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Sheep report for duty at Schenectady's Vale Cemetery

Green burials are a growing trend, where unembalmed bodies are placed in the ground in biodegradable caskets. Schenectady’s Vale Cemetery is home to one of six nationally certified green burial sites in New York state. And just before winter, the natural plot is spruced up by some hungry helpers.

As the sun comes through the trees in Vale Cemetery, a truck with a long trailer pulls up to the green burial plot. Located in a natural bowl in the historic cemetery that is home more than 30,000 burials, Vale Meadow looks like an ordinary pollinator garden – complete with a bird bath. Underneath the wildflowers that circle a lawn are the remains of the dead, being recycled back into the earth naturally.

After a temporary fence is placed around the burial plot, the trailer doors are opened and a herd of sheep, who have just arrived at their job-site to do a bit of pruning after the first frost of the year, head into the garden.

Dirk Schubert, livestock herd manager for the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill, says it’s the third year the sheep have snacked in Schenectady.

“So we come up usually every fall to kind of help clear out the weeds and everything here in the green burial site before winter. They’re a nice zero-fossil fuel mower for us to use here in the site,” said Schubert.

The sheep follow each other around the plot, grazing along the way, munching the wilted flowers and enjoying the still-green grass.

“They’ll probably spend maybe two, hour-and-a-half, two hours right now going around eating and then they’ll kind of go lay down, take a nap, digest a little bit for an hour, hour-and-a-half again, and then they’ll get up after that and eat some more,” said Schubert.

Dr. Bernie McEvoy, Secretary of the Vale Cemetery Association, says the cemetery gets calls from several states away about the natural plot.

“The trend for natural burial is increasing incredibly. We get a couple inquiries every week from people who want to buy a lot in the green burial.”

Instead of a traditional headstone, burials in Vale Meadow can be marked by a simple, unpolished granite marker flush with the ground.

No embellishments or artificial decorations are allowed. And just as the bodies go into the ground without chemicals, no pesticides or herbicides are used in the plot.

And without an embalming, mahogany casket, or concrete vault, they’re cheaper too, says McEvoy.

“It saves the family that’s doing the burial money. You don’t have a very expensive casket. You don’t have embalming. You become biodegradable and the container that you’re buried in is biodegradable.”

Vale Meadow is bordered on one side by trees and sits next to a bike path that winds through the cemetery and adjoining park.

Vale Cemetery Association Board President Gordon Zuckerman said the shady cemetery that dates back to before the Civil War became something of a popular outdoor recreation area during the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown.

“During the pandemic, where a lot of parks were actually closed, we were not closed. So on a beautiful Sunday morning or afternoon in the summer, they were coming through here, families were coming through with their strollers and their children and everything. So it’s going back to the old Victorian type of cemeteries and we’re trying to make the whole thing kind of similar to the how it was when it started back in 1857, open to public,” said Zuckerman.

As the sheep happily nibbled away, they surprised passerby Austin Clark.

“I think it’s really cool. I almost walked right by them and all I can think of is the White House lawn a century-and-a-half ago or something. I think it’s great,” said Clark.

Clark says he walks through Vale all the time, but he hasn’t seen the herd before.

“It’s almost like I don’t even live in the city. I walk, this is my route downtown. And that’s wonderful. It’s making it even more that way,” said Clark.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.