Reimagine City Cemeteries Project

Six individuals discussing green burial
Individual weeding cemetery
Natural burial

Project Overview

Durham’s segregated past resulted in the creation of two public cemeteries: Maplewood (historically white) and Beechwood (historically Black). Beechwood is running out of space; with limited availability for traditional burials. Given the history of segregation and the generations of families that are already buried in Beechwood, many Black Durham residents are hesitant to transition to Maplewood. This could result in Black residents using private cemeteries instead, which could cost more than what white residents pay at the publicly owned Maplewood. At the same time, traditional burials are expensive, take up a lot of space, and have a negative impact on the environment. 

According to the Green Burial Council, traditional burials in the United States annually use: 

  • 4.3M gallons of embalming fluid (including known carcinogens)
  • 20M feet of hardwood boards
  • 1.6M tons of concrete
  • 17,000 tons of copper and bronze
  • 64,500 tons of steel

In addition, traditional burial methods leach lead and other materials into the ground or nearby water sources. Climate change also exacerbates the environmental impact of cemeteries, as flooding and erosion can disinter coffins, inflicting physical, environmental, and emotional damage on the surrounding area. The City of Durham partnered with FUSE Corps to identify alternatives to traditional burial to curb environmental impacts and support Beechwood’s enriching legacy. The Executive Fellow will investigate various options, with an emphasis on practices that are environmentally sustainable, affordable, and space efficient. Next, the Executive Fellow will explore which options are feasible for the City of Durham, given the city's resources, constraints, and cultural responses to burial options. This may include piloting education or public affairs programs with funeral homes, faith communities, and community members to ensure that the final choice(s) are responsive to residents’ preferences and needs. In addition, the Executive Fellow will make an action plan and conduct long-term analyses to make the chosen alternative(s) a reality. This work will ensure that all members of the Durham community are able to access affordable, dignified burial services that are culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable. 

Executive FUSE Fellow Erica Xavier-Beauvoir BIO

“Mindfully elevating natural alternatives for burial rites and land use sustainability.”

Dr. Erica Xavier-Beauvoir she/they/all is a diverse human-centered public servant, storyteller, and community engagement professional with over 15 years of experience in the public safety sector. Creating mindful spaces for data gathering coupled with best practice research, Erica has led projects regarding environmental justice, food equity, criminal justice reform, and urban design thinking.  She gained experience with land use and repurposing urban land to improve functionality in underserved communities. As a Death Doula and natural burial consultant, Erica has first-hand knowledge improving narratives in diverse communities to elevate and educate those seeking green/natural burial options. They hold a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice, Master’s in Emergency Management, and Doctorate specializing in Parapsychology (nonsecular). 

Maplewood and Beechwood going hybrid

Maplewood and Beechwood will be functioning hybrid burial grounds in the future. A hybrid burial ground is a cemetery that allows vaults and offers green/natural burials. 

Green/Natural burials is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat. Green burial necessitates the use of non-toxic and biodegradable materials, such as caskets, shrouds, and urns. 

The core tenets of a green/natural burial are no embalming, biodegradable materials, and no vault cement grave liner within green/natural burial plots. 

Durham is also working on the beautification of the Ash Scattering Garden at Maplewood cemetery. The garden will be a functioning conservation space with reflection pathways and options for scattering through the natural paths of the land.

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Follow Dr. Erica Xavier Beauvoir on Instagram @EricaXavierBeauvoir for upcoming events. 

Email Dr. Erica Xavier-Beauvoir for information on upcoming events or to book for speaking engagements.