The modern funeral can't help but work at cross-purposes with the aims of natural burial. Chemical embalming of the dead, metal caskets sealed against the elements, the burial vaults that serve, in the words of one manufacturer, "as a last line of defense against mother nature," all seek to preserve the body from the dissolution that's a natural part of the life cycle -- and from the very goal of natural return.
So, don't expect the local funeral director to cheer your request for a green burial. Particularly, as it represents the lost sale of the very goods and services that provide such a boost to his bottom line.
But that may soon change. A handful of funeral directors around the country, recognizing that there are still profits to be gained by giving families what they want, are adding green burial options to their General Price List of offerings. One of them is Steve McCowen. A licensed funeral director based in Michigan and manager of a family-friendly funeral planning organization called the Today Center (www.todaycenter.com), McCowen works with sixteen funeral homes in the state that give families just what they ask for -- and no more -- hassle-free. "We'll pick the body up from the place of death, and bring it wherever the family wants, including their home, for home funerals," says McCowen. "They can even file the death certificate on their own." Families can skip embalming and choose from a cloth-covered, pine or cardboard coffin. Cost of the basic package runs less than $4,000, roughly half as much as the standard sendoff.
You can find other family- and eco-friendly funeral providers like McCowen by contacting the Green Burial Council (www.decentburial.org). A non-profit group that's working to advance the cause of natural burial in this country, the Council directs families to providers that offer the group's green "Burial Package," which prohibits vaults and formaldehyde-based embalming, and permits only biodegradable caskets.
So far, the Council has approved providers in seven states: California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New York and Wisconsin. For contact information, e-mail the Council at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You don't have to work through the funeral home to arrange a natural burial, of course. In most cases, you can do it yourself. But for families that prefer the assistance of the local funeral parlor, the Council's burial package identifies those that understand the tenets of the eco-friendly burial -- and will help families arrange it.
By making inroads into the funeral industry, the Council hopes over time to change it for the greener. The Burial Package is one small step in that direction. Still, as McCowen himself has found, the road is long. "I called the three-county area recently to find a cemetery that would allow one family to bury their dead without a vault, and couldn't find one," he says. In that case, McCowen arranged for the dead to be transported to a natural cemetery in another state. He has also successfully pursued another option that legally allows for vautless burial in Michigan: helping families designate a parcel of their rural property as a private burial ground.