Mother's Dying Wish for ‘Green' Burial Hits Red Tape

Green burials are legal in Connecticut and all 50 states, but there can often be restrictions at the local level concerning where these burials can take place.

Before her death, Tessa Pascarella made clear to loved ones that she wanted a "green" burial. She envisioned her final resting place in a wooded area in the town of Sherman, but her family has since learned that fulfilling her wishes would be a struggle.

Green burials are designed to have less of an impact on the environment. The burials often use biodegradable caskets. They do not use chemicals for embalming, hardwood caskets, varnishes, vaults or liners.

"The forest is a place she always loved, " said Aldo Pascarella, Tessa's son, as he walked through the rolling hills in western Connecticut. Beneath the tree line and under the leaf-covered soil is what he hoped will become a sacred space.

Tessa, who passed away after an illness at the age of 79, had expressed to her son that she did not want to be cremated, she did not want any embalming chemicals involved, and she did not wish to be buried in a casket.

"When she learned about the idea of a green burial and she knew she was going to be dying soon, she very much liked the idea," said Aldo.

Green burials are legal in Connecticut and all 50 states, but there can often be restrictions at the local level concerning where these burials can take place.

The vision for Tessa's burial was in the woods of Sherman on her family's own private property. "We decided that this would be a good spot to try to bury her," Aldo said.

But attaining what his mother wanted has not been simple or quick.

Aldo, an attorney, said he had been granted all of the necessary approvals from the state in late 2018 while dealing with town officials.

Aldo said he had to write a regulation which would provide the means to apply to Sherman's Planning and Zoning Commission in December 2018. After a public hearing and after allowing time for any potential appeal, Aldo said his application for a private burying ground was accepted, but was not yet approved.

Later in March, after some of the snow had melted, a site walk of the property revealed the possible presence of watercourses or wetlands. Because of this, Aldo said he was advised it would be necessary to withdraw his previous application to the Planning and Zoning Commission in order to, instead, submit the application to the town's Inland Wetlands Commission. Approval from the Inland Wetlands Commission must come before approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission, Aldo said.

The approval process has continued through May 2019.

"It's highly regulated," said Aldo. "The longer it takes the more absurd the situation becomes."

Tessa Pascarella died on Jan. 21, 2018 - nearly a year and half ago.

Her remains have since been stored in a 'climate-controlled environment' at Leo P. Gallagher Funeral Home in Stamford. The funeral home offers green funeral and burial options.

"Our hope is really for the family to have peace," said Christopher Farrugio, the funeral home's general manager. Farrugio and his staff said they hope to help with the Pascarella family's wishes in the near future. "To pursue this would be a great thing for many families all across the state," he said.

"He's so focused on doing this because he knows it's the right thing to do for his mother and for his family," said Farrugio. "We did not realize it was going to take this long."

"It is disturbing to think of a loved one's remains just sitting on ice somewhere for as long as my mom's remains have been sitting on ice," said Aldo, who is confident that his bureaucratic battles have been worth fighting.

Aldo expected final approval from town officials for a small, private family cemetery in the month of June.

"This is something that she very much wanted," he said.

A 2018 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association showed nearly half of respondents were interested in exploring green funeral options; mostly for environmental or cost-saving reasons. 

"This is the most comforting idea I've ever had of death," said Elizabeth Foley, founder of Connecticut Green Burial Grounds, an organization trying to establish cemeteries specifically for green burials.

"This is not a new concept. Prior to 150 years ago, this is how things were done for millennia," said Foley. "A shroud is another option, which would just be a linen or plain cloth material and a return to earth just cradled in that."

Two existing Connecticut cemeteries, in Danbury and Deep River, are already using a portion of their properties for green burials. But the Connecticut Green Burial Grounds group is pushing to create the region's first all-green cemetery.

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