Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Green means go -- and green should mean cemeteries

By Deborah Woodell
Whistling Past the Graveyard

THE WORLD is turning many shades of green as society struggles with a collapsing economy and strives to build a new, sustainable, 21st-century economy.

President Barack Obama is leading the charge for green jobs and a new green economy. No longer is green solely the purview of leftist, tree-hugging types. Now, green is being embraced by all walks of life as we strive for a new way of living.

Within this conversation is an element that still takes green in the most literal sense. All over the country, communities are recognizing the value of green space and taking steps to create new green spaces and/or preserve what's there. And very often, what's there is a cemetery.

Cemeteries were at the heart of the earliest communities in America; in Philadelphia, where I work, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin's grave is in a cemetery in the heart of Old City, offering passers-by the opportunity to enter this small sanctuary of solace. The rural cemetery movement of the 19th century sent many graveyards out into the countryside, where visitors communed with nature while mourning the dead. Now, many of those same places -- which once were in the middle of nowhere -- are in the middle of sprawl.

Now, as communities strive to make "green connections" within their "gray communities, cemeteries should be integral parts of the process.

In some places, they are. Philadelphia includes cemeteries in its GreenPlan Philadelphia project. Lowell, Massachusetts, includes cemeteries in its plan for the Concord River Greenway. Salisbury, North Carolina, includes the Memorial Park Cemetery in its Greenway project; this portion of the Greenway is sponsored by a funeral home and "includes a bridge and encircles a scenic lake with visible wildlife." Indeed, a Google search of cemetery and greenway produces more than 43,000 hits. But unfortunately, the results seem mostly anecdotal; a town here, a neighborhood there.

It's time to make cemeteries a key component of all greenways projects. Studies indicate that property values remain higher for homes near all kinds of open space, including cemeteries. In addition to the open-space value, cemeteries also provide cultural, historic and community links, become havens for wildlife, and, in some places, offer the only green space in the neighborhood.

Some criticism and fears of cemeteries are legitimate. Left unattended, cemeteries become sites of neglect and disrepair, or even vandalism and criminal activities. But fully incorporating cemeteries into greenways projects brings them into the mind-set, keeps them from becoming unattended, abandoned sites. Cemeteries become abandoned when no one cares; make them integral to your community's plans, and they won't become abandoned.

Less than two weeks from now, cemeteries will be front and center in our nation's consciousness, as we celebrate Memorial Day. Even the shabbiest ones get spruced up for this annual ritual. Yes, cemeteries are there for us to honor the dead. But cemeteries are for the living, too, and should be part of all plans to make our communities more livable.

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