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Friday, August 15, 2008

Funeral Director Bob Prout Goes Green in New Jersey

One of the more welcome developments in the green burial movement has been the willingness of some funeral directors to consider -- and in some cases, actually venture into -- green burial.

Perhaps the greenest of the bunch is Bob Prout. A third generation Prout funeral director, Bob runs Prout Funeral Home in Verona, New Jersey, an ex-urb of Manhattan. Bob made news two years ago after he'd installed solar panels on his funeral home (per the CNN clip above). The former Boy Scout (and current assistant Scout master) and livelong conservationist has more recently begun offering families green burial goods and services, from seagrass coffins to embalming-free viewings. His wife has even gotten into the act, sewing cloth shrouds by hand.

Bob's at the forefront of a new wave of funeral directors who "get" green burial and are working to help their families lay their dead to rest in more natural, personal ways.

I interviewed Bob not long ago to ask him about his solar panels, the green burials he has arranged, and what fellow funeral directors make of his ventures into the natural burial movement.

How did you come by your environmental ethic?
Conservation has always been second nature to me. I was brought up in Scouting, and safeguarding the natural resources we have is a mainstay of the Scouting movement. All through grade school and high school I worked in a garden center and thought I'd pursue a career in either landscape architecture or garden center management. In college I majored in horticulture. But after the first semester I realized that I enjoyed it but couldn't see myself doing it day in and day out.

What inspired you to install solar panels on your funeral home?
I've been interested in solar energy for more than thirty years. But the cost [of installing solar panels] was prohibitive and the technology wasn't there yet. What [made it feasible] were the incentives being offered by the New Jersey Clean Energy Program. When we installed the panels in the summer of 2005, I enclosed the solar inverter behind a glass viewing window in a former smoking room, and built in an educational display on sustainable and renewable energy. I invited local schools and Scouting groups, Rotary and Lion Clubs and science classes to come through the funeral home to see the display.

How did you learn about green burial?
The solar panels got a lot of notoriety. There were articles in the New York Times, the New Jersey Network News. Then we starting getting calls from people, saying, I see you have solar panels. Do you also do environmentally-sensitive funerals? I knew a little bit about the natural burial movement. I did some more research on it, learned about Greensprings Natural Cemetery (outside Ithaca, New York) and went to one of their open houses. It was a spectacular place, and what they were doing there was absolutely incredible.

I came back and started putting together natural burial packages. We now have packages for Greensprings Natural Cemetery and for Steelmantown [a new natural cemetery in Tuckahoe, New Jersey]. We also offer "greener" funeral options for existing cemeteries and work within the constraints of their requirements.

What's included in the package?
We either won't embalm or will embalm with gluteraldehyde or Aardbalm [two formaldehyde-free embalming solutions I'll write about in an upcoming blog]. We have sustainable caskets made from seagrass, wicker, bamboo and native pine. We also work with shrouded bodies and do home funerals. We'll work with families to meet whatever needs they have.

Some funeral directors have said green burial is a fad and, like most fads, will fade. Do you agree?
I don't think green burial is a fad. The funeral directors [who think it is] are probably the same ones who twenty-five years ago [mistakenly] thought that cremation urns were a fad.

I don't think green burial will become as popular as cremation or overcome traditional funerals. But I do think there's a growing movement that will certainly feel very comfortable with the concept of natural burial and the green funeral.

Have you handled any green burials?
I have made pre-arrangements for future natural burials at Greensprings and Steelmantown. I've handled more "green funerals" in existing traditional cemeteries, about one to one-and-a-half per month since the beginning of this year. That's because there are more people out there who want to be buried in family plots they own [at existing, traditional cemeteries] but want to do it as green as possible.

What do those green funerals entail?
In January I had a family that wanted to give their mother a green burial. We wrapped the woman in a shroud, placed her in a very simple pine box. The following day there was a gathering in the funeral home. There was no embalming, no viewing in this case, a closed casket. We went off to the church for a traditional funeral Mass and then buried her in the cemetery next to her husband. The cemetery did not require a concrete burial vault, so although she was buried in a traditional cemetery she had a natural burial.

I think you'll see more of those green funerals happen because older family members want to be buried in the plots they already have. As the Baby Boomers grow in number and choose for themselves, then you'll see more growth in the true natural burial concept [i.e., a natural burial in a true natural cemetery, ala Greensprings].

How do families react when they enter your casket display room and see your array of natural caskets?
A number of them have said, I'm [choosing a metal casket] because this is what Mom would want. Then they look at their spouse and say, "But when my time comes, I'd be more comfortable with something like this [natural casket]."

Why do you think some people are turning away from "traditional" funerals and to green funerals and burials?
The traditional funeral has become like some weddings. If you look at your watch and it's four o'clock you know they must be cutting the cake. If it's four-fifteen, they must be doing the garter bit.

Green burial offers families a personalized funeral. It offers them what they need at the time they need it. And a funeral director can't personalize a funeral by [simply] changing a cap panel or unscrewing a corner post. That's not personalization.

How have your fellow funeral directors reacted to your foray into green burial?
Some of the funeral directors who know me understand where I'm coming from. Some others think I'm a little off the bean. And that's all right. I'm not going to try to change their mentality, because some of these fellows are also trying to decide whether cremation is here to stay or not.

Any final comments?
The general public should understand that while some funeral directors are reluctant to change not all of them are Tom Fieldings [the modern funeral director I present in chapter one of Grave Matters]. We're not all totally stuck in the mud. As the funeral industry is educated to the concept of green burial, some funeral homes will start responding to the natural burial movement. It will take time. It's a different concept than what a lot of us funeral directors have been brought up with. To change what has been the norm through the course of a lifetime is going to take time.

You can reach Bob Prout at Prout Funeral Home, 370 Bloomfield Avenue, Verona, NJ 07044. Phone: 973-239-2060.

The Prout Funeral Home has been certified "green" by the Green Burial Council.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (


Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to post this. I agree with Mr. Prout and find his perspective on the topic common among funeral directors who want to continue to have a business in the future. Lately it seems that the language towards funeral homes and directors regarding the issue has been nothing short of hostile, expressing the same intolerance for traditional funerals as they accuse us (we in the industry) of having towards natural/green options. Though I think this blog makes a point to see both sides, this post shows how the industry accepts changes while maintaining its base clientele. Baby boomers, who are used to having options in all aspects of their lives, forget that they can have them in their death, too. They can have a natural burial or cremation AND a viewing, with as much or as little fanfare as they wish. It is a bit disappointing however, when the generation that continuously supported a capitalistic society gets upset when those principles are applied to funeral service. Natural options, while less expensive, can also add up in cost when taking into account the perpetual care of the place of internment (as discussed by Billy Campbell) or having a memorial without a body present.

Sarah Wambold
Funeral Director and Embalmer
Austin, TX

Anonymous said...

I believe the funeral services industry is sitting at the tip of a major transformation, from the way burials are done to how people are memorialized. It takes a leader to not only recognize how the market and the world are evolving, but also take risks and actually make changes. I commend Mr. Prout and the funeral directors and others you write about for being proactive instead of reactive.

Lauren Kwan

Alice Jones said...

Thank you very much for sharing this posting. I appreciate your effort and your time. I totally agree with you. I love it.

RobertO said...

Yes, it is time to change the traditional way of doing things. This forum itself speaks to giving people the information and time to comfortably decide what is best for them. In the confines of an emotional state most customers of the traditional industry have been in the position of not knowing what options "truly" exist. An educated and informed public will dictate how to deal with death.

Unknown said...

actually, this is not anywhere near to a new thing.. I have great great parent that were buried in this manner theres nothing new about this. Love that this tradition has made a full circle.

Mark Harris said...

HALA is right, certainly. I often point out in the book that what we now call green burial is not more exotic than the standard way that Americans of the pre-Civil War years routinely buried their dead. And, of course, humans have been doing it for thousands of years. Full circle indeed.

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"A ‘green’ funeral is a term often used to describe a simple ceremony followed by burial in a grave in a woodland or meadowed area. Often for these funerals the use of a cardboard or other form of biodegradable coffin is considered more environmentally friendly than using wood."

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Unknown said...

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