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Posted October 17, 2012 | comments Leave a comment

Holy Cross Abbey blesses natural cemetery and farm

By Kim Walter

Wednesday's weather perfectly lent itself to the consecration of the Cool Spring Natural Cemetery and blessing of the natural farm at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville.

As Abbot Robert Barnes conducted the ceremony in an outdoor chapel, attendees listened quietly and took in the peacefulness and sunlight of the landscape.

The cemetery was blessed first, after which Barnes sprinkled the land with holy water and a simple, yet stirring version of "Shenandoah" was sung.

"May this place be a comfort to the living, a sign of their hope for unending life," he said.

Barnes said that the cemetery is non-denomonational, and is open to those without any religious connotation. What makes the cemetery "natural" is the lack of embalming and metal caskets.

"In fact, you don't even need a casket," said Edward Leonard, the monastery's chief sustainability officer. "I say it's back to the future, the way our society used to conduct burials."

Low-impact, biodegradable containers made from materials like unvarnished wood, cardboard or even a simple shroud are encouraged. In place of large, marble headstones, stones from the nearby river are used as grave markers.

The cemetery takes up a total of 54 acres -- 25 in the woods, 25 in the meadow and four as a scattering garden -- Leonard said. The new venture will be an opportunity for profit for the monastery, in selling plots of the land purchased 60 years ago by the monks.

"It's a very simple, back to the earth type of burial," Leonard said. "Plus it's very friendly to the environment."

The second blessing was for 150 acres of a natural fruit and vegetable farm, which is almost done with its first harvest season. Bluemont-based Great Country Farms entered into a lease agreement with the abbey after the company outgrew its current land, which it had been working with for 19 years.

Kate Zurschmeide, one of the farmers, attended the service and explained how the monastery would also benefit from the produce.

"They will receive revenue from both the Community Supported Agriculture sales and wholesale opportunities," she said. CSA offers the opportunity for community members, and those throughout the state, to be an annual shareholder of the land and get part of the seasonal fruit and vegetable bounty. The program currently involves about 900 families in Virginia.

"It's really been a sustaining program for us," Zurschmeide said.

Ground was broken at the abbey in February, and Zurschmeide said the soil was some of the best she's ever worked with. Produce from the land includes pumpkins, watermelons, tomatoes and squash, among many others.

"We had a good harvest this past year," she said. "The ground here is great, and we have the ability to irrigate with the river so close."

Zurschmeide said the opportunity to work with the abbey made perfect sense for the farm, as their first plot of land was purchased through a Mormon church.

"We maxed out our current growing capacity, and this opportunity presented itself, so yeah, I do feel like this venture is kind of extra special," she said. "Plus there's such a demand now for locally grown food."

Leonard added that as few pesticides as possible are used on the land, and fertilizer wasn't necessary, because it had been a cattle field for the past 40 years.

Barnes said the monks have an environmental responsibility, which goes hand in hand with being "good stewards of God's creation."

"This is an all around good venture," he said. "It's a step in progress and for the future of the monastery."

For more information on Holy Cross Abbey, visit virginiatrappists.org, and to learn how to participate in CSA, visit greatcountryfarms.com.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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