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Friday, August 29, 2008

Funeral Costs: $7,323 and counting

A couple of thoughts on today's announcement by the National Funeral Directors Association that the average cost of a standard funeral in America has risen to $7,323.

First. You'll pay more than that.
NFDA's figures are from 2006, when gas prices were in the enviable mid-$2.00/gallon range. With pump prices two years later just now backing down from nearly twice that amount – and this before Gustav makes landfall -- you can be sure you'll be shelling out more than $233 to have the funeral director retrieve the deceased from the hospital and drive it to his funeral home, or $251 for use of the gas-guzzling hearse. Same goes for almost every other item on that General Price List.

Second. Seven grand doesn't bring the dead to ground.
NFDA's figures include the cost of a vault, metal casket, and basic goods and services for a funeral only – not burial. Expect to pay thousands more for the cemetery plot, opening and closing of the grave, foundation for the headstone/marker, the headstone and market itself, and perpetual care fees, among others.

Third. Modern sendoffs are de facto pricey propositions.
Yes, funeral directors sell caskets at a steep mark-up from the wholesale price, sometimes by more than 300 percent. As does every other service operator, they pad their margins. That said, outfitting even the basic American funeral -- with its embalming chemicals, metal caskets, concrete burial vaults -- demands the inputs of vast amounts of resources that are bought with hard and plentiful dollars. Next time you're in Lowe's or Home Depot, do a quick price check on construction materials (and so much of modern memorialization is just that, a construction project). Have you seen how much concrete mix costs these days?

Fourth. Value depends on who's paying.
Is a modern funeral worth $7,000? That's up to the individual family to decide for itself. My purpose in writing Grave Matters was to present a fuller reckoning of the American Way of Death -- to present the costs not just to the pocketbook, but to the environment, the corpse, and even the health of the funeral director himself. If after reading my book a family still chooses to plunk down $7,000 for the modern send-off, they'll get no argument from me.

Fifth. Green funerals and burials can be expensive, too -- and be worth it.
By skipping the embalming, metal casket, burial vault and the other goods and services that fill out the funeral director's GPL, green burial is almost always a less expensive way to go. But not always, and not necessarily.

A highly biodegradable wicker coffin can set you back $3,000. A burial plot in a woodland ground can cost double what you'd pay at the local city cemetery. And be worth every penny. Your burial fees may not only push up a tree and renew the cycle of life that supports all of us, but they may also fund the preservation and ecological restoration of a piece of threatened wild. That expensive casket may not only encourage an earth-friendly, dust-to-dust return to the elements, but it may also employ workers in a good, green business. Less is more, runs the green mantra, but sometimes more really can be better.

Note: The music video above plays Iron and Wine's "Naked as We Came," a folksy anthem to cremation.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Newest Natural Cemeteries

A greening continues to spread across the funereal landscape of North America.

In the last couple of months, some half dozen natural burial grounds have cropped up in this country, taking root on former farmland and cattle ranches, within unspoiled tracts of big wilds, and even inside the historic cemeteries near urban cores.

The latest additions:

Foxfield Preserve (Wilmot, Ohio)
Former farmland on 43-acres in northest Ohio that's being restored to original prairie and forest. Owned and operated by a non-profit nature center and land trust.

Galisteo Basin Preserve (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
A natural burial ground within a 13,000 permanently protected conservation area on a one-time cattle ranch.

White Eagle Memorial Preserve (Goldendale, Washington)
A 20-acre cemetery within 1300 acres of permanently protected oak and ponderosa forest, meadow and steppe on the edge of Rock Creek Canyon near the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Steelmantown Cemetery (Tuckahoe, New Jersey)
An active cemetery dating back to the 1700s where green burial has been practiced by default. Its one-acre grounds are overspread with oak, cedar and pine and border the Belle Plain State Forest.

Makemie Woods (Lanexa, Virginia)
The third Ecoeternity Forest in the U.S., which is sited within a hardwood forest between Richmond and Williamsburg. Burial of cremated remains only. Opens October 5.

The natural cemeteries join the existing green burial grounds I've reported on in Grave Matters and in this blog: Ramsey Creek (South Carolina), Honey Creek Woodlands (Georgia), Glendale (Florida), Cedar Brook (Maine), Rainbow's End (Maine), Greensprings (New York), and Ethician (TX). A score of others are in the planning stages.

This list does not include the growing number of existing cemeteries that are offering green burial within their grounds. More on those developments coming shortly.

Note: I'll be joining Joe Sehee (of the Green Burial Council), Karen van Vuuren (of Natural Transitions) and others at the first-ever green burial conference in Boulder, October 4. This promises to be an inspiring, informative and fun-filled event. Karen, who is organizing the event, is looking for participants and sponsors. For more information, click here.

Note Two: The photo above was taken at White Eagle Memorial Preserve.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, August 15, 2008

Funeral Director Bob Prout Goes Green in New Jersey

One of the more welcome developments in the green burial movement has been the willingness of some funeral directors to consider -- and in some cases, actually venture into -- green burial.

Perhaps the greenest of the bunch is Bob Prout. A third generation Prout funeral director, Bob runs Prout Funeral Home in Verona, New Jersey, an ex-urb of Manhattan. Bob made news two years ago after he'd installed solar panels on his funeral home (per the CNN clip above). The former Boy Scout (and current assistant Scout master) and livelong conservationist has more recently begun offering families green burial goods and services, from seagrass coffins to embalming-free viewings. His wife has even gotten into the act, sewing cloth shrouds by hand.

Bob's at the forefront of a new wave of funeral directors who "get" green burial and are working to help their families lay their dead to rest in more natural, personal ways.

I interviewed Bob not long ago to ask him about his solar panels, the green burials he has arranged, and what fellow funeral directors make of his ventures into the natural burial movement.

How did you come by your environmental ethic?
Conservation has always been second nature to me. I was brought up in Scouting, and safeguarding the natural resources we have is a mainstay of the Scouting movement. All through grade school and high school I worked in a garden center and thought I'd pursue a career in either landscape architecture or garden center management. In college I majored in horticulture. But after the first semester I realized that I enjoyed it but couldn't see myself doing it day in and day out.

What inspired you to install solar panels on your funeral home?
I've been interested in solar energy for more than thirty years. But the cost [of installing solar panels] was prohibitive and the technology wasn't there yet. What [made it feasible] were the incentives being offered by the New Jersey Clean Energy Program. When we installed the panels in the summer of 2005, I enclosed the solar inverter behind a glass viewing window in a former smoking room, and built in an educational display on sustainable and renewable energy. I invited local schools and Scouting groups, Rotary and Lion Clubs and science classes to come through the funeral home to see the display.

How did you learn about green burial?
The solar panels got a lot of notoriety. There were articles in the New York Times, the New Jersey Network News. Then we starting getting calls from people, saying, I see you have solar panels. Do you also do environmentally-sensitive funerals? I knew a little bit about the natural burial movement. I did some more research on it, learned about Greensprings Natural Cemetery (outside Ithaca, New York) and went to one of their open houses. It was a spectacular place, and what they were doing there was absolutely incredible.

I came back and started putting together natural burial packages. We now have packages for Greensprings Natural Cemetery and for Steelmantown [a new natural cemetery in Tuckahoe, New Jersey]. We also offer "greener" funeral options for existing cemeteries and work within the constraints of their requirements.

What's included in the package?
We either won't embalm or will embalm with gluteraldehyde or Aardbalm [two formaldehyde-free embalming solutions I'll write about in an upcoming blog]. We have sustainable caskets made from seagrass, wicker, bamboo and native pine. We also work with shrouded bodies and do home funerals. We'll work with families to meet whatever needs they have.

Some funeral directors have said green burial is a fad and, like most fads, will fade. Do you agree?
I don't think green burial is a fad. The funeral directors [who think it is] are probably the same ones who twenty-five years ago [mistakenly] thought that cremation urns were a fad.

I don't think green burial will become as popular as cremation or overcome traditional funerals. But I do think there's a growing movement that will certainly feel very comfortable with the concept of natural burial and the green funeral.

Have you handled any green burials?
I have made pre-arrangements for future natural burials at Greensprings and Steelmantown. I've handled more "green funerals" in existing traditional cemeteries, about one to one-and-a-half per month since the beginning of this year. That's because there are more people out there who want to be buried in family plots they own [at existing, traditional cemeteries] but want to do it as green as possible.

What do those green funerals entail?
In January I had a family that wanted to give their mother a green burial. We wrapped the woman in a shroud, placed her in a very simple pine box. The following day there was a gathering in the funeral home. There was no embalming, no viewing in this case, a closed casket. We went off to the church for a traditional funeral Mass and then buried her in the cemetery next to her husband. The cemetery did not require a concrete burial vault, so although she was buried in a traditional cemetery she had a natural burial.

I think you'll see more of those green funerals happen because older family members want to be buried in the plots they already have. As the Baby Boomers grow in number and choose for themselves, then you'll see more growth in the true natural burial concept [i.e., a natural burial in a true natural cemetery, ala Greensprings].

How do families react when they enter your casket display room and see your array of natural caskets?
A number of them have said, I'm [choosing a metal casket] because this is what Mom would want. Then they look at their spouse and say, "But when my time comes, I'd be more comfortable with something like this [natural casket]."

Why do you think some people are turning away from "traditional" funerals and to green funerals and burials?
The traditional funeral has become like some weddings. If you look at your watch and it's four o'clock you know they must be cutting the cake. If it's four-fifteen, they must be doing the garter bit.

Green burial offers families a personalized funeral. It offers them what they need at the time they need it. And a funeral director can't personalize a funeral by [simply] changing a cap panel or unscrewing a corner post. That's not personalization.

How have your fellow funeral directors reacted to your foray into green burial?
Some of the funeral directors who know me understand where I'm coming from. Some others think I'm a little off the bean. And that's all right. I'm not going to try to change their mentality, because some of these fellows are also trying to decide whether cremation is here to stay or not.

Any final comments?
The general public should understand that while some funeral directors are reluctant to change not all of them are Tom Fieldings [the modern funeral director I present in chapter one of Grave Matters]. We're not all totally stuck in the mud. As the funeral industry is educated to the concept of green burial, some funeral homes will start responding to the natural burial movement. It will take time. It's a different concept than what a lot of us funeral directors have been brought up with. To change what has been the norm through the course of a lifetime is going to take time.

You can reach Bob Prout at Prout Funeral Home, 370 Bloomfield Avenue, Verona, NJ 07044. Phone: 973-239-2060.

The Prout Funeral Home has been certified "green" by the Green Burial Council.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, August 08, 2008

Enduring Grave Markers and Natural Cemeteries, Continued

Returning to the debate about biodegradable grave markers sparked by Thomas Friese.

Thomas, in this reply to an earlier Grave Matters post, had argued that marking graves with such non-permanent memorials like trees, as some natural cemeteries have done, risked de-emphasizing the individuality, the importance of the deceased. A more enduring marker would, Thomas asserted, ensure that some memory of the dead would live on and that green burial wouldn't devolve into some kind of efficient, utilitarian means of body disposal.

A number of people checked in to comment on Thomas' post. One of the most thoughtful comes from Billy Campbell, founder of the Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first natural cemetery in the United States. I'm reposting his comments below.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

P.S. The photos of the markers here were taken during my visit to Ramsey Creek last fall.

From Billy Campbell:

Concerning the issues of conservation burial, memorials and memory.

I would like to reassure Thomas Friese that he is on the same page with many of us working on restoration ecology/natural burial. In 1996, when getting ready to launch Memorial Ecosystems, we hired a marketing company to do focus groups; these seemed to show that we would lose a significant number of our potential clients if we did not allow permanent markers. I thought that if we lost 20-40% of our potential clients, we were sacrificing a significant market share for aesthetic purity, and that allowing markers would not actually affect the ecological functionality of the projects. At the same time, I had found evidence that (at least in the Southern Appalachians and a number of other ecosystems) that forest/grassland floor stones might play important ecological roles and that human collection of these stones for building materials had actually degraded habitats for animals (including ants, which are keystone species in the southern Appalachians). Nicholas Albery of the UK's Natural Death Centre and I had an exchange about the idea-he stuck with the position that stones were bad, period.

We allow stones, but they must be in keeping with the geological context of the site, and we take great pains to ensure that the stones are "ecologically functional".

We were also looking at the idea of having what I called "life history archives" available on an information appliance that visitors could walk around with. I saw a story in the Wall Street Journal about an outfit in California (Hollywood Forever) that was already doing innovative work with what they called "Life Stories". A year or two later, I received a call from Joe Sehee (founder and director of the Green Burial Council), who was working with Tyler Cassity and Forever Enterprises at the time. It seemed like a natural-uniting Forever's technological expertise for life stories with our expertise with restoration, land selection, etc…..Unfortunately, things did not work out, to say the least. Still, Thomas is on the right track with his comments about integrating restoration with creative ways to remember.

Beyond the basic business objectives of not losing market share and basic ecological objectives of saving more land, it turns out that the relationship between effective restoration and memorialization might be deeper and more fundamental than generally recognized.

The quick version:

Bill Jordan, one of the founding fathers of modern restoration ecology, once said that land is not truly restored until we restore the ghosts. Not only the missing non-human ghosts (wolves, nearly extinct plants, etc.), but the ghosts of those humans that helped create or maintain many ecological niches, including areas like open prairie/meadows in the eastern US. Restoration ecology is "re-storying" the land as much as a technical pursuit. Without active human engagement over timescales that are several orders of magnitude beyond modern faddish attention spans, restoration attempts will fail. Restoration ecology is ultimately about people actively engaged with the landscape. The inspiration for our approach to conservation burial is the belief that one of the most powerful long-term tools for land conservation will be human ritual, and the assurance of the long term memory of people and their interaction with that landscape. This will require significant endowments, and the reliable, long-term archiving of biographical and ecological information much more detailed than that achievable with relatively anonymous, detached names and dates engraved in granite or bronze.

The longer version:

Restoration ecology has been criticized by both righteous environmentalists and "command and control" landscape architects as "mere gardening" or a dangerous distraction from real wildland preservation. Peter Del Tredici, writing in the Harvard Design Magazine (Spring/Summer 2004, "Neocreationism and the Illusion of Ecological Restoration") said: "Implicit in the proposals that call for the control and/or eradication of invasive species is the assumption that the native vegetation will return to dominance once the invasive is removed, thereby restoring the 'balance of nature.'" That's the theory. The reality is something else. Land managers and others who have to deal with the invasive problem on a daily basis know that often as not the old invasive comes back following eradication (reproducing from root sprouts or seeds), or else a new invader moves in to replace the old one. The only thing that seems to turn this dynamic around is cutting down the invasives, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species in the gaps where the invasives once were. After this, the sites require weeding of invasives for an indefinite number of years, at least until the natives are big enough to hold their ground without human assistance.

What's striking about this so-called restoration process is that it looks an awful lot like gardening, with its ongoing need for planting and weeding. Call it what you will, but anyone who has ever worked in the garden knows that planting and weeding are endless. So the question becomes: Is "landscape restoration" really just gardening dressed up with jargon to simulate ecology, or is it based on scientific theories with testable hypotheses? To put it another way: Can we put the invasive species genie back in the bottle, or are we looking at a future in which nature itself becomes a "cultivated entity?"

Tredici is wrong in stating that practitioners of restoration ecology believe that we are "restoring the balance of nature" -- defined as nature without humans, as he is wrong if he thinks he has discovered an embarrassing contradiction involving ecological restoration resembling gardening. A year before Tredici's essay in HDM, Bill Jordan, who coined the term "ecological restoration", and started the first scientific journal devoted to the subject, published a landmark book, The Sunflower Forest. Many of the ideas in the book had already been canvassed in Restoration and Management Notes (Later renamed Restoration Ecology). In it Jordan states: "Traditional forms of gardening, for example, are valuable in part because they provide a context for a creative engagement with the landscape at the level of the ecological community.

Ecological restoration, in contrast is valuable as a special form of gardening that is-or at least aims to be-explicitly noncreative with respect to objectives, neither improving on nature nor improvising on it but attempting, blankly, to copy it…..the value of the deliberately noncreative act as a stilling of the will, an expression of obedience and humility and the entrainment of consciousness to the gesture and movement of the other-an important element in religious practice-becomes clear. But this value is compromised or missed entirely so long as we insist only on the creative aspects of restoration and deny the commitment to noncreativity at its core."

Tredici cannot be blamed for hesitating to embrace a science that seems to put brilliant creatives like himself (a plant/horticultural/design specialist) in a role more akin to Irish monks copying ancient Greek texts than the Greeks that actually wrote them (although I strongly support including LSAs in large scale projects to help design the human stuff, including entrances, visitor centers, etc., to make it more interesting-this is worthy of another discussion). Others think that by working on restoration, we weaken the will to protect the last real wild areas ("we can always make more wetlands" as abused by the Bush administration).

The goal of restoration is not to develop a static, prettified simulacra or simulation of nature, but to (re)create a real, dynamic landscape that changes with time. At Fernwood Forever, the project in Marin, Tyler and company were selling "tree-spots", with the implication that the tree would be replaced with another tree if it died. The result will be more arboretum than nature preserve. Not that arboretums are bad, they just do not pass the muster as ecological restoration.

The point here is that successful restoration ecology will require the long term (many hundreds of years) involvement of human communities, something almost everyone agrees with. Jordan and others point out that North American landscapes have been affected by people for many millennia, and that human activities such as burning and clearing helped maintain niches just as beavers do, and the now extinct mega-fauna did. Yes, it is an awful lot like gardening…but more in the sense of ancient meadowlands in the UK, where the orchids and other relatively rare plants (and dependent invertebrates) depend on regular human mowing and hay-making.

The question is how do we establish durable, trans-generational links between human communities and "restoration landscapes"? It is true that we can never truly restore pre-Columbian ecological communities: many of the elements are gone, or are impractical to re-introduce except very locally (passenger pigeons, eastern wood buffalo, etc.). But restoring an "old growth" hardwood forest will by definition take a couple of hundred years; probably much longer in some situations.

A major challenge for restoration ecologists is the need to create endowments for properties scattered on a continental scale, while ensuring the long term political/community support for these projects.

In The Sunflower Forest, Jordan makes the case that human rituals and customs that link human and natural communities are essential for success. That is the case we are making, and it is very dependent on preserving memory. It is not about burying people anonymously without ritual or some tangible and accessible link to the physical memory of that person.

Intellectual foundations aside, the issue of what is an appropriate permanent marker is one that needs further discussion. For example, some cultures such as some Hispanic groups have traditionally decorated the graves with photos and other mementos. These decorations, while not in keeping with a wild aesthetic, probably do little to harm the local ecological community-while increasing the client-pool and cultural diversity of the project. Long term (over 100 years), it is unlikely that families will continue to keep us such displays. Might it be desirable in some situations to have a section of a conservation burial ground that allows more exuberant decoration-within limits?

BTW, the sweeping off of the rock on TV was a "set up" shot of a cremation scattering space-they put leaves on it for me to sweep off [From Mark: this is in response to a comment by Pete McQuillin about Billy sweeping off a grave stone at Ramsey Creek so the name could be read, in a Weather Channel segment on the Preserve]. Most of our markers are well above the surface to allow for critters under the rock. We also have a back up system with fixed reference markers entered into a GIS model and in a spread-sheet, with co-ordinates that enable us to quickly find even unmarked graves (some people do not want stones) with nothing more than a tape measure and compass. This requires far fewer markers, which can also be benches, the back corner of the chapel, etc.

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Grave Matters

Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.