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Monday, September 28, 2009

Green Burial Coming Out Big in October

October of 2009 is shaping up to be the month that may very well prove, once and for all, that green burial is not only here to stay but coming, sooner than later, to a Main Street Funeral Home nearest you.

Consider these upcoming conferences.

First: the home funeral advocates at Natural Transitions will host a national gathering of green and home funeral advocates in Boulder, Colorado, this weekend (October 3 – 4). The Boulder-based non-profit convened the first ever green burial conference last year, a lively and inspiring event at which I joined Joe Sehee (of the Green Burial Council) in showcasing the movement to date.

This year's conference promises to be an even stronger and more spirited engagement with a movement that has clearly found its legs. Since then, the natural cemeteries I profiled in my presentation have more than doubled in number and the half page of home funeral providers listed in the hardcover issue of Grave Matters now runs to five full pages in the newer paperback -- and continues to grow.

Billy and Kimberley Campbell will keynote the Saturday session. The Campbells jumpstarted the green burial movement in this country when they opened the woodland cemetery at Ramsey Creek Preserve. A decade-plus later, Ramsey Creek continues to define the highest standard of conservation burial. If you're interested in learning more about green burial and, more particularly, about how to grow a natural cemetery from the ground up (and do it right), you'll get that and more from the best -- and wittiest -- in the business.

Another pioneer in home funerals, Beth Knox, will share her observations on this growing trend (which was featured recently on page one of the New York Times). Beth's the founder of the home funeral advocacy, Crossings, and as much as anyone has helped re-introduce the idea to an American public that once pursued it as a matter of course.

Rounding out the weekend are presentations on legal open-air cremations, serving Native American populations, creating meaningful end of life rituals, and working from within the existing funeral industry to bring green burial to families.

For more information and a complete schedule, click here.

The mainstream funeral industry was late to embrace cremation. The National Funeral Directors Association is not about to let natural burial slip from its grasp so easily. That this group of nearly 20,000 funeral professionals is jumping on the green funeral bandwagon is clear from a quick read of these workshop titles from the group's annual meeting in Boston at month's end (October 25 -28):

It Isn't Easy Being Green. A Green Funeral Home Isn't Just About Burial. Does Formaldehyde Cause Cancer? And then there are two others that look at more eco-friendly products and strategies, including AARDBalm (a formaldehyde-free alternative to embalming fluids) and resomation (a burn- and thus smokeless alternative to cremation).

That second presentation on the green funeral home will showcase one of the most earth-friendly businesses in the entire funeral trade: Prout Funeral Home, in Verona, New Jersey. Last year in this blog I profiled owner/operator Bob Prout, who will lead the discussion. As much as anyone in the trade, Bob's pursing the best in good, green practices and encouraging his colleagues to follow in his footsteps.

For more information on the NFDA conference, click here.

Finally, if you're going to be in southern New Jersey the third weekend of October (17 - 18), stop in at the Steelmantown Cemetery in Marshallville. The cemetery crew will offer tours and an open house of the small, historic site, which is surrounded by hundreds of wooded acres. Certified by the Green Burial Council, Steelmantown shows just how an existing cemetery can offer a natural return to the elements within its existing grounds.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Note on the photo above: This is the historic Caswell Cemetery on Star Island, New Hampshire, where I spoke about green burial at a week-long family conference this summer.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Pennsylvania Valley Gets its First Green Funeral Director

I have spoken to enough eco-leaning funeral directors since the publication of Grave Matters to see first-hand that the same greening that's washing over most industries in this country, from agriculture (organic foods) to construction (LEEDs-certified homes), is coming to mortuary science.

If I ever doubted that, I needed only to read last fall about the funeral director in the town next to mine who'd begun offering seagrass caskets, refrigeration, and help with home wakes out of a rehabbed Victorian mansion in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

When green burial comes to the greater Lehigh Valley -- a somewhat conservative, largely blue-collar enclave that boasts well-worked farmland and rugged brownfields -- it shows the movement for a more natural return can land just about anywhere.

Just how will it take? To find out, I drove out to Elias Funeral Home in downtown Allentown and talked with its forty-something owner and supervisor Nicos Elias.

A near ten-year veteran of the funeral trade, Nicos ventured into green burial after attending a seminar on the topic put on by the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association in the fall of 2008. "They talked about how [green funerals] is a growing trend and that we may be called on to do these types of services," Nicos told me in the conference room of his funeral home, a bank of casket ends lining one wall. The group distributed a sample General Price List from a funeral home that had offered green goods and services.

For Nicos going green just made sense. For one, it was good for the planet, "a way of being responsible to the Earth in deathcare," he says.

It made smart business sense, too. Funerals clearly are trending green, Nicos believed. And since no one else was doing it, jumping on the eco-burial bandwagon offered the indie funeral director a way of differentiating himself from the very stiff competition.

So, after he bought the old Trexler Mansion and converted it into a funeral home late last year, he advertised himself as green funeral provider -- the first in the area. "I want to be the funeral director that families in the Lehigh Valley think of when they want to do a green funeral," he says.

By then, Nicos had more carefully researched the movement and modeled a green GPL off existing ones elsewhere. In the process, he consulted with Cynthia Beal of the Natural Burial Company, an eco-casket supplier in Eugene, Oregon. From Cynthia he ordered a couple of caskets made from willow and seagrass, and “acorn” urns of paper mache.

Either casket is provided in his five natural burial packages, all of which replace embalming with refrigeration (in a unit on the premises) or dry ice. Burial shrouds, produced by Esmerelda Kent, the San Francisco artist who created the shrouds used in that famous green burial episode of Six Feet Under, are available, as well. Visitations with unembalmed remains are among the options, although Nicos prefers to limit them to families.

What's striking about the packages, which you can view here, is what I've long argued: that funeral directors can find the green in green burial.

For nearly $6,000, for example, Nicos offers a green version of the standard funeral service: the typical funeral director fees, transfer of remains from place of death, evening visitation and funeral at his home, among others, plus refrigeration, eco-casket and vault (as required by local cemeteries). Less expensive packages, down to just under $5,000, are available with fewer goods and services (no public visitation or funeral).

His green funerals fall short of the $7,000-plus Nicos might earn for an average, modern funeral. But not bad, especially when you consider that families that come to green burial are those which very well might otherwise have chosen an even bigger revenue loser for the funeral trade: cremation, whose average cost is $1,800.

Those are just the packages. Nicos recently sat down with Penny Rhodes, a local deathcare midwife, and offered to help her with families seeking assistance with home funerals. When I asked Nicos what else he'd be willing to do to help families interested in funeral options that lay outside the box, he said simply, "I want to [help them] in any way possible."

Since talking with Nicos last spring, he told me he had recently done one green funeral. For that, he refrigerated the remains and arranged a private family viewing in his funeral home the day before burial (in an all-wood casket) at an old cemetery in Connecticut. "Everything went quite well," he said, "and seemed to be exactly what [the family] wanted."

Mark Harris, author Grave Matters (

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Writing Out Green Burial/Home Funerals in Colorado?

From USA Today, more proof of eco burial's growing purchase on the American consciousness: nearly 65% of green-leaning adults say that they are considering or would consider a natural return, were it possible.

The latest funereal stats blipped on my radar just as I was studying Colorado House Bill 1202: Concerning the Regulation of Persons Who Provide for the Final Disposition of Dead Human Bodies in the Normal Course of Business.

Talk about a study in contrasts.

On one hand, an indication of green burial's broadening appeal. On the other, a funeral bill that never directly addresses green burial, natural return, home funerals, or their providers -- although there's plenty said about funeral directors, mortuary science practitioners, cremationist, embalmers, funeral establishments and their services.

In other words: a bill that treats the most major shift to U.S. funeral traditions since Civil War surgeons began embalming Union casualties as if it practically doesn't exist or, at the very least, doesn't much matter. In this bill, the modern funeral is the only (end) game in town.

Little wonder DIYers are protesting. As some see it, HB 1202 not only marginalizes them but threatens their ability to carry out their family- and earth-friendly practices.

The Colorado Funeral Directors Association helped write the bill, whose stated and worthy goal is to offer greater protection to funeral-buying families in a state that affords little. As for concerns about the new bill's limiting a family's right to green burial and home funerals, CFDA contends that those rights are in fact retained in legal statues elsewhere.

If that's true, then the best solution may be this: To re-craft a consumer protection bill that not only shields Centennial Staters from bad funeral practices and their agents but that ALSO spells out their right to care for their own dead, from filing death certificates and buying third-party caskets to waking and laying out their loved ones in their own homes, without the aid of a funeral director.

While we're at it, let's go ahead and name and define the funeral practices -- and practitioners -- that more and more Colorado families are turning to when death comes calling, including green burial and home funerals.

For families, the solution would be a double win. They'd get the consumer protections they deserve and the clearly-stated right to take the care of their dead into their own hands.

As I write this, HB has been sent back to committee for revision, to address some of the concerns above.

I didn’t post this soon enough. On April 22, HB 1202 passed through committee, with amendments. It now moves to further committee consideration and then onto a Senate vote. Natural Transitions, a Boulder-based home funeral advocacy, continues to have reservations about the bill. For more information, click here.

There is one win for supporters of natural return in Colorado. The most significant change to the proposed bill involved the adoption of a separate amendment that will more specifically allow for home funerals and green burial.

For anyone interested in learning more about -- and seeing images from -- the green burial movement, I'll be giving a number of presentations in the coming weeks. Most are free and open to the public.

May 3: Rochester (NY)
May 17: Philadelphia
May 18: Montreal
May 20: Ithaca
May 21: Syracuse

For more information, click here.

The video above features Ken West, a promoter of green burial in the U.K. who opened the country's first natural cemetery in Carlisle, in 1991.

Monday, March 09, 2009

DIY Green Burial Step # 2: Learn Hospital’s Policy on Releasing Remains to Family

Note to family: If it looks like I'll be taking my last breaths in the clinical environs of the local hospital, please, take me home.

Like most people, I'd rather pass from the scene within the comforts of home, even with its proliferating dust bunnies, missing shoe molding and the previous owners' 1940's wallpaper with the pink flowers I still can't believe adorns my bedroom a dozen years after we bought this pile.

But there's an even bigger benefit to my passing at home: it nearly ensures that my family, on its own, can carry out my last wishes for a green and simple send-off to the Great Hereafter.

That might not be possible if I expire at any of the local hospitals to which I'd likely be brought in extremis. Two of them never returned my repeated phone calls asking about their policies for releasing remains to family members instead of funeral directors. The one hospital rep who did get back told me she's never heard such a (strange) request and wasn't sure her hospital even had a release policy written out.

My lacking response may be typical. Of the thirty-some hospital associations that funeral consumer advocate Lisa Carlson contacted to ask about their body release policies, none of them had a policy on hand. That included an association in New Jersey, a state that requires every hospital to have one.

If my home state of Pennsylvania requires hospitals to set protocol for the release of their dead, I couldn't find it. What I did turn up is a statute in our state code stating that "remains of deceased patients shall be prepared for removal from clinical areas in accordance with hospital policy." That directive seems, to me anyway, to address body disinfection and removal from hospital rooms, not from the hospital itself, although it does seem to grant overall removal powers to the hospital.

The PA hospital association I contacted concurs with that reading. In an e-mail, a representative wrote that hospitals in the state "establish their own policies regarding the release of a deceased." The association does not have or set policy itself.

So, with my local hospitals I'm left with the great unknown about their body release policies. [For now anyway. In the near future, I want to join with our local home funeral advocates and sit down with hospital staffs to talk about the idea of the home funeral.]

I'm also left with the question that keeps nagging whenever I've considered this issue: Can a hospital legally refuse to release remains to families? I know some hospitals do have such a policy or one that states it will only release to families when the deceased has left very clear instructions. If you're a lawyer or expert on hospital policy, I'd love to hear your take on the issue.

If it turns out that my local hospitals do have a release policy, I sure hope it reads something like the one crafted by Fletcher Allen Healthcare in Vermont, which Lisa Carlson cites on page 6 in her newsletter. Briefly, the policy allows for the release of the body to the family and tells families what arrangements they need to make to allow it.

Maybe my local hospitals have such a family-friendly directive somewhere in their files, just waiting for that first client to blow the dust off. Until I know that for sure, though, this will be among my final requests should I be languishing in a local hospital bed: get me home, and ASAP.

Note on video above: a short doc on the history and manufacturing of caskets.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, February 13, 2009

DIY in States that Require Use of a Funeral Director

Like the vast majority of green burial enthusiasts, I'm fortunate to live in a state where families may legally care for their own dead.

Pennsylvania, as I wrote in last week's blog, is one of forty-three states that grants its citizens the right to essentially act as their own funeral directors. By law, we Keystoners can lay out and wake our deceased at home, file death certificates, even transport remains to the cemetery or crematory -- among other last acts -- on our own.

Pennsylvania's family-friendly funeral regs make it easy for me to plan my green goodbye in advance (as I'm doing in recent and forthcoming blogs). But, as a number of you rightly note, that's cold comfort if you live in New York, Connecticut, Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan, Utah and Louisiana.

Families in these seven states must by law engage the services of a funeral director to handle certain end of life affairs, from signing death certificates to overseeing the burial. I'll leave it to Josh Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance to skewer to supposed logic behind those requirements and argue for full family rights at end of life, which he does in this blog. Slocum's post also links to groups that are working to overturn the restrictive funeral provisions.

Until legislators in those states see green, consider these tips when planning for the DIY natural return to the elements in the seven states above:

* Learn what your state requires when death comes calling.
The exact requirements vary by state. Indiana authorities will accept death certificates only if they're signed by funeral directors. Hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers and other state-licensed institutions in New York will release remains only to funeral directors.

If you know your state's specific requirement for end of life matters, you'll go into any funeral arrangement conference fully prepared to contract with a funeral director for only what you need her to do -- and not do.

You can find your state's regulations through the search I outlined in last week's blog. Also helpful is Lisa Carlson’s book, Caring for the Dead, and your local affiliate of the family-advocacy Funeral Consumers Alliance.

* Hire a green-leaning funeral director.
As the natural burial movement gains traction, a growing number of funeral directors are catering to the specific requests of its eco-friendly clientele. The handful of funeral directors I contacted in the restrictive states above not only proved knowledge about green funerals but were willing to help families conduct as much of them as they wanted.

Where do you find those directors? If your end-of-life plans call for burial in a natural cemetery, contact the cemetery and ask for a referral. When I called Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve in Newfield, New York, for leads, burial coordinator Jennifer Johnson enthused about Lisa Auble.

Auble, a state licensed funeral director who owns and operates Lansing Funeral Home, has overseen a number of funerals and burials at Greensprings. "I believe in [green burial]," she told me. "And interest is really, really increasing." Per state law, Auble has assisted families who chose Greensprings by filing death certificates, overseeing burials, and, when necessary, removing remains from hospitals and like institutions.

Beyond that, she said she'll do as much or as little as a family requests. In most cases, her involvement has included transporting remains from their place of death and then, usually, placing them on dry ice (which, to her initial surprise, she found better preserves a body than refrigeration). Auble has also sewn fabric into shrouds for coffin-less burials.

The Green Burial Council is another useful source for leads. The Santa-Fe non-profit posts a state-by-state list of funeral directors who have gained the Council's eco certification. And, again, your local Funeral Consumers Alliance affiliate can steer you to area funeral homes they've found particularly helpful.

* Be clear about what you want your funeral director to do -- and nail down the cost.
Once you know the services a funeral director must by law undertake and, then, know the ones you and your family want to handle yourselves, you can check them off the General Price List the director will produce at an arrangement conference.

You'll also see in black and white the costs for each. The Nathan Butler Funeral Home in Bloomington, Indiana, for example, charges $600 to sign and deliver the death certificate. You'll pay Lansing Funeral Home almost $1,600 if you have Auble and her staff handle the only services you can't DIY by law in New York ($300 for her to be present at the burial, another $1,275 in non-declinable fees that cover arranging services, filing the death certificate, among others).

Note on the photograph above: The red flags indicate potential grave sites at Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, January 30, 2009

Step 1 in Green Funeral Planning: Documenting the Right to DIY

They may wail and rent their garments. They might toast their good fortune with my best Scotch. No matter how my family marks my passing from the scene, however, this much is clear: they have every legal right to handle what's left of my mortal remains.

Lisa Carson documents those last rights in the Pennsylvania chapter of Caring for the Dead. The PA State Association of Township Supervisors does the same, in more detail, in this summary of state funeral laws (to wit: "Nothing in state law requires a family to use a funeral director.").

I'm adding copies of each of these documents to an end-of-life file I'm preparing for my family. I have a good idea of what I want to happen with my remains upon my final exit, and I want to make sure my family has all the information they need to follow through (after they've finished raiding my liquor cabinet, of course).

They may need it. Officials in charge of post-death affairs in this corner of the Keystone State have an uncertain grasp on the legalities of the DIY funeral and burial, I'm finding. When time comes, my family may have to educate the Powers that Be that, yes, it does have the right to essentially serve as my funeral director. The documentation I'm collecting now will go a long way to prove the point then, if need be.

Interestingly, no Pennsylvania law I've turned up explicitly states that right. The state has enacted all manner of laws for funeral directors; it does not, however, reserve post-death matters solely to the dismal trade. Who, then, has those rights?

According to the Vital Statistics Law of 1953 (P.L. 304) -- another document that's going into my family file -- that somebody would be a "person."

Section 501, which deals with death certificates, reads: "The person in charge of interment or of removal of the dead body . . . shall file the death certificate . . . ." Another section further on emphasizes the point, stating that the "local registrar shall issue the permit [to 'dispose' of remains] only after the person in charge of interment or removal has filed with the local registrar a certificate of death . . . ."

Legislators probably assumed that the unnamed "person" in their law would be a funeral director. A funeral director has so consistently been that person on my home turf that officials here may assume he's the required one by law to handle final affairs.

Yet by leaving that person unidentified, unnamed, Pennsylvania legislators are allowing non-funeral personnel to fill the role: like my wife, children and parents.

To find documentation on DIY rights in your state, start with Carlson's book. Then go online. Google "state legislature" and the name of your state. The results should bring you to your state laws. At the home page of my state legislature, for example, I clicked on "Session Information" and then entered "funeral" in the "Find By Legislation" search box. The search led to amendments that had been made to the Vital Statistic Law, which I then tracked down.

Alternatively, you can search for your state funeral board, whose web pages often link to state funeral laws. Also, consult the pages of your state affiliates of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Many of them post information about state funeral laws.

Next time: Claiming a body from the hospital.

The video above offers more proof of the value of a home funeral and why it's becoming more popular. The video features Beth Knox, the founder of Crossings whom I profile in the home funeral chapter of Grave Matters.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, January 16, 2009

Emily Dickinson Speaks of Death from the Grave

In the coming weeks I'll return to the topic I started but flagged on early last year: a step-by-step plan for my own eventual green burial.

Planning in advance for a standard sendoff via the local funeral home can be an involved affair. The green goodbye can be ever harder to arrange, as I discovered when I went to do it myself.

I tell you why and then walk you through the process I'm charting to set my own affairs in order. My goal? To not just record my final wishes but to make it as easy as possible for my family to follow through on them. The steps will be specific to my Pennsylvania hometown, but I'll work to make them broad enough to apply elsewhere.

Back with step one next week: documenting the legal right my family has to care for its own dead.

And speaking of passings, here's Emily Dickinson giving us a gentle and seductive view of death's arrival in her famous poem, "Because I could not stop for Death." Death not so kindly stopped for Emily in 1886 (she died of Bright’s Disease). But the Cyberage has resurrected the Belle of Amherst in this eerie but oddly fascinating "recording" of the poem, in the video above.

Because I could not stop for Death
Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, January 09, 2009

Green Burial: The Visual Tour

Watch more Google Video videos on AOL Video

As the green burial movement gathers steam, organizations have approached me to ask if I speak to groups about natural return. If so, they've wanted to know just what I'd present and how I'd do it.

The answer is, yes, I do speak about green burial and general funeral issues. In the last year, I gave some dozen presentations around the country on "grave matters" to college students, pro-consumer funeral groups, church congregations, hospice workers, and funeral directors, among others. The events have generally been free and open to the public.

For me, these engagements have offered the opportunity to present an updated tour of the green burial movement using images I'd wanted, but was unable, to include in Grave Matters. It's one thing to write about a moving natural burial at Ramsey Creek Preserve; it's quite another to see photographs of families gathered in that lush pine woods, circled around a plain, wood coffin that's suspended above a cavity strewn with flowers and pine needles, the sun filtering through the tall canopy overhead.

That visual tour includes scores of photographs I took in the course of my research and travels, including those of natural burial grounds and backyard cemeteries, of burials at sea and via memorial reef ball, a honeycombed dome containing the deceased's ashes that serves as an aquatic nursery off the U.S. and Canadian coastline.

Archival photographs I've collected show early American funerals and their progression to the more involved sendoffs of today. By way of contrast, I address the environmental aftermath of the standard funeral and how funeral directors are coming to embrace more natural returns.

If you're interested in seeing one of these presentations, I’ll be speaking this spring in Rochester (NY), Princeton (NJ), and Greensboro (NC). You can find a full list of engagements, with specific locations, by clinking on this BookTour link.

If you'd like to bring me to speak to your group, you can reach me by e-mail: I'll tell you more about the presentation and arrangements. I can also send testimonials from organizers of past engagements.

More on Bibb’s Ban of Green Burial (the subject of my last blog post)

Beth Collins -- the CEO of the would-be Summerland Natural Cemetery in Macon, Georgia -- attended a standing-room only board meeting of the Bibb County Commission earlier this week and asked members to repeal their anti-green cemetery ordinance. The chairman said he'd consult with fellow board members but, according to this story in the Macon newspaper, said he "didn't think they would change their minds." If they don't, Collins suggested she'd bring a lawsuit against the county.

In the meantime, neighboring Twiggs County has quietly been considering its own green cemetery legislation. (The Twiggs County line borders one side of the Summerland cemetery.) From the looks of this item in the April 1, 2008 agenda of the County Commission, any ordinance would seem less than friendly to natural burial:

"After discussion and input from several citizens in attendance, Commissioner Epps made a motion to send a letter to the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission expressing our concerns regarding the placement of this type of cemetery so near to this County, and the environmental impact of such a cemetery. Floyd seconded. Unanimous Vote. Motion Carried.

Commissioner Epps made a motion to send a letter stating these same concerns to Mr. Dave Blankenship, of the District Health Office in Macon. Floyd Seconded. Unanimous Vote. Motion Carried."

A Green Cemetery Ordinance for Twiggs County was passed on November 18. I'll post a copy of the ordinance when I get it.

To see how one county council -- this one in Wellington, New Zealand -- has embraced, not fought, green burial, click on the video at the head of this blog. It profiles the folks who worked to establish the first modern natural cemetery in the southern hemisphere, the Wellington Natural Cemetery.

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.