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Cemetery/farm burial in Pennsylvania

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Question
I recently attended my brother's funeral and found many aspects of it rather barbaric and flashy.   I own a 71 acre farm in Pennsylvania.  I would much prefer that my family use my tractor to dig a grave in my wood lot and bury my body there in a simple shroud without a marker except perhaps to plant a distinctive tree.  The location is thousands of feet from the nearest well and no subdivisions are possible, so I need not worry about contaminating water supplies.  Is this legal in PA?  Is there a place that can tell me if you cannot? The metal casket in a sealed concrete vault seems like such a waste.  I don't want a funeral home involved at all.

Answer
Hi Chuck,

Your question is well framed, i.e.: "Is this legal in PA? Is there a place that can tell me if you cannot?"

If you're prepared to do a bit of research, think things through carefully, and consult a lawyer to check your assumptions once you've got your ducks in a row, with a little bit of luck you may be able to get what you want.

In general, States (not the Federal government) make the bulk of regulations concerning burial activities, where those actions affect the management of funds or rights of interment (contracts) or public - and increasingly, environmental - health. States provide for the regulation of businesses that provide the services, and those are usually overseen by a professional licensing board that makes administrative rules governing the operators.

Religious groups and private parties acting on their own behalf (i.e., families seeking burial on their own land) are often exempt from many, if not all, of those rules. Counties and cities are permitted to have more stringent requirements but generally can't be more permissive than the State bottom line. If they go into it at all, counties and cities may differ in their land-use specs - requirements of minimum-acreage, water offsets, definition of family member, maximum number of burials, etc. - so learning the requirements of all three levels of government is mandatory.

That said, you're not looking for permission; you're looking for a prohibition against what you want to do. In general, if something's not prohibited, it's permitted. Whenever exploring something less-than-common, I recommend working from that assumption first, and whenever you hear the word "no", I recommend getting a copy of the title/code/regulation/rule that prohibits it, and parsing it carefully.

To start, here's a link to PA's regulations and rules that will give you an idea about the sorts of things your fellow citizens consider important with respect to burials:
http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/pennsylvania_laws_regar

Here's an article about a group that had some trouble:
http://triblive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/regional/fayette/s_654832.html#axzz2rK


Now, the caveat:

Personally, I don't recommend burial on personal private land anymore if there are other options available. Just because you find the current funeral modality flashy and consumptive (my presuming here) doesn't mean you can't find what you want on a piece of ground dedicated for the purpose of 1) interring you naturally and returning you to soil and 2) allowing a place for friends and family to connect with their thoughts of you while you're turning back in to Nature.

***Burials on private land have ways of encumbering future owners. Today, if a farmer uncovers a private burial site in a formerly unused area of the farm, it becomes a hassle. It doesn't really protect habitat because the fragment is too small. It has to be registered and managed around; if bones are discovered they have to be reported to the sheriff's and then there's a forensic investigation to identify the occupant. (Our program at Oregon State University is actually working right now on ways to mitigate the issues farm-burials create for farmers)

***Even if it's a known burial, its presence on the land may cloud the title when it comes time to sale. Also, it's unclear whether or not descendants have rights of visitation even if the seller and the buyer have both waived them. A Midwest court ruled some years ago that grandchildren (who'd sued for regular visitation rights to their grandparents' graves over the objections of the landowner) and had waived all future access rights when the property was sold - still had the rights of access; the court ruled those rights couldn't be dispensed with by a third party and were the grandchildren's rights inherently. While the ruling was likely in error, and probably not Constitutionally defensible if challenged, the landowner was forced to grant rights and open the gates to them...

***A woman called me some years ago after burying her husband on their property. She had to sell the property because of financial hard times; the bank insisted that she move her husband's body out of the garden and into a cemetery (they paid) because she did not own the property any longer. It was very traumatic for her and made me re-think my advocacy of burial on private land, shifting me to support formal cemeteries instead.

A cemetery is dedicated to the purpose of permanent remembrance and is legally protected land. You're in a state that has a number of cemeteries now either considering or implementing natural burial options. Any cemetery operating before 1940 likely has natural burials - i.e., burial in a biodegradable container, without a vault. Within 10-20 years, most cemeteries will probably have found a way to add some version of this option. Depending upon the cemetery, a funeral director may not have to be involved.

In your shoes, I might take my energy and go canvas the nearest historic/local cemeteries still operating within a given radius that you might like to be at, and talk to them about what you want. See what they say. Try to talk them into adding natural burial. If you do, send them to the Natural End Map (http://www.naturalendmap.com) and have them register themselves. You'll get an education, if nothing else, and you really will connect with lots of your local history - you might even develop an appreciation for headstones and monument sculpture. I know I did.

While I don't want to discourage you from burying yourself in your own soil, do take the time to consider the ramifications for property and cultural management issues you'll be creating for others down the road. In 100 years, you'll be a 'historic artifact' according to PA law, and folks WILL have to cut/trim/garden around you! If you truly want to lighten your impact, you might not want to stay that much 'in the way' after you've turned back to microbes!!

As you think around the corners you'll round as you do your research, you may find a way to manage them well that works for you and your community, and all the folks that come after you down the road. If you do decide to turn yourself back into your own dirt, keep me posted - I'm interested in hearing what you decide to do (this forum provides for follow-up so feel free to keep the link active.)

Hope this helps. It was fun to write!

Cynthia  

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Cynthia Beal

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Typical questions include 1) Where can I go for a natural burial? 2) What types of coffins, urns and other "packaging" are best for natural decomposition? 3)How do I plan for a natural funeral? 4) Do I have to be embalmed? and other questions in this vein. I'm available to answer general consumer questions about natural burial, home and natural funerals, and sustainable cemetery management. I answer questions about general cemetery matters, and offer suggestions about how to deal with remains, cremated or buried, interment rights, rules for cemeteries and plot owners, covering conventional as well as alternative options. I also answer questions from professionals, home funeral guides, and family members about how to manage a natural funeral either in the mortuary or at the home, how to best use natural coffins and urns, and how to convert cemeteries to natural, sustainable practices. I will answer questions from volunteer cemetery managers about how to offer natural burial in their rural, Pioneer, or non-profit cemeteries. If I don't know an answer I'll refer the questioner to someone who does. DISCLAIMER -- I am a certified pre-need sales person in the State of Oregon. I am not a licensed attorney, tax adviser, estate planner, funeral director, embalmer, accountant, public official, or any other professional that may be associated with issues the question brings up and any answers I provide should not be relied upon if such expertise is required by the asker (as per the All Expert suggestion). I provide my own personal opinions, based on my experience in business, Nature and its systems, and with human beings after 55 years of life on the planet.

Experience

Natural burial and sustainable cemetery management experience: I'm the founder of the Natural Burial Company and a member of the Sustainable Cemetery Management Group. Over 25 years in the natural products industry, and 9 years running the Natural Burial Company. I've done some consulting for existing and start-up natural cemetery operations. I'm currently an instructor at Oregon State University, facilitating the creation of a program in sustainable cemetery management and stimulating research in cemetery-oriented processes and functions.

Organizations
ICCFA - International Cemetery, Crematory and Funeral Association Green Business Network Funeral Consumers Alliance

Publications
American Cemetery Magazine; Funeral Business Advisor; Real Goods Source Book; American Funeral Director Magazine, etc.

Education/Credentials
There is no degree in natural burials or funerals, and no accredited education provided for sustainable cemetery management. We're developing a program at Oregon State University but it hasn't fully launched yet.

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