Connie Booth spent a lifetime caring for the land. An avid gardener, she was raised on the Colorado prairie and as an adult trained in Cincinnati to be a horticulturist. She worked at the Civic Garden Center for 11 years.
Booth was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017. Realizing that she had just months to live, she imagined a final resting place as close to the land as possible. It was her fondest wish to have a natural burial, one free from the trappings of today’s conventional funerals: embalming, concrete vaults, and vertical polished monuments plotted on geometric grids. That simply wasn’t what she wanted for herself or her loved ones. Booth planned to use a woven wicker casket, which would, with her body, biodegrade in the soil and go back to the earth. She would become part of the trees, flowers, and grass that she had loved so faithfully.
She wasn’t and isn’t alone in this wish. Before her death, Booth was part of a local movement, led by Bill Gupton, senior minister of Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church, to find a location for a dedicated natural burial ground. Many local high-profile cemeteries, such as Spring Grove, offer designated “green burial” areas within their property. But these are surrounded by the conventional cemetery setting. Gupton, along with a group of individuals dedicated to the values and practices of natural burial, set out to find a property built and maintained only for this purpose. Their new nonprofit project, Heritage Acres Memorial Sanctuary, officially opened on April 22, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
“This is the way human beings have been buried forever, until the last 150 years,” Gupton says. During and after the Civil War, embalming—the surgical process of replacing a deceased person’s blood with a mixture of chemicals (including formaldehyde) to preserve their body—gained favor. To the grieving families, it must have seemed like a miracle of science: Their lost sons could be sent home instead of buried on a distant battlefield.
After President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the new practice was put on literal public display: His body was embalmed and carried by train on a tour from Washington, D.C., back to his home in Illinois. “Then over the next generation or two in our country,” Gupton says, “we got away from the traditional practices of the family caring for the body of the deceased. [Embalming] became very commonplace and people, not coincidentally, became more and more disconnected from the cycle of life and death, from the grieving and mourning process.”
It’s impossible to separate death from grieving. Indeed, how we care for the body of a loved one, how we say goodbye, and how we remember them are all part of the same experience and can come to characterize our very relationship with that person. Our current way of burying our dead is not, in Gupton’s view, conducive to “healthy grieving.”
“When a loved one dies,” Gupton says, “you have spent years, decades, and in some cases your whole life intimately involved with that person, living with that person, knowing that person. And then they pass away. To me, the natural human thing is to care for that person’s body in a respectful and loving way and then return them to the earth from which they came.”
But conventional funerals, he says, separate us from that process. “What we do now is pick up the phone and then some personnel show up and take the person’s body away and do things to that body. And then we show up for an appointed one-hour time slot somewhere to be with their body. Everything is very quick and sanitized.”
Gupton says the mourners, the ones left behind, aren’t given enough space and time these days to go through a healthy grieving process. “You might set aside a half a day or a day for this, and then you’re back to work,” he says. “And you’re supposed to, you know, have a stiff upper lip. And that’s just not healthy. It’s not right. We’ve gotten disconnected from the natural cycle.”
Gupton came to his current role as founder of Heritage Acres—it’s owned by the church but operates independently—almost by accident, or maybe serendipity. With a master’s degree in divinity from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, he’s been ministering in the Unitarian Universalist church since 1996. On a trip around Concord, Massachusetts, many years ago, visiting such storied sites as Walden Pond, he happened upon the grave of writer Henry David Thoreau, who died in 1862. The Transcendentalists, a school of thinkers led by Thoreau and other 19th-century figures (most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson), held that the divine spirit coexisted with the natural world.
“It was an a ha! moment that changed my way of thinking about death and dying,” Gupton recalls. “Thoreau’s grave is very simple. There’s a little stone there about the size of a book cover that just says Henry. There’s a pine tree growing up out of his grave. And I got to thinking about 150 years ago what that would have been like: just a wooden box and his remains naturally becoming part of the earth, which would be perfect for someone like him. He was in that tree now. And he was in the grass.”
And natural burial is actually that simple. In fact, simplicity is the point. Modesty, too. Markers are flat to the ground, meant to commingle with the surrounding wildlife. No one personality dominates; there are no obelisks or tombs. Grave ornaments are made of natural materials. To go into a natural cemetery, a person cannot be interred in anything that isn’t biodegradable, including a metal casket and a concrete vault. Many people who opt for natural burial choose a simple wooden or woven casket, or else a natural cloth shroud. Others choose to be buried directly in the ground. But the main thing that truly disqualifies a person from a natural burial is having been embalmed.
“The typical person who inquires about green burial has had some experience in their life with conventional funerals and burials that was in some way unsatisfying or just felt wrong,” Gupton says. “It’s almost universal. If you’re over a certain age in America, you’ve experienced a conventional burial and funeral process. For a lot of people, that just doesn’t work for them.” Still, people are unsure of something so different from what they’ve always known. We’ve become so familiar with conventional burial practices that we may struggle to imagine anything else.
There is nothing in life so personal as death, and natural burial celebrates that.
“It challenges the norms because people are comfortable having death at a distance and not something that they see or think about,” Gupton says. There is nothing in life so personal as death, and natural burial celebrates that. “This changes the way you think about it. You’re out there and you feel like Yes, there’s this cycle of birth and life and death. And it’s a never-ending cycle and you’re part of that. And it challenges some people’s comfort.”
Many people sincerely believe that natural burial isn’t legal, that burying a body in the ground without a concrete vault and without embalming is not allowed. In fact, neither Ohio nor Kentucky has state legal requirements for embalming or use of a casket, and both allow burial on private land, subject to local zoning laws. “So people are ecstatic to discover that there actually is an alternative,” Gupton says, “that they don’t personally have to anticipate that occurring with them or their loved ones, and that there might be another way.”
The 40-acre parcel of land that makes up Heritage Acres sits just down the road from Woodland Mound Park in Anderson Township. It isn’t called a cemetery, but a “memorial sanctuary.” “There is a sense both of spirituality and of respite and retreat from the world and its cares,” says Gupton. “The word was very intentional and very appealing, but I can hardly take credit for coming up with it. One of the places we have modeled ourselves after is called Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s actually owned and operated by a Buddhist group.”
Gupton’s sudden insight about natural burials took place alongside Thoreau’s grave, but it was punctuated by his own experience with death and mourning. “It was not terribly long after I had buried my own father in the current, conventional American way, which was not at all like what I had imagined happened for Thoreau,” he says. “There was a disconnect between how we do things, what the custom is now in our country for burials and how things used to be, and how things always were in human history.”
Gupton began to research the philosophies and practices around natural burial and came to realize that it dovetailed perfectly with his own worldview. “Unitarian Universalists are inspired by nature and the environment,” he explains. “They find the divine in nature and the environment, among other places. And so there tends to be an open-mindedness toward death and dying and other possibilities.”
Personally, too, Gupton wanted something different for his own final resting place. He found that there was no dedicated natural burial site in Cincinnati. So he set out to build one. “That’s why Heritage is here,” he says. “This has been a very long process, and it’s been a lot of work. And if there had already been an option in Cincinnati, I wouldn’t have had to do that. But I did. Not just altruistically for the Cincinnati region, but for me and my family.”
Connie Booth knew that Gupton and the other Heritage Acres founders were looking for land. She and her husband Bob attended Heritage Universalist Unitarian and were part of the group dedicated to building a natural cemetery—the “Founders’ Circle.” Connie was dying and felt an urgent need to see the project through. Her nurse overheard her conversation about it and told her about a property that she saw for sale on Locust Corner Road. That parcel would become Heritage Acres Memorial Sanctuary.
Says Gupton about the search, “the land needed to be flat enough [a challenge in Cincinnati], close into town, and affordable.” Then there were the intangibles, as he describes them: “There had to be a sort of feel or spirituality of that property that just called and felt right. And we need to have a sympatico relationship with the owners. And that happened.”
The land was part of a working farm that had been in the same family for three generations. Janet Burdsall still lives there, and it was her grandfather who started the farm in the late 19th century. She and her three sisters grew up wandering the fields and forest, tracking through the creek, and sledding down the hillsides. Her father, who was born there, raised cattle and chickens and farmed fields of soybeans, wheat, corn, and tobacco.
“The township wanted this land to be developed into a big subdivision,” says Burdsall. “We weren’t in it for the money and didn’t want to sell to the highest bidder. I grew up there. To see it continue and be beautiful and open and free for people to enjoy that really makes my heart smile. Let people appreciate the land like my parents loved and like we girls loved.”
Natural burial is an ecological philosophy as much as a spiritual one. Conventional burial practices create a tremendous environmental burden, using millions of tons of concrete and steel, not to mention the mowing, fertilizing, and watering required to keep lawns bright green and perfectly manicured. This reality, above and beyond any spiritual gesture, is what draws many to natural burial.
Along with tangible and intangible requirements, Gupton was also looking for land that needed saving, saying, “it needed to be a piece of land that was likely to become a development or a subdivision in the near future.” True to form, that place would also be a nature preserve, committed to inhabiting a place that had long been cleared for farming or development and bringing back its native species of wildlife. Rather than overtaking nature, the graves, the people, and the natural world would coexist. At a stroke, Gupton and the Heritage Acres “Founders’ Circle” would create an option for natural burial in Cincinnati along with conserving a piece of at-risk land.
The management team at Heritage Acres, led by Land Steward Patrick Sanders, mows walkways, builds paths, constructs trail systems through the woods, and removes invasive species. They’re also planning reforestation efforts to reintroduce native species of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. Sanders, who is Gupton’s son, studied ecological engineering at Ohio State University and brings his knowledge of sustainable permaculture to Heritage Acres. “First, we want to increase the beauty of the area and increase biodiversity of flora and fauna and create habitats,” he says. “We hope to have many visitors, not just people who would like to be buried there.”
Sanders’s long-term plans include securing a grant for a sustainable energy program, along with increasing the forested area of the property. He’s planning to plant more than 300 native trees this year, including hardwoods like black walnut and catalpa and softwoods like elderberry, redbud, dogwood, and hazelnut. “It should look as if it was there naturally, without us intervening,” he says. “If we were to, say, clear-cut an area and then plant non-native species, then that just feels wrong because we’ve created an empty space. We try to make the experience as natural and sustainable as possible.”
Heritage Acres looks nothing like a cemetery. It’s open meadow filled with grass and wildflowers, surrounded by forest. Gupton takes people on tours, some just to look around and some to make a decided plan to purchase burial rights. “At some point they stop walking,” he says. “They get a feel for a spot and they say, This is it.” They’ll place a large rock down to mark the spot, or a stick, and Gupton will record the location with a GPS pin. Is he concerned with efficiency of space? “Oh, Lord no,” he says. “That’s opposite to our ethos.”
Anyway, there’s room there for hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. Burials take place in the prairie; while cremated remains have been interred, they haven’t buried a body yet. Ashes can be buried in certain parts of the woods as well, and Gupton and his team are working to create a “scatter garden.” When they do bury a body, they likely won’t use a machine to dig the grave, but will hand-dig it with shovels and picks.
When Gupton closed on the property for Heritage Acres in October 2019, there were no banks involved; all the money to purchase the property came through private donations and some small grants. At press time, Heritage Acres had already reserved burial rights for more than 60 sites.
Despite Connie Booth’s work to make Heritage Acres a reality, when she died on February 5, 2019, it was not yet complete. So her family had her body cremated (along with her casket) and waited.
But she can add a few of her own words to this story: In June 2008, nine years before her terminal diagnosis, Booth gave an interview to Cincinnati Magazine about her garden. Her voice illustrates her philosophy about the perennial cycle of plants, how a dormant thing can still hold the essence of life. “Something I’m very curious about is the consciousness of plants,” she said. “I’ve often wondered at what point their lives are truly over.”
Booth was ever a “prairie woman,” as she called herself, despite making her life in a river valley. And you’ll find her small stone marker in the Heritage Acres meadow among the goldenrod and milkweed. Her ashes were the first to be interred there.