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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 (


Anonymous said...


Although there are some funeral directors who have their head in the sand and yearn for the traditional funeral with copper or cherry casket of yesteryear, many in the industry are exploring how to integrate "green or natural" offerings into their service options.

The International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association hosted a Going Green symposium at its annual convention in March and next week, the Funeral Service Association of Canada, at its national convention, is having a similar panel discussion.

Also, in Canada, the Funeral Profession Coalition Council of Canada is focusing its efforts on educating its stakeholders on how to operate in a more environmentally manner, offer products made from renewable resources, natural funerals, and having green burials as a standard option of disposition along with burial and cremation.

Yes, we didn't do a very good job embracing cremation; I believe that the funeral directors who are proactive will integrate "green and natural" options for families they serve.


Robin Heppell

Mark Harris said...

Hi, Robin,
Yes, you're right. I've met a number of forward-thinking funeral directors who "get it." I'll profile one of them in an upcoming blog.

I enjoyed your interview with Joe Sehee, which I posted on this site.


tepp57 said...

Great comments.

We are finding more and more people doing pre-planning including the purchase of our cremation urns thus all but eliminating the need for a funeral director that of course depending on which state you reside in.

Todd Epping

Anonymous said...

I can't say enough about how positive I find the growing movement towards natural burials. Poisoning our mother earth with formaldehyde and filling her up with concrete and steel is entirely unjustified. As is poisoning her with mercury from our dental fillings and wasting so much fossil fuel by cremating our bodies. YET I need to mention a potentially nihilistic trend which I perceive in some aspects of the natural burial movement.

The thought was prompted by a recent reading of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, whose awful utopic vision seems to be coming true in many aspects. Among the negative developments for humanity in the brave new world, Huxley predicts the ultimately nihilistic attitude towards death. In the brave new world, only cremation exists. When people die, they are immediately transferred to a central crematorium, where they unceremoniously disappear in a puff of hot air. No funeral service, no mourning or sadness, no memorialization at all - people have been thoroughly conditioned from early childhood to altogether disregard death, see it as quite inconsequential, not worth a second thought. Indeed, the only significant emotion their conditioning leaves in them regarding death is that by being cremated, they will contribute to society via the fertilizer recovered from their body's cremation. That is, they will help grow plants. I quote:

"Why do the smoke stacks (of the cremetorium) have those balconies around them?" enquired Lenina.

"Phosphorous recovery", exclaimed Henry. "On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. Phosphorous used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight percent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of 400 hundred tons of phosphorous every year from England alone." Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as if it had been his own. "Fine to think that we can go on being socially useful even after we're dead. Making plants grow."

We understand that in the Brave New World, the significance of death has been reduced to the amount of useful fertilizer returned to the environment, to a merely ecologically useful function.

To return to the natural burial movement now. We can only agree that land conservation, pollution reduction, energy conservation and tree planting are noble and necessary aims. And that conversely, preserving the material body is evidently NOT the point - only the ancient Egyptians and 20th century North Americans thought this at all relevent.

THE POINT IS that burials and funerals should never become ONLY about their utility to the earth's ecology and to the social collective. Eliminating our negative effects on the earth and collaterally conserving green space are only first steps in redressing the historical aberration that our modern death care has become. Then we need to return to the truly traditional aims of death care, those primary aims which have motivated people through the millenia: paying tribute to the existence and dignity of the individual; creating momento moris for the survivors; and testifying to hopes of transcendence and immortality in whatever form that takes for a particular people. Whether people are cremated or naturally buried, if no LASTING individual markers and no eternally protected and sacred burial sites are left, these three primary functions will not be served and the natural burial movement will have failed in its potential.

Which means that conserving green space by burying people there and then forgetting who those people are is insufficient. That only planting a tree as a grave marker, though it may serve the earth and thus society, is insufficient. Trees are among Man's oldest and most faithful friends and protectors, and the more we have the better - but trees die like humans, sometimes sometimes sooner, sometimes later. Thus they cannot be substitutes for lasting and individualized grave memorials.

Why do we think this is an either/or situation? We can have more trees, more protected green space AND lasting memorials and cemeteries. If "traditional" grave stones and cemeteries provoke aversion and morbidity in people today, let's change the way we memorialize - all sorts of appealing, meaningful AND natural alternatives might be created with artistic imagination and creative use of technology. After all, ancient burial sites that archeologists now uncover contain no plastic or concrete, only natural materials that have lasted thousands of years. Are we not capable - or worthy - of something equally lasting, beautiful, dignified and individual?

Or will we choose the way of the brave new world?

Thomas Friese

Mark Harris said...

Your points are well-taken and, interestingly, in keeping with those of a woman I spoke to recently who took issue with cremation practices of some families she knew in the U.K. For them, cremation has become little more than an efficient way to dispose of remains, with little regard for or interest in paying respect to and memorializing their deceased.

You've raised such good points that I'd like to present them in a future blog, so more readers can see them. I'll make my own comments and encourage others to do the same. And now back to my dog-eared copy of Brave New World . . . .

Thanks, Thomas! Back shortly with more.

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