West Tisbury goes green on death

West Tisbury's cemetery where green burials were recently authorized by the board of selectmen. —Rich Saltzberg

On the recommendation of the board of health, West Tisbury selectmen voted unanimously to amend town cemetery regulations to allow for green burials. Green burials do not involve embalming fluids, and may not even involve a coffin. 

Marie-Louise Rouff, an advocate for green burials who has come before the board previously on the issue, pressed the selectmen to ensure green burials do not require concrete burial vaults.

Town administrator Jennifer Rand said the new regulations clearly state a vault isn’t required for a green burial. 

Chapman, Cole and Gleason funeral director Lenny Verville later told The Times the utility of a concrete burial vault, essentially a cement box the casket is placed inside, is to prevent cave-ins. Verville said as the casket breaks down, it can suffer an implosion, and endanger people or cemetery vehicles passing by. 

Rouff said she thought it was important for green burials that a “collapsible coffin” was employed.

“A casket is not required,” Rand said, reading from the regulations. “However, it must be of biodegradable material such as pine or cardboard.”

As Rouff pointed out to the board, green burials are only four feet deep (as opposed to the traditional six feet), to sustain decomposition. 

Green burial markers for West Tisbury will be modest: “A stone marker not larger than 9 inches by 12, engraved with the deceased’s name, and the years of birth and death, may be placed flat to the ground at the foot of the grave.”

Verville said more and more people are asking about green burials, but actually doing it isn’t becoming much of a trend yet, in his experience. Verville, a licensed mortician, said embalming involves preservative chemicals like paraformaldehyde and phenol formaldehyde. The chemicals blunt decomposition, and make certain funeral arrangements possible, like open-casket viewing, he said. A body without embalming fluids will naturally decompose, he said, and smell like, not surprisingly, a dead body. Green burials are done 24 hours after a death, he said, and this creates quite a paper chase. Among other things, proper signatures must be rapidly secured on the death certificate. 

Green burials will not only be permitted in the town cemetery but on private property, with 90 days’ notice and board of health approval, the new regulations state.


  1. Lets hope the board of health keeps very detailed notes of the location of private property burials, and requires the same setbacks from neighbors property lines and wells as a septic system. I wouldn’t want my neighbor’s decomposing corpse polluting my well, and I’d wouldn’t find it humorous if I was the subsequent owner of private property and dug up grampa while putting in fence posts. It should also be recorded on a deed for subsequent owners to avoid this… As of now , when i call ‘Dig safe’ they know how to located buried utilities… but not the ‘dear-departed’.

  2. I don’t see the problem here. If I have a large breed dog , like a great Dane — 120 – 200 pounds
    An English Mastiff — 150 —240 pounds , St Bernard, 140- 260 pounds — or any other large or medium sized dog for that matter, and I bury it in my back yard, no one would blink an eye. No one is concerned about well water contamination or who may dig it up in 100 years. May I remind people that while we revere the lives of humans more than animals, we all decomposes in the same way. If I get buried in my back yard, and someone digs me up in 100 years, I really won’t care, and neither will anyone I know . Some people do care, and I respect that. They can put their loved one in a $ 5000 wooden box , and a $ 1000 cement box along with embalming the body so it will never decompose for an extra $500 to a thousand dollars and I am fine with that. But please give me and my daughter the same respect and allow her to dig a hole in my back yard (or hers if she chooses) ,wrap me in a blanket and put me in it. Perhaps plant a tree on top as a marker.
    She has better things to spend that kind of money on, like an education for my grandchildren.

  3. Am I really reading this correctly ? A “green” burial has to happen within 24 hours of death, but needs “90 days’ notice and board of health approval ”
    I don’t know— something sounds wrong here, but I really can’t fathom what it is. Could someone help me out here ?

  4. Congratulations to all the residents of West Tisbury. Green burial is now an option for you. As someone who advocates for green burial across Massachusetts and the North American continent with both Green Burial Massachusetts and the Green Burial Council, I applaud your efforts and successes. I would like to point out that indeed sometimes a concrete grave liner could collapse when a backhoe puts the outriggers out while it is bracing to dig a neighboring grave, but that isn’t really a common problem. I’ve never heard the word ‘implosion’ be used to describe the event. Decomposition happens. Over the first year and a half or so, a simple pine casket or cardboard box will decompose as will we – human beings. Our bodies decompose and go back into the earth so new life can flourish. Green graves will subside over time.
    As for the timing of burial, even embalming with toxic chemicals – paraformaldehyde and phenol formaldehyde – that Mr. Verville notes, only preserves the body long enough to hold a wake and/or a funeral. Without embalming fluids, a burial of a body can be delayed for a few days, not the 24 hours that Mr. Verville suggests. Keeping the body cool either by turning on an air conditioner or using some form of ice (dry-ice or techni-ice) can provide enough time for family and friends to visit/view a loved one. There’s no need to be frightened by this natural process. There are funeral directors across the nation who are ready and able to support families with the preparation and viewing of a body for green burial. Mr. Verville could learn from them and begin offering a new service. Also there are people trained as home funeral guides who can educate and guide a family through the process of bathing, clothing and shrouding or casketing a love one. This process is particularly important if you’ve been taking care of someone who died at home, perhaps while under hospice care. If you took care of them in life, you can take care of them in death.
    As for home burials, work with your local board of health. If your regulations say 90 days, then one needs to plan ahead. You don’t have to be actively dying to plan ahead. There are several steps you must take including: ensure the soil is suitable (isn’t too wet), abide by setbacks for water bodies, septic systems and wells, and locate exactly on your property where your private burial ground is, and then document it on your deed so when it is time to sell the property in the future, the new owners know where your private burial ground is located.
    Green burial brings back the simplicity of life and death. Embrace it.

Comments are closed.