th century when burying the dead became a big business in this country.

At Fernwood, where nearly three-fourths of the property is now set aside for green burials, the process also eschews the use of polluting equipment. “The native plant restoration and grave digging is done by hand,” says Raymond Soudah, the cemetery’s family service counselor. “It takes our staff four to six hours to dig out a grave site, compared to only about 30 minutes if we used gas-powered machinery.”

While Soudah is busy explaining the process, a hiker passes behind him on the adjacent cemetery road. Heading toward the trail on the ridge above, the elderly man stops for a moment and looks through his binoculars, then continues on his route. “Even though we’re located near some congested communities, bird-watchers seem to find a lot to look at here,” says Soudah. “We’re pleased that this is not only a peaceful sanctuary for people, but for wildlife as well.”

Editorial Director Mark Wexler visited Fernwood Cemetery last summer. To learn more about NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program, visit www.nwf.org/backyard.

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