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New 'Green Burial' Cemetery Operating In San Mateo County

SAN MATEO COUNTY (CBS SF) -- The Bay Area's newest cemetery is part of a growing movement to find a final resting place that's friendlier to the environment.

The Purissma Cemetery overlooks the Pacific Ocean, presenting a tranquil blue landscape just south of Half Moon Bay.

But it's not the serene setting nor the beautiful old tombstones that make this cemetery unique. It's what will now lay beneath its vine-covered grounds. Purissima Cemetery will be the Peninsula's first natural burial cemetery and one of only about 20 in the nation.

It is also only the second natural burial ground in the greater Bay Area.

Individuals will soon be able to plan to be buried along the older graves. Jane Hillhouse owns Final Footprints, a supplier of biodegradable caskets.

Hillhouse says natural burial, without embalming fluid or a burial vault, allows the body to decompose naturally.

Natural burial caskets are made from wicker, and other biodegradable materials. The caskets are light, and can be transported without the need for a special vehicle. Gravesites for the deceased are dug by hand, often by friends and family.

For Hillhouse, this type of burial site is the logical choice for folks who have lived a 'green' lifestyle.

"People who've lived a green life would be interested in a green burial," explained Hillhouse. "You don't have large monuments. Just markers in the stone, just indigenous stone, maybe dates on it. There's nothing unnatural in it."

As local historian Dave Cresson strolls the cemetery grounds, its past and present both emerge in Cresson's deep, storytelling voice. The President of the Half Moon Bay Historical Association sees the space as not just the last remaining vestige of the Gold Rush-era ghost town of Purissima, but also a potential place of peace for current coastside residents and beyond.

"Not only are they resurrecting an old cemetery to serve its originally intended purpose, but they're doing it in a way that's natural," said Cresson.

Hillhouse and others are working to clean up the site, taking care not to disturb the several dozen graves of old town Purissima residents, some with markers going back to the early 1800's. The five-acre cemetery is also flush with poison oak.

The troublesome plant, along with other foliage is being cleared to make way for several hundred more graves. East Coast-based owner Ed Bixby told KPIX 5 he paid $500 in back taxes to take possession of the 150-year-old grounds.

But he has experience with natural burial sites. He also runs one in his home state of New Jersey.

Hillhouse says the plan for Purissima is similar, including the creation of a natural burial preserve that also offers open space for the living. A place to sit and contemplate life, complete with walking trails, benches and beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.

The site could be open as early as next year.  The Bay Area's other natural burial site is Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley.

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