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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Steelmantown Has State’s Lone ‘Green’ Cemetery

Burial site.

By Camille Sailer

STEELMANTOWN – Twenty-first-century concepts of end-of-life rituals, including burial, are rooted in the history of the American Civil War. 
Since many young men were dying far from home, embalming their remains was essential to return them to their grieving families for funerals with loved ones.
Coupled with this necessity, was the steep rise in families at the time wishing to have impressive and elaborate caskets to honor their sons as well as concrete vaults to preserve their physical bodies as well as the memories for as long as possible.
Contrast what we’ve come to expect as a “proper” funeral with the burial practices of the 17th and 18th centuries in America when the deceased truly found a “resting place” in and among nature. Such is the atmosphere Steelmantown Cemetery seeks to create for those who have died, providing a sanctuary of repose surrounded by massive oak, cedar and pine trees, running alongside natural cedar and cranberry bogs surrounded by 25,000 acres forever protected as part of the Belleplain State Forest.
Ed Bixby is the careful steward of this sublime location whose ancestors came to the area now known as Steelmantown in 1680, and which is named for his family.
“My forebears came to America by way of Sweden through England and settled right where we are standing in the cemetery. They pursued many business endeavors, including construction with the abundant cedar that still is available here as well as cultivation of cranberry bogs which you can see from the cemetery’s chapel,” explained Bixby.
The chapel is a simple Quaker-style structure where farewells are formally said to loved ones. It was rebuilt by Bixby, an expert in historical reconstruction, based only on one circa-1910 photo and his mother’s memory after it burned to the ground.
“Many generations of my family are buried here including my infant brother. Our family maintained this natural burial cemetery from the early 1700s until 1840. When a previous owner could not keep up the premises I took over its upkeep in 2007, and I know that doing so was a weight off my mother’s heart.
“I try to repurpose as much of our building materials as possible such as thick slate curbs from Ocean City, and the big black gates are from the Atlantic City Race Track,” he continued.
Steelmantown Cemetery practices what is known as “green burial.” It eschews the use of embalming fluid and concrete vaults. It uses natural stone markers and hand-dug burial sites to suit the peaceful natural surroundings.
Remains are wrapped in natural material shrouds and can be placed in caskets made of natural materials such as wicker, sea grass, rattan or bamboo. It is the only such burial facility in the state and the only one of about a dozen in the nation.
“I have buried people from all over the country now numbering almost 550, and we have deceased buried here from California to New York City with residents from the Northeast representing nearly 75 percent of total burials,” said Bixby.
“There are many New Yorkers here because they seem to be especially progressive and open to this kind of burial. Many also are familiar with the beaches here and look forward to visiting their loved ones after burial every summer,” he added.
“Individuals who are buried here run the gamut of society from an astrophysicist from Princeton to a Native American whose tribe was forced to move out of the area to North Dakota 150 years ago, and then wanted to return to his ancestors’ land,” said Bixby.
Also buried in the cemetery are wards of the state since it was not as expensive to bury them, including residents of the Woodbine Developmental Center.
“Many times the families will have lost touch with these boys and men who were considered mentally challenged. I’ve been able to connect a couple of them with the grave markings of their loved ones even after decades,” noted Bixby.
Both the Baby-Boom generation and Millennials are supporting all that is environmentally friendly. Because of that, “green burials” are growing in popularity.
Families are finding this type of farewell provides a level of solace in the forest that cannot be matched in a traditional church or synagogue. Another advantage, although one that is not usually of priority for those choosing “green burial,” is that they can be less expensive than a traditional burial given the lack of a costly casket, urns, shrouds, flowers, embalming and associated merchandise.  
Bixby summed up the atmosphere of the cemetery, “Here there are only the sounds of the trees rustling or the snow falling. While death is sad here, we are celebrating life. We allow the deceased to return to the earth in a manner that is both in tune with the environment and spiritually cathartic for the families.
“Participating in this type of burial is very healthy for grieving family members and friends. As well, we invite and welcome all visitors who would like to enjoy the peaceful surroundings; everyone from schoolchildren on nature walks to strollers on our trails can benefit from being one with this beauty,” he concluded.
To contact Camille Sailer, email csailer@cmcherald.com.

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