Ever Green

A new section of Swan Point Cemetery helps residents stay eco-friendly, even after they’re gone

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In Ecclesiastes, there’s a poetic little verse about death: “All go to the same place. We are made from earth, and to earth we shall return.”

The Ellipse” takes this notion literally. This repurposed section of Swan Point Cemetery is dedicated exclusively to “green burials,” where those who have passed can naturally decompose into the soil. Caskets are plain wicker or bamboo, untouched by toxic paints. There’s no concrete vault, a standard underground container since the 1930s. Markers are tiny square stones, which are quickly grown over with grass. To avoid chemical exposure, deceased persons aren’t even embalmed.

“There’s this upward trend to care about the environment,” says Anthony Hollingshead, president of Swan Point Cemetery. Visitors have asked him about low-impact interment for the past decade or so, but interest has recently spiked. “It seemed surprising that so many people were asking about green burial.”

“Families are beginning to take back the burial process,” says Candace Currie, who served as director of development of Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also board secretary for The Green Burial Council and an outspoken advocate. In the traditional funeral home, the embalming process can sometimes be clinical and alienating for grieving loved ones. Candace describes “death midwives,” who help interested family members participate in funeral preparations. Attendants can request to fill the grave themselves, using shovel and soil, to provide closure. “The physical activity can make a difference,” says Candace.

“Green burial isn’t for everyone,” notes Anthony. Cremation, for example, isn’t considered “green” because of crematorium fuel. Green burials don’t provide the “lifelike” display of an open casket. To date, only one person has been buried in The Ellipse, yet future names will be inscribed on an enormous stone tablet.

Still, many clients may be comforted by this gradual return to the earth, and green burials have exploded in popularity: Candace says that, five years ago, only two “natural burial grounds” existed in Massachusetts; today, there are more than twenty. Swan Point provides the only green burials in Providence, and The Ellipse has its share of celebrity neighbors – H.P. Lovecraft and General Ambrose Burnside, among others.

“It adds historic flavor,” adds Candace. “I think they’ve done a nice job of integrating the old with the new.”