ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And now the final installment of our occasional series Shifting Ground about America's changing landscape. This is the story of a widow, a farm and a final request. Independent producer David Baron spent two years following one landowner's efforts to use her own death as a way to preserve the land she loves.
DAVID BARON: Joan Graham has been on this earth 80 years. And in that time, she's acquired a number of things: Two artificial hips, two husbands whom she outlived, a 157-acre parcel of Michigan woods and farmland and a passion for the outdoors.
Ms. JOAN GRAHAM: I just like the earth. I like the smell of it, and I like green, and I like trees.
BARON: She plants trees around her farmhouse.
Ms. GRAHAM: This is a tulip tree.
BARON: She tends them.
Ms. GRAHAM: Those are walnut trees.
BARON: So she wasn't happy when, a few years ago, trees started coming down on the lot across the road.
Ms. GRAHAM: It's going to be a subdivision. I hate to think of what it's going to look like.
BARON: To protect her land, Joan Graham decided to bequeath it to a local conservation group. The group promised not to develop the property after she's gone. But then she thought, why should she have to go? So she made the following request: When she dies, she wants to be buried on her property beneath an oak.
Ms. GRAHAM: They have deep taproots. Well, wouldn't it be nice if that oak tree would ever reach my remains, and the tree would take nourishment from that? And it's kind of like, well, I never died, really. I just morphed into a tree or something.
BARON: But her request to the conservation group, the Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy, didn't end there.
Donna Folland is the group's executive director.
Ms. DONNA FOLLAND (Executive Director, Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy): She said that she would like to share it. She would welcome others who would want to be buried there.
BARON: On the farm.
Ms. FOLLAND: On the farm, yeah.
BARON: Had you ever had a property owner make this request to you?
Ms. FOLLAND: No. No. It was brand new.
BARON: And it was not exactly uncontroversial. Joan Graham's proposal was to turn a portion of the farm into a highly unusual cemetery: an environmentally friendly one with no embalming, no fertilized lawn, just bodies interred in biodegradable caskets or shrouds with rocks and trees as grave markers.
Donna Folland brought the idea to her board.
Ms. FOLLAND: The first reactions varied from, oh, that sounds lovely - just an immediate warming to it - to people who thought it was pretty kooky, like maybe we shouldn't be engaged with crazy ideas like that.
BARON: But the more Folland thought about the idea, the more excited she grew. You see, one of the challenges of conservation is getting the public to feel invested in protecting land. Folland realized that burying bodies on the farm would make the land sacred, a place people would always want to preserve. But was this plan legal? How would she do it?
Mr. THOMAS LYNCH (Funeral Director): Hey, Donna.
Ms. FOLLAND: Nice to meet you. I'm Donna.
Mr. LYNCH: Tom Lynch. Pleasure - have a seat.
Ms. FOLLAND: Thanks.
BARON: For advice, she sought out a prominent Michigan funeral director, Thomas Lynch. They sat in his office, a formal room with dark wood and subdued light.
Mr. LYNCH: So you want to take a natural field...
Ms. FOLLAND: Mm-hmm.
Mr. LYNCH: ...woods and just say, let's put our dead in here. And by doing so, we're sort of upping the conservancy ante.
Ms. FOLLAND: Mm-hmm.
Mr. LYNCH: Because once people are buried there, they're disinclined to put, you know, a bookstore there.
Ms. FOLLAND: Yes, I believe so.
Mr. LYNCH: That makes good sense.
BARON: Lynch said no laws barred the idea. Bodies don't have to be embalmed, for instance. But any cemetery would have to meet state regulations. Donna Folland came away energized, but cautious.
Ms. FOLLAND: It's not something that I would be able to do on my own and that our conservancy certainly would want to do. We need other partners to be in the lead with certain details.
BARON: She contacted an organization called the Green Burial Council. It's trying to jumpstart a movement toward more environmentally-friendly cemeteries in the U.S.
The group's founder, Joe Sehee, came to Michigan, met with Joan Graham on her farm and agreed to help with the project.
Mr. JOE SEHEE (Founder, Green Burial Council): It's a beautiful gift that Joan is giving to a lot of people. Her last act on earth could be incredibly meaningful and could do a lot of wonderful things for a lot of years.
BARON: Sehee said what the land conservancy needed was a partner in the cemetery business, and he had an idea.
Mr. SEHEE: Based on our preliminary research, it seems like one of the most promising possibilities is a partnership with the township.
Mr. MIKE NOLAN (Attorney, Metamora Township): Joan, my name is Mike Nolan. I'm the attorney for Metamora Township. In the room with me is...
BARON: With Joe Sehee on the phone, the conservancy's Donna Folland sat down with local officials last year. She provided some background.
Ms. FOLLAND: This is a photograph of part of the area where the burial ground is proposed to be in.
BARON: Then Joe Sehee made a pitch: What if the township operated the burial ground as an annex to its existing cemetery? He argued the new green cemetery would help protect the land and it could bring revenue to the town.
Mr. SEHEE: If we use the figure of $3,300 per plot, we see $2.3 million coming from that.
BARON: The presentation didn't go over well. Township officials declined to speak on tape, but they weren't sold on the concept. Bodies buried in the woods? What if a loved one visiting a grave tripped over a fallen log? Who'd be liable? And Donna Folland says officials were skeptical of the finances.
Ms. FOLLAND: I could see their side of things. I mean, I think we have to show them more than theoretical numbers that it, you know, was going to work. So they were not interested in taking on that responsibility.
BARON: Donna Folland kept looking for partners. She courted private cemetery operators. Some seemed interested at first, but they too weren't sure in the end that they could make the concept work as a business.
Now, more than two years since Joan Graham made her request, Donna Folland says fulfilling it has proved surprisingly difficult.
Ms. FOLLAND: The details are a lot more complicated than I ever expected.
BARON: But Donna Folland hasn't given up and neither has Joan Graham.
Ms. GRAHAM: I'm determined to go ahead with it.
BARON: Though, she has changed tactics slightly. She threw a party this fall -an afternoon of wine and hayrides and singalongs by the barn.
(Soundbite of party)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)
BARON: It was a harvest festival, but with another purpose. You see, even if Joan Graham can't make a formal green cemetery a reality, she can establish a tiny, private one. So, that's the plan now, in essence, a family plot up the hill by the woodlot. At the party she recruited volunteers.
Ms. GRAHAM: I wouldn't mind if other people joined me up there as long as they're willing to be a flower or a tree.
BARON: Her friends were charmed.
Unidentified Woman #2: I'm going to be a candidate. I am.
BARON: And among the most enthusiastic volunteers was Donna Folland from the land conservancy.
Ms. FOLLAND: If there was a place for me, that would be good. I would like that for myself.
BARON: After two years trying to sell the concept of green burial, she says she's sold on it herself.
For NPR News, I'm David Baron.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) want to die.
Unidentified Woman #1: Very good. Very good.