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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Catching Up

I'm en route to northern California, where I'll be speaking at the annual meeting of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Humboldt. I'll report back on efforts underway in area to start a green cemetery.

In the meantime, a couple of updates:

A green burial ground opens in Maine.
I just heard from Ernie Marriner, a board member of Rainbow's End, a natural cemetery (pictured above) that takes root on a fourteen acre meadow- and pineland just south of Bangor, Maine (see my November 30th blog post of last year for more information). The board that operates Rainbow's End had last year gained approval from the state to run a cemetery but had held off on opening the ground to burial until the IRS had granted it non-profit, tax-exempt status. Ernie wrote to say that they'd gained the approval a couple of weeks ago and opened for business this past Monday, April 21.

This is the second natural cemetery in Maine. As I reported in this December 14th blog entry, Peter McHugh launched Cedar Brook, a three-acre woodland cemetery within a larger pine forest some 30 miles due west of Portland, back in the early fall of 2007.

A documentary on one man's peaceful, controlled death.
I shared a ride back from the recent, 10-year celebration of the home funeral organization Crossings with Karen van Vuuren. Karen is the founder of Natural Transitions, a non-profit group that offers home funeral education and assistance to families in the Boulder, Colorado, area. In the course of our conversation, Karen told me about Michael Miller, a retired surgeon in the area who was dying of cancer. Michael, who didn't want to die in the hospital, had decided to halt his intake of fluids and foods in an effort to induce and control his own gentle death, in his own home, and had asked Karen to document his remarkable journey to educate those he'd leave behind.

Michael died peacefully, as he'd wished, on the thirteenth day of his fast. Karen tells the story of his final parting in her new documentary film, Dying Wish. I'll report on the documentary shortly, but those of you who live in Boulder can get a sneak preview at the film's premier, on May 8 in the Normad Theatre, at 7:30. (For more information, call 303-245-4866, or e-mail The film, and other end of life resources, will soon be available at:

Funeral directors and formaldehyde.
More evidence that formaldehyde, a major ingredient in most embalming fluids, is hazardous to funeral directors. A new Harvard study shows that people who are exposed to formaldehyde are at greater risk of developing amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. ALS, for which there is no cure, is a degenerative condition that damages nerve cells and leads to paralysis.

The Harvard researchers found that exposure to formaldehyde, which the EPA declared a probable human carcinogen in 1987, increases one's risk of ALS by 34%. Longtime funeral directors, who regularly handle the chemical, would seem to be at particular risk. The study reported that workers who were exposed to formaldehyde for more than ten years were four times more likely to develop ALS.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, April 18, 2008

An Interview with Joe Sehee

With the exception of Billy and Kimberley Campbell, no one has done more to advance the cause of green burial in this country than Joe Sehee.

Joe's the executive director of the Green Burial Council, a non-profit organization based in Santa Fe that's both promoting natural burial and keeping it honest. To that end, the Council has established standards that cemeteries must meet in order to be considered true green and will soon release similar standards for crematories and burial products, including caskets.

In last week's post, we looked at the Council's new certification program for funeral homes.

What I like most about the Council's work, and this program in particular, is that it welcomes the participation of the funeral industry in the green burial movement. Joe believes -- as I do -- that the mainstream funeral industry can play a role in the greening of the American Way of Death. Many of the directors I've met are sympathetic to the idea of the natural burial, after all; many more simply accept the fact that they'd be wise to offer the eco goods and services that families in their communities will increasingly request. Instead of demonizing the industry, the Council seeks to educate it in the ways of green burial and, in the process, help it grow.

The interview in the clip above comes compliments of Funeral Gurus, a Canadian web portal where funeral professionals can share ideas about and experiences in the dismal trade. It was taken at the recent annual convention of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA), where Joe was chairing a panel on "going green." Here, Joe talks about the Green Burial Council's work and how the funeral industry can join the movement to green up end of life practices.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, April 11, 2008

Finding an Eco-Friendly Funeral Director

Grave Matters is critical of many of our modern funeral customs, from the use of bulletproof metal caskets and concrete burial vaults to the practice of embalming (whose step-by-step procedure I lay bare, it all its glory, in chapter one).

The book's kinder to funeral directors. In large part, that's because I met too many caring, decent and dedicated directors in the course of my research to warrant a wholesale bashing of the dismal trade. Like the ones in Texas who waive their cremation fee because of the hassle a client family goes through to obtain a death certificate in the midst of holding a home funeral. Or the funeral director in my own hometown who, not knowing I was writing a book, told me that buying a fancy wood casket for a cremation was just a waste and that a simple card- or particleboard container more than sufficed.

To my surprise, frankly, I also turned up quite a number of funeral directors who approved of the green burial concept and could understand its appeal to the communities they served. The challenge, they told me, was to make the leaner, simpler sendoff work for bottom lines already pressured by the growing cremation rate, increased competition from big funeral firms, and the like. But, still, they were willing to consider it.

Since the book's publication last year, green burial has morphed into a mainstream phenomenon that even wary members of the funeral industry now recognize they can't ignore. Funeral directors who show up at my presentations tell me they're adding green burial goods and services to their General Price Lists in order to accommodate the growing, green demographic in deathcare (to wit: this 2007 survey by AARP). I take their information and direct families to them when I'm asked for referrals for earth-friendly funeral directors in the area.

Now, the Green Burial Council has made them even easier to find. A couple of weeks ago, the Council posted this list of funeral homes in nearly a dozen states across the United States that have earned the Council's eco-certification.

To gain a place on the list, the funeral homes must agree to provide families with "services/products that do not involve the use of toxins or materials that are not biodegradable." For families, that means they can walk into any Council-certified funeral home and know the directors there understand not only what green burial represents but how to accommodate it. More specifically, it indicates that the funeral home will use refrigeration or dry ice to preserve the deceased in lieu of embalming, and also offer caskets that break down readily in the environs of the grave.

To date, some fifty funeral homes have earned the Council's green seal of approval and a spot on the Approved Providers list. Joe Sehee, the executive director, tells me another hundred will soon join them.

The Council's certification is a clear win-win for all involved. For consumers, it directs them to the nearest eco- and family-friendly funeral home, with click of a mouse. For funeral directors, certification -- which runs $250 -- gains them families that are likely to employ their services.

Directors benefit in other ways, as well. Once they're certified, funeral directors get free technical assistance from the Council (on best techniques for using dry ice, for example) and access to on-line courses and webinars on green burial methods. And, of course, funeral homes can then advertise themselves as eco-friendly to their communities, getting a leg-up on the competition.

Next Friday's post: An interview with Joe Sehee.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, April 04, 2008

Home Funeral Movement Gaining Momentum

If I'd harbored any doubts about the viability of the home funeral movement in this country, last weekend's celebration of the Crossings organization's 10th anniversary would have laid them all to rest.

Crossings, as readers of Grave Matters know, is the Maryland-based non-profit that offers workshops that teach the basic skills of holding a home funeral -- how to wash and dress a body and lay it out for viewing in the deceased's own home, without the assistance of a funeral director. The group was founded by Beth Knox, who was inspired by the heartbreaking and, yet, affirming home funeral she conducted for her seven-year-old daughter, Alison.

Last weekend's event brought together the vast Crossings community, to share information, renew contacts and celebrate a decade's worth of good work. And what a community it has become. Some seventy people from around the country packed into the Seekers Church in Washington, D.C., for a day of presentations, networking and socializing. A number of them were home funeral "midwives" who'd taken Beth's workshops and now offer families in their own communities information and instruction on home funeral strategies -- and, in some cases, guide them through the actual washing and laying out of their deceased. More of them had come to simply gain advice on how start their own funeral group back home. A few, like the one widower who, though his grief, told of his wife's recent passing and home funeral, were there to attest to the very real, personal benefits that accrue when we take care of our own at death.

For me, the event showed that the home funeral, which I'd once thought an intriguing but mere historical phenomenon, was in fact a viable practice that was gaining adherents and traction in our own time.

And for good reason. One of the speakers last week was Nancy Poer, author of Living Into Dying (White Feather Publishing). Nancy told the story of a mother whose eight-month-old daughter had died in the hospital, in her mother’s arms. When the time came to hand the infant to the medical staff, the mother, Nancy said, "just did not want to leave her baby" in that cold place, in the company of strangers. A tug of war ensued between the hospital and mother. Nancy got involved. Thanks to her, the father could later tell her, "We walked out of that hospital with our daughter in our arms" and had a funeral for her at home. That, Nancy told us at the Crossings event, "is why we do the work we do."

One of the results of the conference will be a directory of organizations and individuals that offer home funeral services in their communities. I'm not sure when that list will be available. In the meantime, if you're looking for information on or help with a home funeral, you can consult this list, which was just compiled by the Crossings Care Circle of Austin, Texas.

Mark Harris,
Author, Grave Matters (

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