By March Twisdale
On January 21, 2023, Patricia Buchanan was laid to rest in the manner of her choosing, in the new Green Burial section of the Vashon Cemetery. After a lifetime of achievements, both as a community organizer and a world-class triathlete, her son Donnie Sakaida said, “Mom was ultra-competitive, so being the first one there, and setting a good example, this would make Mom very happy.”
Patricia’s burial decision reflected a blend of environmental responsibility and connection with her heritage, as her father was Jewish. In Judaism, “green” burials – designed to return the body to the earth in as natural a way as possible – have been traditional for thousands of years. Donnie and Akemi Sakaida, Patricia’s son and daughter, deeply appreciate the support they received from Louise Olsen and Suzanne Greenberg of the Vashon Havurah, who handed out copies of the traditional Mourner’s Kaddish and the Shehecheyanu – a prayer expressing gratitude for a new, first-time experience, such as the first green burial at Vashon Cemetery. “They were really amazing about walking the family through some of the Jewish traditions, and a green burial is very much a part of that cultural tradition,” said Akemi.
“I think it’s great,” Donnie went on, as he reflected on his mother, “My Mom always loved publicity – always very active in the community and had a nose for getting her name in the paper one way or the other. So, she would love the fact that she’s posthumously getting into a newspaper, for sure!”
According to Lisa Devereau, chair of the Vashon Cemetery District, green burials are and have been legal in King County. The issue of access has to do with traditional cemetery policy. The primary difference between a green burial and a conventional burial has to do with what’s called a grave liner or vault. Traditional burials place the body within a cement box designed to prevent the ground from collapsing. In other words, traditional burial makes it easier to maintain, mow, and manage a cemetery that is smooth and flat. Green burials require different landscape management, and an entire section of the cemetery must be set aside specifically for green burials.
Akemi feels enthusiastic about the new opportunities that green burials create. “We felt really fortunate that Mom was able to be the first one to do it, and Lisa was so open-minded, even letting us choose a non-traditional direction for the grave site. There’s a whole plan to rehabilitate the new cemetery space being set aside for future green burials.” Akemi’s work as a landscape architect has her brimming with ideas, “In traditional cemeteries, there’s no accommodation made for a vibrant, natural landscape, so I’m very happy with the feasibility of being able to do that. I just think the whole thing is so cool. In my head, I envision so much!”
The Vashon Cemetery has a long and rather fascinating history, elegantly compiled into a detailed booklet by Nancy Ewer. Incorporated on April 3, 1888, thanks to a land grant of two acres by Frank and Clara Miner. Memorial Day 1921 saw the unveiling of the central granite pillar “Memorial Monument” before a crowd of over 1,000 people. Visitors to the cemetery will be reminded of Vashon Island’s strong military background, with the four sides of the Memorial Monument dedicated to veterans of the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War 1914-1919, and the Unknown Dead.
Our cemetery is unique in a number of ways, including being the only cemetery owned by King County, with commissioners who technically work for King County Public Cemetery District #1. This gives us greater flexibility and reduced prices compared to privately owned cemeteries. Individuals can explore various options by contacting Island Funeral Service, which handles everything from selling burial plots to conducting burials.
Lisa Devereau says that Tom Dean of The Land Trust was a big help, and she’s especially grateful for Sheri Reder’s tenacity, as it was her careful research that got green burials off the ground – or into the ground, as the case may be.
Location, location, location! At this time, the Vashon Cemetery District is actively seeking donations or purchase opportunities to extend its dedicated green burial space. Only 30-40 green burial plots are available, and once word gets out, they’re likely to go quickly. Thankfully, King County intends to set aside funds for the purchase of natural cemetery land in the next couple years, and it need not be directly connected to the existing cemetery. If you, or someone you know, wishes to donate or sell land to our Cemetery District, please reach out to Lisa Devereau at 206-799-7480.