Back to Nature: Heritage Acres Memorial brings green burial to Cincinnati

About ten years ago, Bill Gupton took a trip to New England and visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. He sat at the grave of Henry David Thoreau and had what he calls a “light bulb moment.”

“Like most people, I had been to some less than satisfying — emotionally or spiritually — funerals, and had had some awareness that the way we handle our deceased loved ones is very separated from the natural cycle, and pretty detached,” says Gupton. “I realized this guy who is an inspiration to a lot of environmental work — he wasn’t buried like that.”

Gupton says it occurred to him that Thoreau’s body, buried in a simple pine box, had been recycled, reclaimed by the earth, and was now a part of the soil where he sat and of the pine tree that stood before him.

“This is how I want to be buried,” he thought to himself.

Around the same time, the first green burial cemetery in Ohio was established. Gupton went to see it for himself. The Tennessee native was impressed, and wanted to bring something similar to his current home of Cincinnati. He formed Heritage Acres, LLC in 2016 in the hopes of establishing a place for green burial in the tri-state area.

Green burial (also termed natural burial) refers to the practice of laying the dead to rest without any of the toxic, preservative chemicals or burning used in the typical funerals of today. There are no elaborate caskets or concrete vaults involved — the manufacture of which is another environmental hazard. Instead, green burial involves a simple, old-fashioned method of wrapping a body in a shroud or placing it within a pine box and burying it in the ground, allowing nature to process it.

“People wonder if it’s legal, and of course it’s legal. Your grandmother did it,” informs Gupton. “You look at all the statistics about what we put into the ground when we bury people and it’s horrific. It’s not for health reasons. It’s for viewing and display,” he says of modern embalming and preservation methods.

“Over the past few generations, we have outsourced taking care of our loved ones when they die,” continues Gupton. He adds that the expense of green burial is miniscule compared to current funeral and burial costs. Gupton explains that green burial removes the “middleman” from the process of laying one’s family members to rest, greatly reducing the cost.

Since 2016, Heritage Acres has grown its board and membership easily and organically through word-of-mouth referrals and networking. Gupton’s organization now has wide representation across social media, and a mailing list of nearly 500 locals.

“People are very curious about it and interested in it. It’s a growing thing,” says Gupton.

“In 1998, when Ramsey Creek opened, they were the first such place in America. Now there are over a hundred,” reports Gupton, referring to a well-established green burial cemetery in South Carolina. “People who live their lives in harmony with the environment and the earth are finding that they want their deaths also to be in harmony with their beliefs and values.”

A 40-acre parcel in Pierce Township has recently been chosen by the nonprofit for the location of Cincinnati’s first green burial cemetery. While other area cemeteries offer options for green burial within their traditional memorial parks, Heritage Acres Memorial will be solely for natural types of burials. It will also be a nature preserve.

The land, a family farm for generations, is scheduled to be rid of invasive botanicals and planted with native forestry. A “Grief Garden,” hosting many plants traditionally used by different cultures in the grieving process, is planned for one area of the site. Graves at Heritage Acres will be unmarked, or feature a simple, flat marker of natural stone. Cremated ashes will be welcomed for burial, or to be spread upon the property.

Gupton and his fellow board members have a tri-fold mission with Heritage Acres: they seek to protect pristine land from development, keep toxic chemicals produced by modern-day funerals out of the earth, and provide a comforting, natural space for grieving and memorializing loved ones.

In order to finalize purchase of the property, Heritage Acres is currently fundraising. Gupton says donations in any amount are welcomed and appreciated.

“We have received donations as large as $25,000 and as small as $10. All donations are tax deductible as we are a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization,” he says.

“This is an opportunity to preserve some land in a rapidly developing part of town that can be a legacy, whether you intend to personally be buried there or not. It’s also a way to reclaim traditions that have gone by the wayside,” continues Gupton. “We’re happy to talk to anybody about their personal — or their family member’s — burial plan. If nature speaks to you, and you believe that the natural cycle is something sacred and should be protected, this is a great way to be part of that.”

Gupton anticipates finalization of the land purchase by October. He plans to open Heritage Acres by the end of this year.

To stay informed about Heritage Acres Memorial, follow greenburialcincy on Instagram, or connect through Facebook. To donate, or receive a monthly newsletter about the organization’s progress, visit their donation page.

Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.

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