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Friday, May 30, 2008

Note to Funeral Industry: Green Burial No Mere Fad

A reporter I spoke to recently told me a funeral director had said that green burial was just a "fad" and, like most fads, would fade away soon enough. Changes to American funeral traditions come slow and hard, he'd argued, citing the history of cremation, which is only now catching fire with the American public a hundred-plus years after its introduction. As evidence of green burial's limited appeal, the director said that no family he'd worked with had ever requested one.

I've heard a number of funeral directors dismiss green burial with similar arguments. But, as I told this reporter, I'm quite sure they're whistling past the graveyard. Based on my research and travels into the green burial underground that's beginning to surface in this country, I believe natural burial will not only change our funeral practices but do so even faster than many advocates had thought possible.

The demographics tilt too strongly in its favor, for one. Embracing and driving the green burial movement are the Baby Boomers. Those 78 million Americans born in the two decades following the end of World War II ushered in the first Earth Day and natural childbirth; they wrote their own wedding vows and nurtured the organic food revolution. As the leading edge of the Boomer generation now approaches retirement and begins to consider the Great Hereafter, there's every reason to believe it will bring -- and is bringing -- that same do-it-yourself, pro-environment mindset to bear on end of life issues. And unlike their parents and grandparents, Baby Boomers will be more than happy to look outside the box when death comes calling.

Green burial also makes too much sense not to appeal. While niched in the popular press as an eco phenomenon that speaks mostly to off-griders and Sierra Clubers, a natural return embraces broader, old-fashioned American values that continue to hold sway with a large swath of this country. Like thrift and simplicity, a love of family, a desire to do it yourself, a respect for tradition. Yes, green burial moves environmentalists because it's good for the planet, but failing to see its wider appeal -- as some funeral director have -- is to shortchange the movement. I'd not had that insight myself until I interviewed an 87-year-old retired meatpacker and Iowa farmer named Ed McKenna, who told me that he'd wrapped his unembalmed wife in a family quilt and buried her in a plain pine box, because it seemed "the most logical thing in the world to do." As more of us see that what constitutes "green" burial is merely "sensible" burial, a natural return will go mainstream.

As for cremation, its acceptance was slowed by many factors that don't much apply to green burial. The Holy See's glacial and begrudging approval of cremation delayed its adoption by American Catholics for the better part of a century; cremation is largely anathema to members of the Jewish faith (particularly conservatives), given their preference for burial and fresh memories of the Holocaust. Green burial, by contrast, suffers little from such prejudice.

So, while it is true that the funeral director my reporter interviewed may not have been asked to perform a green burial, I can only say: it won't be long.

The photo above shows the skyline of Seattle, Washington, site of this year's annual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (June 26 - 28). This national nation profit, and its many affiliates across the country, is dedicated to helping families arrange sensible, low-cost and meaningful funerals and burials. This conference, at which I'll be speaking, offers a tremendous opportunity to learn about a range of funeral issues and strategies. Deadline for registration has been extended to tomorrow, May 31.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

Friday, May 23, 2008

Seeking Eternal, Green Repose in Redwood Country

If you've got a piece of land in northern California that you'd like to donate to a good cause, Georgianna Wood wants to talk to you.

Georgianna is an environmental activist, administrator, and green burial enthusiast in Arcata who's spearheading an effort to site the first natural cemetery somewhere in this coastal redwood country. And what she needs most, at this point, is land.

Goodwill she's got, in spades. Local enthusiasm for dust-to-dust return is high here, which is not surprising, given Arcata's natural green leanings. This is the town, after all, that treats its waste water via marshland and elects Green Party candidates to city council. Environmental organizations flourish and are bullish on protecting area wilds, some of them redwood forests, from development and logging.

Even the regional officials Georgianna has spoken to about the green cemetery have been supportive of the concept. The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Humboldt, an active pro-consumer organization, has offered its support, as well. And the environs of northern California, with their rugged, bucolic lands hugging the coastline, couldn't be more inviting for that final rest.

Still, as Georgianna is finding, getting a green cemetery off -- and in -- the ground is no easy feat. There's no single template for getting it built, no one-size-fits all model to work from. The forces behind every existing natural cemetery have had to research their own state and local cemetery laws, navigate their individual bureaucratic channels, and, as Jim Wood and Beth Collins discovered in their struggle to launch Summerland Natural Cemetery in central Georgia (as we saw in last week’s blog post), deal with the neighbors. Among other challenges.

Georgianna's efforts are, thus, local in nature. But they're also instructive to those looking to start a natural cemetery in their own backyards. Here's what she has done and is doing in northern California:

• Forming a team. After investigating cemetery laws and requirements on her own, Georgiana enlisted the help of a former publisher (and kayaking enthusiast) to shoulder the load.

• Seeking alliances. She has contacted local land trusts and conservation/environmental organizations, and reached out to the FCA of Humboldt. These organizations could offer funding, (wo)man power, and services. Their members are also those mostly likely to put a green cemetery to good use, for themselves or family members.

• Meeting with the State Cemetery and Funeral Board. To see if any green cemetery she starts would need to be licensed and, if so, how arrangements to do that need to be made.

• Scouting out land. Georgianna would prefer to partner with a land-owner rather than purchase land herself (for cost reasons, mostly). One of the options she's looking into involves approaching state park officials to talk about the feasibility of establishing a green cemetery on state land. That approach is compelling, offering a win-win, for the state (which would gain a unique funding mechanism: the fees from burials) and locals (who could find final rest in local lands).

That said, Georianna would be happy to hear from anyone in northern California who has land and is looking to preserve it. She's got just the plan for it.

Contact Georgianna at:

In an upcoming blog, we'll look at how other would-be cemetery builders are hiring outside green burial experts to help them get it done.

The photo above of a redwood forest just north of Arcata I took during my visit with FCA Humboldt last month.

Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (

Friday, May 16, 2008

Georgia's Second Green Cemetery Offers Lessons in Getting it Built

Families in central Georgia can soon choose to rest in eternal, green repose in their own region, thanks to planning and zoning commissioners who last month permitted the siting of the Summerland Natural Cemetery in Macon.

That's good news for families and the environment, of course -- but it almost didn't happen. The proposal for Summerland passed by a single vote, and that after months of multiple meetings, a deferred decision and the protest of some local dissenters who vowed to continue the fight against green goodnights taking place in this rural corner of Bibb County.

So, what happened to make such a good idea seem like such a bad one? As the founders of Summerland tell it, ignorance of what green burial is (and is not) -- and the advocates' lacking attempts to explain it -- played big roles and offer valuable insights to would-be natural cemetery builders.

First, some history. In the fall of 2007, Beth Collins and Jim Wood bought a 58-acre pine forest at the far eastern edge of Macon. Their goals were worthy: save local land from development, provide a place where people can reconnect with the natural world, and create a green cemetery on the property.

The agricultural zone in which Summerland rests allows for cemeteries but only with a special permit from the planning and zoning commission. And so Jim and Beth began the long application process, which included creating a business plan, surveying and mapping the land and, in the process, and piling up the fees. They even contacted some neighboring property owners, none of whom disapproved of the plan.

The day before the commission was to consider the Summerland petition, an article about the proposed "green cemetery" appeared in the Macon newspaper. Half a dozen neighbors who lived along the property where it crosses into the next county (whom Jim and Beth hadn't reached), arrived at the meeting angry and up in arms against the plan. Some argued that the cemetery would lower their property values; others found the green burial concept "repulsive" and contrary to their religious beliefs. Many of the opponents worried that rainfall filtering through gravesites would carry contaminants from corpses into underground wells that supplied their drinking water. The commissioners deferred their vote pending further investigation of the groundwater issue.

Faced with opposition they hadn't expected, Beth met with discontented neighbors to better explain the concept of green burial, while Jim dug into cemetery research. Trolling the Internet, he turned up published studies on cemeteries, like those by Australian geologist Boyd Dent, which, in this case, showed little cause for concern about groundwater contamination. Environmental/health officials and local drillers Jim interviewed concurred, particularly given the cemetery's hilltop location (which encourages the runoff of water) and long distance from both the water table and private wells. Still, to make sure contamination weren't a problem, he and Beth decided to limit burials to 75 per acre on ten acres of their highest ground (down from 300 burials on 25 acres) and to increase buffer areas between gravesites and both roads and neighboring wells.

And then went back to the commission. The vote at an April 14th meeting, in which one commissioner was absent, was deadlocked. A full commission met two weeks later and, with little evidence that groundwater contamination was an issue, granted Summerland its permit.

I talked to Jim at a home funeral conference earlier this year and have since corresponded with him and Beth. They're obviously pleased with the commission vote, but also believe their somewhat tortuous route to approval offers useful lessons for others looking to start green cemeteries in their own towns:

1) Educate first. Beth found that the much of the opposition to Summerland came from people who didn't understand the green burial concept. A presentation on green burial -- with pictures of existing sites and of actual burials, with some history showing that what we call green burial is really little more than a return to long tradition in this country -- might have brought many of them around.

2) Master the science. When neighbors voiced concerns about groundwater contamination from graves at that first meeting, the Summerland group had little evidence on hand to show that their site posed no such threat. Jim's subsequent research (much of it gained from local experts) helped turn the commission vote in his favor.

3) Meet the neighbors. Their understanding and, if possible, cooperation would have gone a long way to not just gaining favor with officials but with the very families who may one day want to pursue a green burial.

With the commission vote behind them, Beth and Jim are moving ahead to transform their forest into a natural cemetery. At the moment, they’re looking to apply for a cemetery license from the state board, develop a landscape plan (including a survey of the ground's native plantings), clear trails and establish policies and guidelines. They hope to open the land to burial next year. We'll follow their progress in this space.

Note: If you’re interested subscribing to the Grave Matters blog, with its (mostly!) Friday post, you can do so via the link at the foot of this page.

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.