The world’s first SITES-certified cemetery is designed as a successional forest.
By Lydia Lee
In the summer, the 400 grave sites in a section of West Laurel Hill Cemetery outside Philadelphia that is known as Nature’s Sanctuary are marked only by a meadow blazing with native scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma). Memorial stones are set into a nearby wall. The area, which is designated for green burials, is the first cemetery to earn certification under the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES). As such, the cemetery was the subject of an ASLA webinar earlier this year, available for purchase (1.0 PDH (LA CES/HSW)/1.0 GBCI SITES-Specific CE).
To date, approximately 50 landscapes have been certified through the SITES program, which was developed jointly by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden. But Nature’s Sanctuary is the first burial ground. “The model here is assisted ecological succession, where the maintenance for the site will be carried out by nature,” says Adam Supplee, ASLA, until recently a principal at Alta Planning + Design who worked on the design. “It’s more sustainable than running a lawn mower over a grave for eternity.”
Completed in 2016, the sanctuary is part of a growing interest in green burials, an approach that typically forgoes embalming chemicals and uses biodegradable caskets. According to a 2018 report from the National Funeral Directors Association, 48 percent of consumers are interested in the green burials. In May, Washington State became the first U.S. state to make human composting legal, allowing the Seattle-based company Recompose to offer a service that turns bodies into soil in about a month.
At the historic West Laurel Hill Cemetery, green burials were first launched in 2008. They were in an area that had been previously used as a dump site for excavated dirt and cemetery debris. However, the grave sites were difficult to locate and the area was overrun by invasive species. So the organization turned to Alta to come up with a formal plan. Alta designed it as a nature preserve, with a trail network and rain garden for stormwater drainage. In the process, Alta, which had used the SITES rating system as an informal guide on other projects, realized that certification was well within grasp (this project is certified SITES Gold). To rehabilitate the site, the Alta team brought in a herd of goats to remove invasives, screened out debris from the first four feet of topsoil and amended it with compost, then planted it with about two dozen native grasses and shrubs.
The sanctuary is roughly two-thirds of an acre, of the cemetery’s 187 acres, and has a built-in maintenance contract, Supplee says. “The cemetery has an endowment to provide for perpetual care, so those funds can go into nurturing the trees and keeping invasive species at bay,” he says. West Laurel Hill’s president and CEO, Nancy Goldenberg, says demand has exceeded projections, and the organization is thinking about extending the approach to other areas of the cemetery. “We’re in the business of beauty,” she says, “and having this natural area just adds interest and beauty to the cemetery.”