I have spoken to enough eco-leaning funeral directors since the publication of Grave Matters to see first-hand that the same greening that's washing over most industries in this country, from agriculture (organic foods) to construction (LEEDs-certified homes), is coming to mortuary science.
If I ever doubted that, I needed only to read last fall about the funeral director in the town next to mine who'd begun offering seagrass caskets, refrigeration, and help with home wakes out of a rehabbed Victorian mansion in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
When green burial comes to the greater Lehigh Valley -- a somewhat conservative, largely blue-collar enclave that boasts well-worked farmland and rugged brownfields -- it shows the movement for a more natural return can land just about anywhere.
Just how will it take? To find out, I drove out to Elias Funeral Home in downtown Allentown and talked with its forty-something owner and supervisor Nicos Elias.
A near ten-year veteran of the funeral trade, Nicos ventured into green burial after attending a seminar on the topic put on by the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association in the fall of 2008. "They talked about how [green funerals] is a growing trend and that we may be called on to do these types of services," Nicos told me in the conference room of his funeral home, a bank of casket ends lining one wall. The group distributed a sample General Price List from a funeral home that had offered green goods and services.
For Nicos going green just made sense. For one, it was good for the planet, "a way of being responsible to the Earth in deathcare," he says.
It made smart business sense, too. Funerals clearly are trending green, Nicos believed. And since no one else was doing it, jumping on the eco-burial bandwagon offered the indie funeral director a way of differentiating himself from the very stiff competition.
So, after he bought the old Trexler Mansion and converted it into a funeral home late last year, he advertised himself as green funeral provider -- the first in the area. "I want to be the funeral director that families in the Lehigh Valley think of when they want to do a green funeral," he says.
By then, Nicos had more carefully researched the movement and modeled a green GPL off existing ones elsewhere. In the process, he consulted with Cynthia Beal of the Natural Burial Company, an eco-casket supplier in Eugene, Oregon. From Cynthia he ordered a couple of caskets made from willow and seagrass, and “acorn” urns of paper mache.
Either casket is provided in his five natural burial packages, all of which replace embalming with refrigeration (in a unit on the premises) or dry ice. Burial shrouds, produced by Esmerelda Kent, the San Francisco artist who created the shrouds used in that famous green burial episode of Six Feet Under, are available, as well. Visitations with unembalmed remains are among the options, although Nicos prefers to limit them to families.
What's striking about the packages, which you can view here, is what I've long argued: that funeral directors can find the green in green burial.
For nearly $6,000, for example, Nicos offers a green version of the standard funeral service: the typical funeral director fees, transfer of remains from place of death, evening visitation and funeral at his home, among others, plus refrigeration, eco-casket and vault (as required by local cemeteries). Less expensive packages, down to just under $5,000, are available with fewer goods and services (no public visitation or funeral).
His green funerals fall short of the $7,000-plus Nicos might earn for an average, modern funeral. But not bad, especially when you consider that families that come to green burial are those which very well might otherwise have chosen an even bigger revenue loser for the funeral trade: cremation, whose average cost is $1,800.
Those are just the packages. Nicos recently sat down with Penny Rhodes, a local deathcare midwife, and offered to help her with families seeking assistance with home funerals. When I asked Nicos what else he'd be willing to do to help families interested in funeral options that lay outside the box, he said simply, "I want to [help them] in any way possible."
Since talking with Nicos last spring, he told me he had recently done one green funeral. For that, he refrigerated the remains and arranged a private family viewing in his funeral home the day before burial (in an all-wood casket) at an old cemetery in Connecticut. "Everything went quite well," he said, "and seemed to be exactly what [the family] wanted."