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Friday, October 31, 2008

Funeral Directors Conference Gets the Greening

It could be that funeral directors averse to green burial decided to sleep in on the morning that Joe Sehee, Darren Crouch and I hosted a panel on green burial at the annual convention of the National Funeral Directors Association in Orlando earlier this month. (Not that I begrudge them the extra shuteye: we did start at 7:00 am.)

But the seventy or so who did show up – and the larger group that attended our roundtable discussion later that afternoon -- seemed to accept the fact of a green burial movement. At least no one contradicted the Jewish funeral director who, very eloquently, stated that green burial was clearly an idea whose time had come and that his colleagues would do well to get involved.

The questions and comments that followed suggested that many of those funeral directors had moved beyond acceptance and were looking to actually venture into planet-friendly burial. Some of those comments and my replies:

One funeral director told the group that he could refrigerate remains and provide the biodegradable coffin easily enough. What he couldn't offer his natural burial clients was a cemetery that would allow for a vaultless grave.

Supply is an issue -- for now. Green cemeteries are springing up around the county (there are some 20 by my last count). I know another score are in various stages of planning. That does not include the growing number of regular cemeteries that are allowing for vault-free burial or are reserving sections of their grounds for natural burial preserves. We'll see hundreds of these open to burial in the coming years. As demand for natural cemeteries increases, sites will grow.

Is it possible to have a home funeral for remains that had been autopsied or whose organs had been removed?

At the biannual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance last June, I'd asked that same question of Jerrigrace Lyons. Jerrigrace, one of the country's leading authorities on home funerals, said that she had held home funerals in such cases, with no issues. Addressing the possibility of fluids leaking from autopsied remains, Darren Crouch said his company was in the process of developing a biodegradable plastic body bag that could be used to capture liquids for the period of a home funeral.

How much are green cemeteries charging?

Prices vary widely from cemetery to cemetery, but most tend to be in the $2,000 to $3,000 range for the plot, plus another $500 for the opening and closing. High? Maybe compared to regular cemeteries. Although I would argue that burial in a green cemetery is a worthy investment in more than just one's interment: the burial not only nourishes soil and pushes up vegetation (rejoining one's remains to the cycle of life that turns to support those we leave behind) but in the best of schemes helps preserve good land from being developed. A powerful legacy, I'd say. Also, in cemeteries that have partnered with land conservation organizations, some of the cost may be tax-deductible.

After the morning session, I walked the huge convention showroom which, as much as anything, proved that the funeral industry is indeed a multi-billion dollar business.

Still, I was pleased to note a number of green enterprises.

One of them is Ecoffins, a British company that's producing coffins made from a biomass of compostable material, like bamboo and the wicker that's woven into the casket pictured above.

I'll report on them and on other green funeral providers in the coming weeks.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, October 10, 2008

First Green Burial Conference: A Lively Affair in Boulder

Last week's first-ever green burial conference, in Boulder, Colorado, brought together the broad, eclectic mix of adherents that continue to bear out my long-standing belief that natural burial has the legs to go mainstream.

There were students and septuagenarians. Hospice workers. Vegetarians and MBAers. Cemetery operators and celebrants. A couple of funeral directors and many more home funeral advocates. A few gutsy souls who had the moxie to take the deathcare of their deceased into their own hands, not because they knew it was legal but because they felt it the right thing to do. Even a couple of attendees who'd never heard of natural burial but thought it sounded interesting enough to invest a day learning about.

I gave a version of my ever-changing presentation on the current lay of the green burial landscape, with a history of death in early America and how it evolved into the more elaborate funerals of today. Joe Sehee, of the Green Burial Council, provided an update on the natural cemeteries across the country he has helped start.

The Q&A sessions and open forums that followed provided an interesting window into how some are viewing the green burial movement and what issues the movement does and may face.

Some highlights:

Green in green burial? A pair of businessmen wondered how to make green burial pay out. Up to now, the natural cemetery has largely provided a strategy that offers not just a dust-to-dust burial but a way to preserve land from being developed. Profit margins, to the extent there are any, are thin. To increase them, the MBAers talked of burying more bodies per acre than is currently the case, partnering with conservation organizations, growing natural cemeteries on or near the urban cores where large populations dwell. The challenge, as they acknowledged, is to do that and stay true to real-green conservation principles.

Natural cemeteries may draw too many visitors. One of the goals of the natural cemetery is to reconnect people with the land, by inviting them to see it less as a graveyard than as nature preserve to delight in. So it's possible, one cemeterian noted, that locals might overtax their natural cemeteries, arriving in huge numbers and despoiling the land in the process.

Ensuring that green cemeteries remain green. A great question from one of the green burial neophytes: what's to prevent the future owner of a green cemetery from deciding to, say, allow for the burial of embalmed bodies or metal caskets? For Joe Sehee the answer is in making sure that green cemeteries partner with reputable conservation organizations, which act as ecological stewards of the land. That's just the kind of arrangement he sets up with the conservation burial grounds he helps establish.

Not surprisingly, the Boulder gathering was friendly to natural burial. I'll report next week on the response I get from a tougher and, perhaps, more suspect audience I’m addressing on Monday: the funeral directors who are attending the annual convention of the National Funeral Directors Association in Orlando.

The photo above comes complements of Clint Crary, of Pioneer Natural Burial. From left to right: Karen van Vuuren (founder/director, Natural Transitions), Joe Sehee, Mark Harris, Laina Corazon Coit (founder, Prairie Wilderness Cemeteries) and Maeve Conran (news producer at KGNU radio).

Note: That's a wicker coffin, distributed by Passages, in the far right of the photo.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Thursday, October 02, 2008

First Green Burial Conference, More on Enduring Grave Markers

There's still time to register for the first-ever green burial conference, in Boulder, Colorado. The date is this Saturday, October 4.

Organized and hosted by Natural Transitions, a home funeral provider in Boulder, the conference brings together green burial advocates and practitioners. I'll be joining Joe Sehee (director of the Green Burial Council) and Karen van Vuuren (of Natural Transitions) to survey the growing green burial movement and learn how to literally bring it to ground in our own communities.

For anyone who's looking to establish a natural cemetery, Joe's presentation in the afternoon is a must. Joe has helped a number of individuals, groups and government entities root conservation/green graveyards on land across the country. He'll share his experiences and insights that you can apply to your own patch of earth.

I'll report back here on what I learn.

For more information, see the conference web site

More on enduring grave markers.
Those of you who have been following our fascinating discussion about appropriate grave markers should note Thomas Friese's recent reply to Billy Campbell. You'll find the original thread by clicking here. I've posted Thomas' comments below.

From Thomas Friese:
Billy, I particularly like your observations on the "re-storying" aspect of restoration ecology -- without a consistent multigenerational human engagement, one cannot expect to naturalize/restore/recreate a landscape in any intended direction, be it back to its former wild condition, its former cultured condition or to a new state altogether. Since you prioritize the ecological benefits of natural burial, the particular forms of "natural" landscape one tries to achieve from the process are important to you. I, on the other hand, am more interested in the cultural and spiritual benefits of this return to nature per se -- we emphasize different benefits from the same process.

So that we understand each other, I require a short digression…. Though I share your goal of returning the planet to more natural ways (intentionally vague words), I am more focused on the human cultural and spiritual aspects of burial, since I believe the earth will take care of herself and the real danger posed is to the human realm.

In my world-view, the earth is a far more intelligent and resilient being than the human species which momentarily lives on and of it. Her life span is of a different level of magnitude than our species’. With respect to her, we are temporary guests, as individuals and even as a species. And even though our recent generations seem to be (indeed, are) rapists and pillagers of their own mother, I still believe that the earth is essentially in control of its own geological and ecological evolution, and that she is presently undergoing an especially rapid and dramatic phase of change -- a complete change of clothing, a new incarnation, if you like. Of course this has happened many times before, without human "help", before humans even existed. I see the human species as a relatively unconscious agent of the present changes our earth is going through -- and only one of many agents: our actions and their effects (CO2-induced global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation etc etc) complement or counteract other forces like vulcanism, magnetic pole movement, astronomical precession, "natural" elements of global warming, and so on. The earth wants and needs to change, it is an important moment for her, and we are called, forced, to participate.

Our role in these changes includes a real, though limited and usually over-rated, element of free will -- we can do more or less, better or worse things to help her achieve a new state of equilibrium. But we should not presume to know what she wants -- long ago, Nietszche said that above all we should never doubt the will of the earth, it is her will that counts and will be effective, not ours. Who knows, she may want, may need desertification, flooding, a warmer temperature, no more ice caps. Why not? Let's not be small-minded, just because it is inconvenient for us, one of her many ephemeral guests. Time and destiny gave her the Sahara where a rain forest grew for millions of years, it gave her ice ages and mass extinctions -- these are facts we view reluctantly or deny.

But, as a hypothetical example of our potential role, I would guess she probably does not want vast areas spoiled for eons by nuclear or chemical pollution. Or perhaps she does want some of her former fauna and flora preserved, at least certain parts of it. Here, in the few choices we can effectively make, as consciously as possible, is where our ability to help or hurt the earth begins and ends. The rest is up to her and higher forces of the universe. Whatever, we cannot hope to preserve her as she is, that would be titanic presumption, impossible, and in any case against her will. So what can we do?

Firstly, we should believe in her -- she is infinitely longer-lived, smarter and more powerful than us and in the end she has always been and will continue to be able to look after herself.

Secondly, we should try to understand what she wants and aid her according to our modest means -- this is tricky terrain, I know, and vulnerable to all sorts of self-serving justifications.

Thirdly, we should be realists rather than idealists, and learn to accept what we cannot save, adapt where there is no other choice. Or we will waste our energies defending the indefensible.

Lastly -- this is my priority -- we must act vigorously to ensure our own cultural and spiritual survival. For the first time, Man risks total destruction -- physical, cultural, and spiritual. His physical survival is hopefully part of the economic/ecological plan of the earth -- but who knows, the dinosaurs are now only fossils. But whether or not that survival is given in the long term, our medium term cultural survival and our spiritual survival above all is our own responsibility. Here we must act for ourselves. This is why my focus is first and foremost on perpetuity and preservation of individual and collective human heritage.

On cultural survival…. To paraphrase a favourite author of mine, ahistorical Man knows no peace; even his graves, like all his structures, are intended to last thirty years. But thirty year graves are no basis for cultural continuity and growth. For graves form the very soil of humanity -- we are humans because we create humus. And not organic humus, which every plant and animal does, but cultural humus, which only humans do to any significant degree. Clearing away graves after thirty years to replace them with others, removing entire cemeteries to build gas stations, parking lots or housing developments, or worst of all, not leaving any physical memorial at all by relying entirely on ash scattering, is exactly akin to the slash and burn agriculture of the Amazon -- the cultural humus that is beginning to be laid down is wiped out in one fell swoop and a basis for rich and sustained cultural diversity is precluded. Cultural desertification results. Graves (or memorial markers – cremation or burial is irrelevent IMHO, what matters is the memorial) preserve the past and thereby form the basis of culture. The longer they preserve that past, the better. The disappearance of our old cults of the dead announced the end of culture and history -- if they were to start again, culture could also take new root.

On spiritual survival… In our mundane titanic age, death and graves could become the most effective access to transcendence remaining to modern man: his religions are corrupted and no longer credible, his art has become abstract, fragmented and directionless, and to make things worse, he naively believes himself the new king of the universe, with even Great Nature at his feet. The only power that remains invincible, awesome, mysterious is death -- hence his exaggerated terror of it. But it is precisely in death's invincibility, in its true and enduring mystery, that a new spirituality could take root -- if, big IF, he is encouraged by cemeteries that are beautiful, that reflect transcendence, that inspire hope, that point in the direction of eternity. This requires a new vision of cemeteries and our death rituals.

Now finally I can close the circle and return to the topic of natural burials and cemeteries: I believe that part of a positive and workable new vision would be a conscious integration of Nature into the world of cemeteries and death rituals. Nature's eternal cycles, seasonal rebirth, unblemishable inner purity, immutable laws, and intrinsic beauty can all be powerful symbols of higher order, of hope and of transcendence for man. And, especially if the intention is genuine, the ecological aspect makes the movement very marketable, which, like it or not, is critical to its success.

I hope this has explained my angle on natural cemeteries, and I welcome personal correspondence from anyone who even partially shares this vision and would like to work to make it happen.

Thomas Friese

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Grave Matters

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