Early this year, an ecological and cultural milestone quietly took place on the island — the first completely green burial in Vashon Cemetery.
The burial of Patricia Buchanan, a 72-year-old islander who died in late December 2022, took place in mid-January, in a small section of the cemetery that is now officially designated for approximately 40 more green burials.
Buchanan — a California transplant who in mid-life had joyously found a new home in the Pacific Northwest — had long fought cancer, a diagnosis that had given her time to research and take charge of plans for her own burial, which she wanted to be as environmentally-conscious as possible.
According to Buchanan’s children, Donnie and Akemi Sakaida, their mother’s discovery that she might be able to receive a green burial on Vashon came only shortly before her death, when she met with Lisa Devereau, the manager of Island Funeral Home and a longtime commissioner of Vashon’s Cemetery District.
After her death, Donnie and Akemi followed up with Devereau and finalized the plans.
And a ceremony on Jan. 21, attended by close family members as well as two members of the Vashon Havurah who had assisted the family, marked Buchanan’s return to nature.
She was buried inside a seagrass and wicker basket, with her body clothed in cotton and linen garments, ensuring that everything inside her grave was biodegradable.
Her grave, for now, is a simple mound covered with flowers and branches, which will be re-mounded by cemetery workers three times in the coming months.
Eventually, said Akemi, the grave site will be marked with a small engraved stone and adorned with native plants.
In interviews, both Donnie and Akemi expressed happiness that their mother’s wishes had been fulfilled, and that her burial had also made news on Vashon — something they knew would have pleased her.
Their mother, they said, was a fiercely competitive triathlon runner, as well as a devoted activist to several causes. She would have loved knowing that she was the first person to cross the line to receive this type of burial at Vashon Cemetery — and that her story would increase other islanders’ awareness of the option on Vashon.
“She loved to win, and she loved to bring knowledge to other people about things,” said Akemi.
Cemetery serves a distinctive niche
Vashon Cemetery is now the only cemetery in King County that can accommodate fully green burials — a long-wished for development that came to pass suddenly late last year, according to Lisa Devereau.
Prior to this year, only modified green burials were allowed at the cemetery — which Devereau described as taking place in a regular concrete cemetery liner, with dirt on the inside. Bodies buried in this process are typically placed in a casket or a shroud.
Fully green burials, she said, differ from that process, as they involve full body internment directly in the ground, with no liner.
Last week, on a walk-through of the approximately one-acre segment of the cemetery property, Devereau told The Beachcomber that she had only learned, late last year, that she would be able to arrange such burials on the property.
It came as welcome news to her, she said, and she was sure that other green burial proponents on the island, including Sheri Reader, would also be heartened by the development.
Such burials are already legal in King County, she said, but are required to be sited in a separate section of a cemetery — and that she had assumed that the cemetery’s only separate and undeveloped property, in the Judd Creek Watershed, could not be used for this purpose.
She credited Tom Dean, the conservation director of the Vashon Land Trust, for his expertise in helping her determine that the soil of the section was indeed suitable for the purpose of green burials.
Dean, she said, had first mentioned to her that the site might be used in this way when he was scoping a trail through the area — a collaborative effort between King County and the Land Trust to join the Judd Creek trail system with Island Center Forest.
Dean called the cemetery’s new small section a “proof of concept” project, and said he was continuing to work with Devereau to find a larger property, elsewhere on Vashon — ideally five flat acres — that could allow the cemetery to more fully develop its green burial options.
King County management and elected officials, both he and Devereau said, would be supportive of the efforts to develop such an ancillary cemetery site.
For now, Devereau said, she will call on volunteers to help clear invasive plants and downed wood from the small section of the cemetery that can now be used for this purpose.
“We’ll clean it up,” she said, pointing out alcoves and gaps in the foliage that could be sites for graves. “It’s not supposed to be pristine.”
She added that the green burial site would also, as well, be a welcome spot for the remains of islanders whose bodies had been turned into soil — another eco-friendly end-of-life option that can now be arranged by Island Funeral Service.
Cemetery belongs to islanders
In addition to now being King County’s only site for completely green burials, Vashon Cemetery holds another remarkable distinction: it is the only publicly-owned cemetery in King County, governed by three elected commissioners.
Its operations are funded by Vashon’s smallest tax levy, of .036 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
This sliver of tax revenues, amounting to approximately $120,000 a year, fully sustains the cemetery’s operation — and also keeps the prices of all plots in the cemetery extremely affordable, Devereau said.
The cemetery truly belongs to Vashon — to purchase a plot there, either for green or regular burial, it is necessary to show a utility bill from Vashon.
“We are very lucky on Vashon,” she said, as a preface to contrasting the cost of burials on Vashon with much more expensive arrangements elsewhere in the region.
A plot for a completely green burial, she said, costs $2,000 at Vashon Cemetery. Traditional plots, she said, are $1,000 to $1,500 — a fraction of the cost at many other off-island cemeteries.
She also urged islanders to consider donating or selling suitable property to the cemetery to further its aim to provide more green burials on the island.