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Friday, September 26, 2008

Funeral Directors Serving Both Green and Non-Green Families

In a previous blog about eco-friendly funeral directors, "T" posts a question I suspect a number of funeral directors have been asking themselves as they look to cater to the growing green burial market: "Is it possible to offer both traditional embalming techniques for our traditional customers alongside green techniques for our 'green' customers?"

As far as I'm concerned, the answer to that is yes.

Since the publication of Grave Matters, I've welcomed funeral directors into the natural burial movement and encouraged them to add green goods and services to their General Price Lists. The arrangement, I've argued, benefits not just families and the environment, but funeral directors themselves.

Refrigerating remains, for one, reduces morticians' exposure to the toxic formaldehyde they'd otherwise be exposed to in the embalming room. Offering a wide array of handsome and affordable caskets made from cardboard, pine, willow and other readily biodegradable materials attracts the increasing number of families who say they are interested in a natural return to the elements (as is true of 43% of all Americans, according to once survey). Green is good for their bottom lines.

That said, I recognize that we're at the beginning of the green burial revolution. Converts are increasing in number but, at this point, perhaps not in large enough sizes to wholly support a funeral home that's green only. As a pure business matter, offering both green and modern funeral/burial services makes good financial sense. And that's just what many funeral homes have done.

What happens then? Well, I'm reminded of the comment that New Jersey funeral director Bob Prout made when talking about families' reactions to seeing the seagrass/willow/bamboo coffins sitting out in his casket display room. The families buy the metal caskets their loved ones requested but tell Bob they want the eco caskets for themselves, when their time comes.

After walking out of Ramsey Creek Preserve for the first time in the summer of 2003, I was convinced most people would ask to be laid to rest in that lush, living pine forest if they could only see it. I think the same can be said for most green burial strategies. If families come into T's funeral home to make arrangements for the typical, modern funeral but then see a willow casket or cloth shroud or learn that T will help them hold a funeral in their own home -- and at a lower cost -- I know what choice most of them will make.

Note on the photo above, which was taken by Penny Rhodes during the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival, in Kempton last week. This is the table where Penny, Greta Brown and Jenny Bingham set out information on home funerals and talked to countless people who stopped by. Penny, Greta and Jenny are home funeral practitioners who service families in southeastern Pennsylvania. Web:

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, September 12, 2008

Green Burial at Existing “Traditional” Cemeteries

It's tempting to measure the growing interest in the green burial movement solely by the rise of new natural cemeteries around the country.

That number is impressive, for sure. When I first visited it back in 2003, Ramsey Creek was the only woodland cemetery in this country. Today, some dozen have joined its ranks, with at least another score in various stages of development.

One of them in Milton, Georgia, a rural hamlet north of Atlanta, gained an operating permit from the town planning commission just this week.

For my money, though, a truer indication of green burial's growth might come not from these new burial grounds but from the old ones. I can't trot out hard numbers, but I count at least a dozen traditional cemeteries that have recently begun allowing for green -- that is, vautless -- burial within their existing grounds. (These are in addition to the countless garden-variety cemeteries across the land that have never required a burial vault.)

Among them are California's Sebastopol Memorial Lawn, and Eternal Rest Memories Park in Dunedin, Florida. There are others in Temple, Texas, and Hillsboro, Oregon. Still more in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Washington State.

Green burial is literally gaining ground there, and for good reason. As many readers have told me, establishing a green cemetery from scratch can mean very tough sledding. For starters, would-be green cemeterians must locate and purchase land, research state/county/municipal cemetery regulations, and move on to gain permits from government entities. Expensive bonds are sometimes required. A cemetery board must form and run a burial business.

Existing cemeteries have it much easier: they can simply decide to offer green burial and bypass all the hassles of starting from ground zero. After all, no law requires them to demand that families use burial vaults (though cemeteries often do, because vaults keep the ground from caving into graves when their wood coffins collapse). Traditional cemeteries can at a moment's notice decide to allow vaultless burial anywhere on their property or, with more work, create a separate, leafy section reserved for the kind of green burial more in keeping (in appearance anyway) with true natural burial grounds.

Recognizing those benefits, a number of eco burial enthusiasts are asking their hometown cemeteries to adopt policies that permit a natural return to the elements. Some cemeteries are responding. As more families request green burial services -- and as a more Ramsey Creeks crop up on the funereal landscape -- I suspect many, many more will follow suit.

Note: I took the photograph above of Pine Ridge Cemetery in Hancock, New Hampshire, a historic cemetery in the southwestern part of the state.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

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Grave Matters

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