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'Green burial': How farm land in Baltimore County became an environmentally-friendly burial site

What's a green burial? Denise Koch takes us to the only exclusive site in Maryland
What's a green burial? Denise Koch takes us to the only exclusive site in Maryland 04:58

BALTIMORE - The question no one wants to consider, yet, someday, we will all have to answer: What should be done with your body, or your ashes, once you have died?

A burial trend is natural or 'green' burial.

Denise Koch visited the Baltimore County cemetery called, appropriately, "Serenity Ridge," a non-denominational, only exclusively natural burial cemetery in Maryland.

You can take a tour of the more than 175 rolling acres in Windsor Mill. It's open to the public.

The land, in the 1960s, was the site of the Berg Family Farm when it was passed down to retired rectal surgeon Howard Berg, who made an unusual choice for the land.

 "When I read about the green burial, it really resonated with who I am and how I've been living my life," Berg said.

Berg is an outdoorsman, so he wants Serenity Ridge to become a nature preserve, as well an environmentally-friendly burial site.

Ruth Fahrmeier lost her husband Ed to leukemia in February of 2023.

"He said he wanted a green burial," Fahrmeier said. "My daughter was there and we hadn't heard of a green burial before."

Fahrmeier's son-in-law Mike did some research and found Serenity Ridge and told Ed in his final moments.

"Mike said to Ed, you might not care about this right now, but I want you to know we've arranged for a green burial," Fahrmeier said.  "And, Ed said, in the loudest clearest voice he'd had for days, 'I do care.' That's the last thing he said and his breathing got slower and slower and he died."

Ed's grave was one of the first at Serenity Ridge.

The concept is simple: no embalming, no chemicals of any kind, bodies dressed or wrapped in natural fabric shrouds or placed in wicker baskets or bio-degradable wood boxes.

For a natural burial, you go about 3 ½ to 4 feet deep, you want to stay in the oxygenated portion of the soil as that helps with more natural decomposition of the body.

 A headstone is provided using stone from a nearby quarry and you can mark the grave as you wish.

 "A lot of families bring organic things to put at the gravesite whether that be flowers or pine cones or feathers that are meaningful to them," said Steve Kuehne, who has been in the profession for a decade and has worked in more traditional cemeteries.

Fahrmeier honors her husband by bringing stones from her garden

"The way a person is laid to rest can be a representation of maybe the way they tried to live their life," Kuehne said. "It's so different. It's so peaceful, and if you think about it, we're not doing anything new. This is the way burial was done 200 years ago."

It was only during the Civil War that bodies began to be embalmed to preserve them for rail transport so they could be buried at home.

The numbers for traditional burials are staggering. according to the Green Burial Council.

Each year, Americans consume 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 20 million feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze and 65,500 tons of steel.

At Serenity Ridge, costs for the gravesite and the opening and closing of the ground total around $3,800. The cost is less for cremated remains, which are allowed as long as they're in a biodegradable urn.

Everything is done to preserve the natural beauty of the land.

Bird-watcher Frank Marenghi has seen 130 species walking these grounds since last June.

So, does it give home pause that he's birding in an area that is also a sanctuary for bodies?

"Not really," Marenghi said. "They're pretty inconspicuous and it is a natural area and it's a natural process."

Throughout all the advancements in modern medicine, the death rate has remained unchanged -- one per person, and it will stay that way.

Berg has already picked out his spot on the top of a hill under a tree. 

He says he isn't trying to change the industry or anyone's mind. He simply respects the natural world and offers Serenity Ridge to others who feel the same.

"This is much more meaningful to me and I was hoping it would be more meaningful to other people, and it turns out that is, in fact, the case," Berg said.

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