Episode 58 Transcript: Climate Change Impact
CLARICE: Good morning, everybody. And happy Halloween.
MARISA: Hi, everyone. Happy Halloween. I am Marisa Desautel, an environmental attorney here in Rhode Island.
CLARICE: And survey says I’m just Clarice.
MARISA: Yeah. I take issue with that a little bit because I voted and I selected the wrong one because I fat-fingered it and then I couldn’t undo it, so I feel like it would have been a closer vote had I gone with the selection that I wanted which was Clarice Parsons.
CLARICE: But either way today I am Clarice the witch and we have, oh, my gourd, it’s Marisa. I’m a pumpkin. Those of you who want to check us out on YouTube, I forced us to dress up and I’m very happy about it.
MARISA: Yeah. And this is the most creative I could get, so here we are.
CLARICE: I love it. So as you guys would guess today – or maybe you didn’t guess this because it’s a surprising topic – we are doing a Halloween themed episode. It is one of my favorite holidays. I have been often called a taphophile, which for those of you who don’t know is somebody who likes cemeteries.
MARISA: Wow. I never heard of that.
CLARICE: Love a cemetery. Love them.
MARISA: Have you ever done a cemetery grave rubbing where you take a piece of thin –
CLARICE: Oh, no. Because it is harmful to the tombstone.
MARISA: Come on. I didn’t know that.
CLARICE: Yes. Yeah. So a lot of people typically will go to Salem or go to old historic cemeteries throughout New England and years of repeated rubbing on the stone plus a lot of times these stones were a soap stone or a slate or some –
MARISA: Something soft.
CLARICE: — sort of brittle soft stone, so people going and doing that over and over again is actually degrading and ruining the tombstones.
MARISA: So this is a PSA.
MARISA: I never knew that and I quite enjoy grave rubbings.
CLARICE: Yeah. Just buy a print, guys. Yeah.
CLARICE: Just go on Etsy and buy a print. It’s the same thing and you’re not hurting the stone.
MARISA: So are we talking about cemeteries today?
CLARICE: We are. We are talking about how climate change is impacting historic cemeteries in Rhode Island. And I would say 100 percent of this podcast thus far has been talking about our present condition and future expectations of climate change, but now we’re going to talk about how it’s affected the past.
MARISA: It’s gross.
CLARICE: It is. Yeah. I think today’s topic is going to be especially morbid. No surprise. But throughout the state of Rhode Island there has been a serious issue with preservation of historic cemeteries due to climate change.
[0:03:03] MARISA: Please tell me more.
CLARICE: Yeah. So the state has over 2,000 recognized historic cemeteries.
MARISA: How many?
CLARICE: Over 2,000.
MARISA: Rhode Island?
MARISA: That’s a lot.
CLARICE: It is. And keep in mind it might not necessarily be the cemetery that comes into your mind where it’s this big gated plot set aside. A lot of these cemeteries are family plots typically behind a farmhouse or on private property, so those cemeteries, as well, count. So there’s a lot of smaller kind of micro plots for families. But a vast majority of these cemeteries lie in the flood zone and as the earth heats up and as the water levels rise and the permafrost melts these cemeteries are becoming increasingly in danger of flooding which I think we can all kind of start to see what the problem is going to be. Yeah. Oh, yeah. So and this is already something that’s been happening throughout Massachusetts and Louisiana.
MARISA: Yeah. Because of all the incredible hurricane activity.
CLARICE: Yeah. So a lot of these historic cemeteries are actually starting to erode and local towns and municipalities are trying to figure out ways – and more specifically cost effective ways to preserve the area maybe partly for respect of the dead but more importantly for our own piece of mind and for our own dealing with them so we’re not kind of faced with actually seeing the erosion damage. Two specific cemeteries that I want to discuss – and folks in Warren, write in. Tell me I’m pronouncing this wrong because I know I am, the Kickemuit Cemetery out in warren.
CLARICE: There we go. My only saving grace is that I’m from Mass.
MARISA: Yeah. Good point. What’s going on with the Kickemuit or the Kicky as locals call it?
CLARICE: Oh, the Kicky Cemetery. I like that. It is very vulnerable to flooding right now.
MARISA: But we had the town planner Bob Ruley come on and talk about the perils associated with the exponential increase in sea level rise in Warren such that the downtown area is anticipated to flood in the next couple of years.
MARISA: I mean, this is a real thing if you wanted to listen to an expert talk about it.
MARISA: I appreciate this episode because it’s more colloquial in that it’s providing an actual example of what climate change is going to do in the state. Please proceed.
[0:06:06] CLARICE: Absolutely. So one of the oldest graves on the site is from 1697, John Luther. He was a Rhode Island governor. So it does have a lot of historic value and me bringing up a grave from the 1600s just shows you how old and how much history there is, but it is absolutely, like you said, in a flood area. And there’s this battle going on between how much money do we put into preserve this area that could necessarily be used to do other things.
And knowing that Warren is in such a risk of flooding, there’s that balance of where does this fall in the priority list. Another thing to keep in mind, some of the historians – and I’ll link the article that I’m referencing. Such historians like Caroline Wells, she had mentioned it’s not just erosion and floods going through the graves but also to think about the trees that are in the cemeteries. If the soil around those trees starts to erode and the trees start to fall over, a lot of those root mass and those root bulbs are very much mixed in with the graves, so it would be super morbid when the trees fall who’s coming up. Yeah. Gross.
MARISA: Well, yeah. And the trees’ root systems along waterways hold the banks together. The soil compacts around the root system, so once that root system dies or the tree is felled you’re increasing the likelihood of erosion, as well. So you’ve got water level rising, erosion into the water level and you can see coupled with – I know in Rhode Island groundwater is getting closer and closer to the surface, so those three, the trifecta there, is going to make way for –
CLARICE: For great aunt Mable to start rising.
MARISA: Unburial, I was going to say. I don’t know if that’s a word.
CLARICE: Uprooting. An example of this has already happened in 1955 with Precious Blood Cemetery in Woonsocket, which lets go back and talk about how metal a name is Precious Blood Cemetery.
MARISA: Precious Blood.
CLARICE: I know.
MARISA: What is that, Catholic?
CLARICE: I don’t know. I really think that’s like a glam rock band. What a band name, Precious Blood. I love it.
MARISA: It’s got to be Roman Catholic.
CLARICE: It has to be.
MARISA: I mean, you and I are both Roman Catholic, so I feel comfortable saying this. That sounds a lot like something that the Roman Catholics would come up with.
CLARICE: Oh, yeah.
MARISA: Okay. What’s going on there?
[0:08:58] CLARICE: So they are one of what people would call a scenic cemetery. Back in the 1800s there were a lot of – of course there are cemeteries, but these cemeteries were more of a utility sort of function. Obviously it’s a place to put your loved ones to rest. It’s also something that was designed to be convenient for the surviving families, so we’re talking about family plots on family land. Kind of think of those farmhouse cemeteries, things like that. In the 1900s there was a bit of a shift to garden and scenic cemeteries. Think also the romantic age of literature. You have that sort of romantic gothic writing. People really took a shift architecturally to make cemeteries more beautiful like a park or a place to go and enjoy spending time with your deceased. Back then it was popular to have picnics at a grave.
CLARICE: So with a shift towards the aesthetic of a cemetery, people in the 1900s started putting cemeteries close to rivers or the seaside or on cliffs looking over a beautiful view. And going back to that phrase of on cliffs with erosion and with the rising sea levels. So Precious Blood Cemetery fell victim to this in the sense that a significant portion of the cemetery just eroded away and with it their members, their residents. In the article I’m linking, it includes some pictures. Thankfully whoever posted these pictures blurred out the folks who were unburied or exhumed. But you can see it’s down a cliff face and there are some deteriorated caskets sort of shattered open. I know.
MARISA: The prediction is that this is going to happen again –
MARISA: — unless there’s some plan that’s executed to move.
CLARICE: Like we had mentioned, it could be a number of things. It could be forced exhumation because the trees fell and it took up some of the graves with it in the root ball. It could be eroding off the side of the cliff. It could be just rising due to extreme flooding and things like that. So that’s our morbid topic.
MARISA: I have another historical example –
MARISA: — if you’re interested. So a few years ago I’d heard this rumor about Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island. You’re familiar with that, right?
[0:11:53] CLARICE: Uh-huh.
MARISA: Okay. And I just took the time finally – I was like, now I have an excuse to look this up. I was able to confirm the rumor. It’s pretty gross. The Scituate Reservoir has a pretty storied past that not a lot of people know about. It’s manmade the Scituate Reservoir and it was manmade in the early 1920s by the state of Rhode Island. They decided to flood property that was held by private parties, mostly farmers and mill workers, that were just displaced. The state of Rhode Island in the early 1920s said, we need a clean, fresh source of water, so we are going to create a reservoir. And that’s the history of the Scituate Reservoir.
So that sounds okay, kind of like the earliest eminent domain type of activity. However, it was a disaster. There were five villages that were lost to the construction of the Scituate Reservoir. Mills were shut down. Schools were closed. Neighbors and friends kind of just took off. A couple of farmers took their own lives as a result of not knowing what they were going to do with the rest of their existence on the planet. And then hundreds of caskets were disinterred from their traditional resting places and reburied in a remote field in the Scituate woods pretty close to Foster where I grew up.
So I’m going to include the link in the show notes to the article in the Rhode Island Monthly magazine and it provides more detail here. But basically this is a part of Rhode Island history that not a lot of people know about where this activity, what we’re talking about now, disinterring caskets or caskets becoming unburied on their own, the state has actually gone through this before. It didn’t go well, so I would say it would be better for municipalities to be very proactive about what they want to do here. People need time. You need permission to disinter a casket.
MARISA: You can’t just dig it up. So there’s research that needs to be done. There’s a legal process that needs to be put into place where generational folks that have ties to the people that are in the caskets can sign off for the moving of the caskets.
CLARICE: Yeah. Absolutely.
MARISA: And then the question is where do you move them, so there’s a lot going on here.
CLARICE: Yeah. And it’s a lot of decisions and a lot of research and work like you’re mentioning that it does have to be decided or at least started quickly.
CLARICE: So this led me – one last point – to a very interesting question last night. What’s the most envirally – environmentally friendly funeral option?
[0:15:02] MARISA: Envirally?
MARISA: Did you just make that up?
CLARICE: I did. I got excited.
MARISA: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
CLARICE: What is the most environmentally friendly funeral option?
MARISA: Oh, I’ve read about this where you can be buried as the fertilizer in food for the root ball of a tree.
CLARICE: Yes. I didn’t know that this existed formally. It’s called a woodland burial and this is very similar to what you were saying. It foregoes a lot of the traditions such as embalming and the preservation techniques. And there are two different things. Your casket is different than your coffin, but the coffin that you are laid to rest in is something that is most often an untreated wood or some other biodegradable material.
MARISA: Yeah. I thought it was like a burlap bag.
CLARICE: There’s a couple different options. You could be put in sort of – if you want something a little bit more traditional like a box they have biodegradable sort of – I’m thinking like a compressed wood or soil situation where you get put in. And these types of cemeteries or memorial spaces don’t often have headstones or anything like that. You’re put in a wooded area and the point of this for a visitor is to remember the person. You go for a walk in the woods and sort of look at all of that greenery, so I thought that was a really beautiful option that I didn’t know existed.
MARISA: I agree. Yeah.
CLARICE: And last fun fact, the fuel required for cremation is reportedly equivalent to a 500-mile car ride.
MARISA: Really? I know that cremation requires an incredibly high temperature, but I didn’t realize – so it’s really high temperature over a really long time?
CLARICE: Yes. Not to be overly graphic, bones take an exceptionally long time to disintegrate and oftentimes they don’t fully disintegrate, so on top of all of those efforts for a full cremation some of the remains may have to be further ground. Yeah. There’s no elegant way of saying that.
MARISA: All right. What did you say?
CLARICE: I said happy Halloween.
MARISA: Happy Halloween.
CLARICE: I’m having the best time.
MARISA: You got problems.
[0:17:58] CLARICE: So if you guys have any – you know what, I’d love to hear any sort of spooky story. I’m going to open it up past environmental stories. If you have anything that you’d like to share, if you’ve ever been to Precious Blood Cemetery or have seen the effects of this or have visited a historic cemetery in Rhode Island and have any cool stories, I want to know.
MARISA: Yeah. And I’d be curious, too, if people were aware of the Scituate Reservoir history.
MARISA: It was a rumor and then I was finally able to track it down today, so I feel pretty good about that.
CLARICE: I like it. Yeah. So let us know at Help@DesautelESQ and reach out to us on the socials. You can hit us up on Instagram or Facebook, or check out our video on YouTube today. We are dressed up. It is exciting.
MARISA: Oh, I kind of forgot that we were dressed up. That’s funny.
CLARICE: I mean, this is my everyday hat, so.
MARISA: It should be.
CLARICE: Have a good one, everybody.