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A Message from City Hall: Green Mount Cemetery Cares for the Earth and the Community

New mowing practices at Green Mount have brought back the historical look and feel of the cemetery, encouraged the growth of wildflowers, and provided a habitat for butterflies, beneficial insects, and birds. Courtesy photo.
By Therese Mageau, Cemetery Commissioner

Patrick Healy has seen and overseen many changes at Green Mount Cemetery since he became director in 1986, but none more so than in the past two years.

As is true for so many organizations, COVID-19 was a catalyst for change. For decades the cemetery has worked with crews from the Vermont Department of Corrections for grounds maintenance, but when COVID shut down the state in March 2020, the cemetery found itself without the necessary workforce to regularly mow the 35-acre area.

“All of a sudden we had two people versus a crew of eight to ten,” Patrick explains. “How were we going to do all we needed to do? It forced us to change.”

New Land Management Practices

That change — a new mowing policy — turns out to have been ecologically and aesthetically foresightful. In the past, crews mowed the entire cemetery twice a month. Now they cut only the older sections (designed in 1852) in late summer and mow the “new” sections (those opened in the 1940s) a minimum of three inches every two weeks. They will also mow all areas before winter sets in to ensure that rodents do not find hibernal burrowing spaces. 

Pathways and edges throughout the older sections will be mowed on a regular basis to permit walking through these historic areas. And anyone with a family lot in an older section can contact the cemetery for the gravesite to be cleared for visits. 

Less mowing encourages the growth of wildflowers and provides habitat for butterflies, beneficial insects, and birds. The cemetery is further promoting habitat preservation by using no pesticides, planting several pollinator gardens, and transitioning to non-fossil-fuel maintenance equipment.

While these new conservation practices reflect changing values in land management, Patrick sees them also as hearkening back to the past. 

“Keep in mind that for the first 100 years of Green Mount the grass was not cut,” he notes. “If you look at the faces of the older monuments, where the family names are displayed, you’ll see that they are above the grass level. Cows and sheep grazed in cemeteries. It wasn’t until the 1950s when society started using mechanical mowers and the 1980s when weed trimmers came into wider use.” 

With the new mowing practices in place, Patrick has seen the cemetery become a conservation idyll. “Besides seeing many more birds, butterflies, and bees, in early June we saw a doe leave her fawn in the tall grass for a few hours,” he says. “Turkeys are constantly perusing for seeds and bugs. Last summer, an eagle was a constant visitor.” He has also noticed that more people are walking throughout the three-plus miles of roads in the cemetery, and that visitors comment on how beautiful the cemetery is in its natural state.

“This is an experiment,” Patrick emphasizes. “We can go back to mowing if the public wishes. I just believe that these new policies enable us to efficiently use our financial resources for a more healthy and beautiful cemetery environment.”

A New Role for Work Crews

The return of the prison work crews — who participate as part of a voluntary sentence-reduction program — means that their attention can now be turned to the many tasks that arise in maintaining the vast and hilly arcadia of Green Mount, including the restoration and cleaning of 4,000-plus memorials, repairing sunken areas, and adding low-maintenance, pollinator-friendly plantings. 

Patrick emphasizes not only how important these work crews are to the cemetery, but also how important the cemetery is to the work crews. “There is a lot of talent in jails,” he notes. “These men need to get outside, they want to get out and work. They like to see their work. They like to see their work appreciated. They will drive by the cemetery the rest of their lives and see their work here.” 

Natural Burials

There is one new section of the cemetery that will only be mowed in the fall, “The Orchard,” an area recently designated as a natural burial ground. Essentially, a natural burial is a way of caring for the remains of the dead with minimal environmental impact. Natural burials can contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions, the protection of workers’ health, and the restoration and preservation of habitat

Yet Patrick wasn’t necessarily a fan of green burials when the issue first arose in the legislature about eight years ago. “No one could answer my questions about how to do one safely in Vermont,” he explains. 

It was the input of longtime cemetery commissioner Darragh Ellerson that helped move Green Mount into natural burials. When her husband, beloved Montpelier pediatrician David Ellerson, died in 2017, Darragh collaborated with Patrick to work through the questions involved with burying a body without embalming and with minimal shrouding or casketing. Dr. Ellerson was Green Mount’s first natural burial.

“Now I can confidently explain to people who want a natural burial what is involved,” says Patrick. For example, natural burials happen immediately after death. “You’re not going to be able to wait for Uncle Joe to come in from California.”

In addition, Patrick explains to families that there may be odors or body fluids present, that the family is responsible for getting the body to the gravesite (funeral homes, if involved, can facilitate the transport), and that all gravesites in The Orchard must have a flat granite marker. (Natural burials can also be in other parts of the cemetery, where raised monuments are allowed, with prior consultation with the cemetery director.)

Patrick reports that many people have shown an interest in natural burials and stresses that advance planning — talking to the cemetery director about your family’s desires — is essential. “We’re here for the families,” says Patrick. “That’s what we’re all about.”

Green Mount has prepared information sheets on new natural resources management practices and natural burials, which can be obtained by emailing cemetery@montpelier-vt.org.