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The Daily Tar Heel

Conservation cemetery aims to provide green burial options in Orange County

The location of a green burial site set to open this summer is pictured at 2002 Hurdle Mills Rd in Cedar Grove, NC.

Content warning: This article contains content related to death and funerals. 




According to the Green Burial Council, burials in the United States can have harmful environmental impacts. Bluestem Community N.C., a faith-based nonprofit, is working to address the issue.

It plans to open the Bluestem Conservation Cemetery — which will offer environmentally friendly burial options — this summer. 

The cemetery is located on 87 acres of former farmland in Cedar Grove, about half an hour from Chapel Hill. The property will feature a natural sanctuary, a nature preserve, a trail network and quiet areas for reflection in addition to the burial areas, according to the Bluestem website.

The site will be the 13th conservation cemetery in the United States, the second in North Carolina and the first in the Piedmont region, Heidi Hannapel, co-founder of the conservation cemetery, said. 

She and fellow co-founder Jeff Masten have been working on the project for about five years. 

“We wanted to create, essentially, a nature preserve where people could also choose to be buried,” Hannapel said at a virtual information session, hosted by the Orange County Department on Aging and the Project EngAGE End of Life Choices Senior Resource Team, regarding the project on April 12.

Traditional burials and cremations can be harmful to the environment. A traditional burial produces 250 pounds of carbon, which is the same amount an average American produces by driving over a three-month period, according to the Green Burial Council. 

The cremation process also releases mercury into air and water and emits carbon dioxide. The energy produced by cremations in 2010 could have fueled over 1,300 round trips to the moon, according to the council. 

Conservation cemeteries and green burials offer an alternative to the traditional burial method. 

Hannapel said green burial means only using biodegradable materials and simple, non-extravagant gravesites.  

There are no extravagant caskets or elaborate tombstones involved in green burials, she said. A green burial typically consists of wood and biodegradable cloth.

“Conservation cemeteries are a small way we can think global and act local,” Hannapel said at the virtual event. “A low impact form of burial can end up protecting and conserving this beautiful place for future generations.”

At Bluestem in particular, a natural stone grave marker takes the place of the standard gravestone. 

“The natural world is dying every day,” Hannapel said at the event. “We observe the beauty of the cycle of nature, and we want to embrace that as human beings who are also dying a little bit every day."

The cemetery proves a grassland or woodland burial option. Friends and families can memorialize loved ones with select plants native to the area. Graves can be marked with stone gravestones, or participants can choose to “leave no trace." 

Cremation is also an option at Bluestem. Cremations are neutralized with a soil-like material prior to scattering in order to minimize harmful effects on the environment, Masten said at the event.  

Ina Stern had the opportunity to tour the property. She described it as wonderful and beautiful. 

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“There was something, the whole aspect of the animals, plants, birds and everything out there that spoke to me in a way that most cemeteries that are just stone and little bits of grass do not,” Stern said at the event. 

Shenae McPherson, who also visited Bluestem, said she had a peaceful experience while visiting the property. 

She said it allows you to make a connection with nature and the environment, regardless of religious affiliation. 

“It’s probably one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had,” McPherson said at the event. 


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