GREEN CEMETERY The Diocese announced plans for an environmentally friendly cemetery, Guardian Angels Catholic Cemetery, which would be the second piece of consecrated land for burial in the Diocese. LEFT: The cemetery was announced while the Diocese hosted the national Catholic Cemeteries Convention last month. The convention attendees rode buses to visit Joshua Tree Memorial Park, from which the land for Guardian Angels Cemetery would be leased. RIGHT: A green burial site is adorned with natural materials such as rocks, plants and seashells.
When the Diocese hosted the national Catholic Cemeteries Convention in the Coachella Valley last month it unveiled plans for Guardian Angels Catholic Cemetery, a second piece of consecrated land for burial in the Diocese and one that reflects a growing trend.
The Diocese will lease one acre of land within Joshua Tree Memorial Park, where it will offer 800 gravesites, half of which will be “green” sites. These graves differ significantly from traditional ground burial sites in that they are meant to “allow the body to return to the earth as quickly and efficiently as possible,” according to literature provided by Joshua Tree Memorial Park.
Specifically, green burial does not involve the use of embalming chemicals that would pollute the environment; it does not utilize a cement vault or metal casket, which impede the body’s contact with the earth. Instead, the body is lowered in the grave in a biodegradable casket, basket, or simple shroud. Halfway through the filling of the grave, a layer of rock is placed to guard against any intrusion by local wildlife. Green burial sites are dug by hand, with no heavy equipment used, and no chemicals or fertilizers are utilized in the upkeep of the cemetery.
Aesthetically, a green burial site is characteristic of the surrounding landscape, featuring wood from local trees, local plants and natural stone. A traditional headstone is not used.
“It allows us to appeal to the younger generation that is organic and sensitive to protecting the environment,” said Al Martini, Director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese. “Joshua Tree is the perfect location due to the undisturbed environment it provides.”
On Sept. 20, the second day of the Catholic Cemetery Convention, the more than 250 attendees rode three tour buses from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree, where they got a firsthand look at some of the local green burial sites. Some were adorned with natural articles like seashells, tree stumps and animal skulls. Others had religious icons made of natural materials.
“It can be done in a way that is consistent with Catholic theology, it’s cost effective and it’s environmentally responsible,” said Convention attendee Damian Lenshek, Director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. He has begun to see green burials increase in popularity in parts of his diocese. “You can touch all the bases,” he said.
The decision of the Diocese to offer green burial sites at a new local Catholic cemetery comes at a time when the Church is trying to meet the changing interment needs and tastes of families while maintaining the sanctity of Catholic burial rites. In addition to Guardian Angels Cemetery, the Diocese has recently opened St. Theresa Columbarium Garden at the Palm Springs parish, catering to the growing preference among the faithful for cremation. The Garden is situated adjacent to the Adoration Chapel and offers 830 niches for cremated remains. It is believed to be one of the few Columbaria in Southern California to be attached directly to a parish.
Cremation is permissible under Church policy but does not hold the same value as burial of the body. In that sense green burial could become an option that is encouraged for those deterred by the high cost of traditional ground burial. A green burial at Guardian Angels Cemetery is expected to cost around $7,400, about 30 percent less than a traditional lawn crypt at Our Lady Queen of Peace, opened in 2005 as the first Catholic Cemetery in the Diocese.
As new Catholic settings for interment are offered through the St. Theresa Columbarium and Guardian Angels Cemetery, the Church faces new interment practices that clearly violate her belief in the sanctity of the human body. California will begin the practice of human composting – in which the body is slowly decomposed in a vessel of biodegradable materials – beginning in 2027, following Governor Gavin Newsome’s recent signing of State Assembly Bill 351. The California Bishops had lodged a formal opposition to the bill, stating that composting treats the human body like a disposable commodity. The Church is also on record as opposing alkaline hydrolysis, which uses alkaline, heat and external pressures to liquify human remains.
Guardian Angels Cemetery is expected to begin operation in 2024.