Think about this challenge: As a grounds maintenance staff, you’re charged with caring for a 3.5-acre section of turf, but as part of a required natural approach, you can’t spray chemicals, especially broadleaf weed killer. Plus, absolutely no lawn mowing equipment is permitted, as well as no power equipment, no trimmers or machinery of any kind. Typically in the summer, the growth of the grass gets so high that it topples over to its side.

Stephen Pastore, operations manager at West Laurel Hill Cemetery and the Bringhurst & Turner Funeral Homes in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., suggests that an “old-time sickle” may be the way to go. Oh, it is a cemetery, so even when your crew must dig and fill a grave, it must be done by hand — no backhoes. The bodies are lowered on a board, and fastened with old-fashioned straps, and the body itself is interred in a plain pine box or wicker casket, or just a shroud. No metal allowed. No concrete vault. West Laurel Hill has introduced what is a Green Burial Council-certified whole-body burial section — certainly unique nationwide, and particularly rare in the more traditional Northeast corridor. It’s simply a choice to be buried straight into the earth. Since it opened in 2008, the burial section has offered unique challenges within the grounds maintenance crew’s regular duties in the 187-acre historic Philadelphia cemetery and arboretum overlooking the Schuylkill River and abutting and above a brand-new Lower Merion Township Cynwyd Heritage Trail.

A garden view of the autumn foliage at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery, a 187-acre historic Philadelphia cemetery and arboretum overlooking the Schuylkill River. In an effort to offer every possible variety of burial and funeral, there is a 3.5-acre “Nature’s Sanctuary,” which is maintained with a required natural approach.

“We want to offer every possible variety of funeral and burial. We don’t want to turn anyone away,” says Deborah Cassidy, West Laurel Hill and Bringhurst’s director of sales, marketing and family services of a burgeoning “green,” or natural, burial movement that’s more akin to European traditions. On the northeast fringe of the cemetery, there’s room for 2,000 burials. Thus far, there’s been a total of 21 interments, including four this past year. The reserved acreage includes a spot for up to 100 cremations, whether in urns or not. There are also 23 clients with preexisting arrangements, so those would double the existing number of burials.

Dubbed Nature’s Sanctuary, it’s considered a hybrid cemetery since its access road is across from traditional graves, some 132,000 of them. Nature’s Sanctuary began as a more manicured site. Today, it’s covered with wildflowers, native plantings and meadow grass. “We want people to know this is natural, green burial,” Cassidy says. “That’s why we’ve stopped mowing.”

A specialty section

“Nowhere else is there anything like it,” says Brian Terraciano, the cemetery’s landscape foreman and soon-to-be-certified arborist. “It’s definitely a challenge and definitely different from the norm.” And, in some ways, it’s still a work in progress. “We’re still trying to figure out what are the best things to do,” he says. “When you let it go, the weeds take over.”

And so it’s become labor-intensive in the meantime, and also presents time management issues for Pastore’s crew, which includes another foreman, five grounds crew and one part-time employee. Pastore was promoted to operations manager in January after the retirement of longtime employee, Joe Direso. His crew has outsourced mowing of the rest of the cemetery to Merendino Cemetery Care in Linden, N.J., which brings a crew of five to seven guys, generally four cutting the lawns and two trimming.

The natural sanctuary, which Pastore says has taken on a life of its own, is still in its “infancy stage,” but part of his newly-established leadership, and the arrival of Terraciano in February 2011, has rededicated a focus on the specialty plot. The backdrop itself helps promote the natural setting, and also shields visitors from a 100-foot or more drop down to the trail. But, until recently, it, too, was out of control. Slowly, it’s been hand-weeded, and wood chips ground up elsewhere on the cemetery grounds have been laid down to prevent further weed growth.

Graves are dug by shovel at West Laurel Hill’s Green Burial Council-certified whole-body burial section. The historic cemetery is located in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Terraciano, who was hired out of a tree service company in the Poconos near his native Stroudsburg, Pa., also added landscape stone, and the crew is always bringing over sample river rock round stones found on the property. Those are selected for engraving in place of a headstone as a grave marker. In fact, the engraver stopped by on this visit to pick up a stone for a recent burial. Plantings in the backdrop to Nature’s Sanctuary include Virginia Sweetspire and Elderberries, an edible berry similar to a blueberry. Also, a wild raspberry has crept upon the scene, and with it, the decision to leave its vines trail through a newly-designed garden. “It’s kind of messy, but it’s a natural section,” Terraciano says.

Dave Downing prepares for a natural burial in Nature’s Sanctuary. As a Green Burial Council-certified whole-body burial section, no equipment is allowed, meaning that graves must be dug by hand.

“We get to decide what we let go and run wild,” Pastore adds. “We see the benefits with this section, but we also see the hard work.” The entire back border is anchored in by a series of deodar cedar trees, and behind them split rail fencing of cedar. But, until the recent summertime weeding, you couldn’t even see a split oak log bench in the backdrop.

With the ban on chemicals in the natural area, finding organic blends, like Kick, a soil conditioner, has been important. A center hardscape pathway takes visitors to the center of the sanctuary where a second of two split oak log benches provides a respite for visitors, and groundscrew alike. The hardscaping ends in a circle, and it’s often here that a mourning family will gather for an interment service. One family of musicians sang songs here first. It’s a meeting place before the journey through the high meadow grass (and weeds). The front edge of the sanctuary is lined again with wood chips as a weed suppressant, stones and native plantings purchased from the nearby Schuylkill Valley Nature Center.

Meadow grass zones

Graves in Nature’s Sanctuary are 3 feet wide by 8 feet long. They are all hand dug 4 feet down by the ground maintenance crew. Often, remounding is necessary later on, building up the soil by as much as a foot after it has slowly sunk. Since there are no concrete liners beneath these plots, which saves maintenance costs in regular cemetery grounds since the burial site won’t sink in, the natural burial plots will continue to sink over time. Families are invited — even encouraged — to help hand-dig the first foot of the burial plot. Pastore’s team painstakingly finishes the other 3 feet. “It’s no joke digging a 4-foot grave by hand,” Terraciano says. Generally, it will take two guys a full day.

“Most (of the families) have no idea about digging a grave by hand,” Pastore says. “One family had two brothers. One was a DEA agent and the other a chemical engineer, and they didn’t know what they were getting into. In a way, it helps some get their anger or frustration out. Some families also help with backfill, but some choose to be more traditional and let us do that after they’ve left.”

One of West Laurel Hill’s striking sculptures on a carpet of fall color.

There’s no intervention by his crew at a particular site until an interment, then based on client preference, and one of five preselected species of meadow grass for a given zone, a plan goes into action to purchase and plant a particular grass atop the freshly dug and recovered burial mound.

The Percival E. Foerderer mausoleum in the cemetery honors Foerderer, who was a Philadelphia businessman, civic leader and philanthropist.

The five different grave grasses have already changed a bit. All the grasses, all the plantings for the entire site, must be native to this section of Pennsylvania. Terraciano has kept three of the five originally zoned grasses. He’s retained ergarostis, or purple love grass (“from the 1960s,” Pastore jests), calamintha (calamint) and gaillardia (blanket flower; these bloom orange and red). But he’s added a prairie drop seed and a pink muhly zone. Prairie drop seed by the fall turns a bronze-gold, and might grow to 3 or 4 feet tall. The pink muhly grass gets a feather pine top. The meadow grasses, which can be difficult to locate, are purchased at Shemin Nurseries, a national operation, but West Laurel Hill has also tried local suppliers, Orner’s in Havertown and West Chester and Taddio’s in Havertown.

There’s also some family preference that’s permitted. On one grave, a Jewish burial, the family was allowed to plant two red twig dogwoods on the mound. A couple other sites are shade tree lots. Another grave has a white-flowering dogwood planted on it. Natural trees already there include a green ash, a Canadian hemlock, a white oak (in decline), a red oak, spruce and a hankow willow. West Laurel Hill is also a certified arboretum, and just recently had its 2,800 species of trees assessed and cataloged by local arborist extraordinaire John B. Ward.

Not that it’s part of what the families pay for, or are expected to do, but if they wanted to come back a couple times of year to visit a deceased loved one – and help weed, or maintain the sanctuary — Pastore says he wouldn’t mind. “We would never discourage them,” he says.

No surprise, Pastore says there have been some amazing natural visitations during ceremonies in the natural sanctuary. He’s seen hawks fly overhead, and deer curiously watch without getting spooked. Some families return to celebrate the anniversaries of a death. One family usually has a picnic.

“This is a historic cemetery to begin with, and this is an important (new) section,” Pastore says. “We’re making every effort to make it better one section at a time. We’re doing what we can do.”