Town Gives Red Light To Green Burials

Katrin Marquez
Katrin Marquez  ·  April 1, 2024

End-of-life decisions, such as where to be buried, are some of the most personal choices Americans make. When one Michigan town used zoning prohibitions to ban all cemeteries, two local conservationists joined with IJ to fight back. 

For Peter and Annica Quakenbush, green burial is part of their philosophy of closeness to nature. It’s a way of caring for the dead where remains are buried directly in the earth with organic materials. This ancient practice has been regaining popularity among Americans who want a simple, more affordable, and environmentally friendly burial. 

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Peter is earning his Ph.D. in biology. Learning to care for forests is his life’s work. He and Annica have long dreamt of opening a conservation burial ground—a special type of green cemetery where an easement ensures the land remains protected in its natural state forever. Last year, they finally found and purchased the perfect property in Brooks Township: a white oak and white pine forest containing the types of vegetation and animals native to Western Michigan before it was extensively logged in the 19th century. With their dream that much closer, they took all the necessary steps to open the cemetery, following the instructions of the local zoning administrator and getting approval from the health department.  

Despite support from a large portion of the community, a small but influential group of activists opposed the couple’s plan, inaccurately claiming that the site was too close to a well or that it would require city maintenance. Since Peter and Annica had done everything by the book, the Brooks Township Board took a drastic measure: It passed an ordinance that bans all cemeteries in the township. The ordinance was enacted specifically to stop the couple, even pulling language from their website to define “cemetery.” 

But this use of zoning violates the Michigan Constitution, which protects Peter and Annica’s rights to use their property as they see fit and to pursue their chosen occupation free from arbitrary government interference. So IJ helped them sue in state court.

The lawsuit is already making waves. Within weeks, the township sought to amend its zoning ordinance in a misguided attempt to skirt our lawsuit (while still keeping the ban in place). But when IJ showed up at a public hearing in full force alongside Peter, Annica, and their community of supporters, we made clear we aren’t backing down from the fight. 

That’s because we are committed to ending the unconstitutional use of targeted and unreasonable zoning to exclude otherwise perfectly legal businesses. We’ve seen this all-too-common problem in places like North Carolina, where IJ is defending a family’s right to operate a nonprofit animal sanctuary on their property. And we’ve seen it in Georgia, where IJ is defending a nonprofit that plans to build a community of tiny homes to expand affordable housing.

The government can’t use zoning to prohibit entrepreneurs from using their property to earn a living in a safe and productive way. Peter and Annica won’t let their dream die—and neither will IJ.

Katrin Marquez is an IJ attorney.

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