Conversation on death brings new life to church land

Akron Mennonite Church is hoping to transform its outdoor property into a four-acre memory garden and nature preserve, incorporating a columbarium and space for green burials. — Akron Mennonite Church Akron Mennonite Church is hoping to transform its outdoor property into a four-acre memory garden and nature preserve, incorporating a columbarium and space for green burials. — Akron Mennonite Church

After a 2012 seminar on end-of-life planning, members of Akron Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania were intrigued by the idea of nontraditional burials. The congregation’s cemetery offered traditional plots, but nothing like the green burials or columbarium space the seminar attendees were imagining.

The vision for transforming the church’s outdoor space grew from there. This year the congregation hopes to break ground on a four-acre Akron Memory Garden and Nature Preserve, which will incorporate the existing burial ground and repurpose a large lawn to include a nature preserve and education area, walking paths and columbarium.

Members had long been interested in putting the church’s lawn space to better use. John Weber, former moderator of Mennonite Church USA’s Atlantic Coast Conference and chair of the project’s planning committee, said the original vision was not to repurpose the lawn. But the project evolved “to embrace a nature preserve as more consistent with an Anabaptist and pro-environment theology.” The nature preserve will enhance biodiversity and increase natural pollinators.

The preserve was designed to be a place for contemplation and reflection, while also preserving the view across the Conestoga Valley. Planners considered neighbors’ interests and hope the new space will be inviting to community members.

Planning involved collaboration outside of the congregation. Planners leaned heavily on assistance, funding and advice from the Lancaster Conservancy and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the latter of which plans to contribute many of the trees that will be planted.

Several Lancaster City Mennonite congregations have expressed interest in contributing to the project. It has also been approved for funding from the JoinTrees program of Mennonite Men, which has a goal of working with congregations to plant 1 million trees by 2030.

The congregation hopes to begin groundbreaking and host volunteers and educational events as soon as the fall if the contribution goal is met.

Brook Musselman is conference coordinator for Atlantic Coast Conference of Mennonite Church USA. This article was first published in ACC Currents.

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