Environmentally friendly burial allows for natural return to earth

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Kayla Bunge
Monday, October 6, 2008

Canary yellow mushrooms dot the grass underfoot, sprouting amid the moisture of a late-September morning.

Spindly box elder trees grow between towering pines, creating a leafy curtain that sways in the breeze.

The tiny red baubles on a thicket of wild berry bushes shake as a deer runs through the woods, the thump of its hooves audible in the peaceful retreat.

This 10-acre labyrinth on the Brown Deer Farm in Newark Township is where the landowner Dr. Kathryn Brown wants to be buried—without chemicals, a casket or a concrete burial vault.

"I believe that you should take no more from the earth than you need," she said. "I want my death to represent the same values I had in my life."

The 62-year-old Bahá'í and self-proclaimed "hardcore environmentalist" said such a burial would allow her to return to the earth from which she emerged.

Brown supports an increasingly popular push for green burials, so-called because they do away with toxic embalming chemicals, heavy steel caskets and sealed concrete burial vaults—all designed to prevent a body from decomposing naturally.

Green burial might sound like another trend of the exploding green movement, but it's actually the way most of humanity has cared for its dead for thousands of years, said Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization founded to encourage environmentally sustainable death care practices.

Cemeteries for conservation

Green burial can be a powerful means of facilitating the acquisition, restoration and preservation of natural areas that otherwise might succumb to urban development, Sehee said.

"Conservation is intriguing to many families," he said. "Many people want their last act to be one of incredible importance."

Sehee said people find solace in nature, in being part of the cycle of life and death.

"Chemicals and caskets and concrete vaults—those things get in the way of ‘ashes to ashes,'" he said.

Green cemeteries don't look like conventional cemeteries; they look more like nature preserves. No marble tombstones, no manicured lawns, no decorative entrance gates. Instead, there are trees, prairie grasses and walking paths.

Only 10 green cemeteries are established in the United States, including two in Milwaukee that offer green burial options, Sehee said.

An additional three dozen green cemeteries or cemetery sections are in the works across the country, he said.

The Trust for Natural Legacies is a Madison-based nonprofit group working to establish green cemeteries in the Midwest.

Mark Dahlby, executive director of the trust, said such cemeteries allow people to leave behind something meaningful.

"You can leave a natural legacy," he said. "You can have a more spiritually fulfilling passing."

Brown would like to have her 10-acre labyrinth licensed as a green cemetery.

"It's the perfect place for green burials," she said. "It's contemplative and beautiful."

Brown said her faith emphasizes the spiritual unity of mankind and service to others is among her highest priorities.

"This is a way I can contribute," she said. "I can offer people that option. It's a very sacred responsibility."

Local progress

Aside from occasional whispers, there hasn't been much talk locally of green burial or green cemeteries.

"I've had a few people mention it to me, and I've had to explain to them that there's no cemetery around here that will accept a person without a (concrete) burial vault," said Bill Schneider, president of Schneider Apfel Schneider & Schneider funeral home in Janesville.

People don't ask about green burials often, he said, and until a green cemetery is established in Rock County, the push probably won't pick up much steam locally.

But if people such as John Bucci, who bills himself as the state's first green funeral director, continue spreading the word, perhaps what is only a murmur in Wisconsin will grow louder.

"Green burials are not new," he said. "But it wasn't until someone started parading the word around (that interest picked up here)."

Bucci, who opened a small, storefront funeral home in the Madison area in 2005, conducted a guerilla marketing campaign to promote the idea of green burials as a low-cost alternative to conventional burial.

"The only thing I could start doing was talking to people," he said. "Then other people started to talk about it.

"It's something people want to hear about."

Room for regular burial

Bucci said green burial already has grassroots support.

People are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, and many people are interested in a less expensive, more meaningful burial option, he said.

But what comes next is an "honest acceptance" of the concept on the part of the death care industry, Bucci said.

Funeral directors and cemetery directors must not dismiss green burial as a granola concept developed by those on the fringe, he said.

"They have to understand that … the world is changing," he said.

Sehee said promoters of green burial have to approach the death care industry carefully so the idea isn't "disruptive."

"The market for this concept hasn't fully emerged, but it's moving into the mainstream and quickly," he said. "We have to effectively engage the funeral industry so it's not viewed as a threat. We have to convince them that there's a role for them."

Dahlby said funeral directors and cemetery directors shouldn't be scared of losing business to those who go green.

"They won't be stealing all the regular business from regular funeral homes and cemeteries," he said. "It'll still always be somewhat of a niche."


What is green burial?

It's a burial without formaldehyde embalming, a metal casket or concrete burial vault, according to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that recently developed the first standards for environmentally friendly burial.

A green burial starts with an unembalmed body, which can be wrapped in a shroud made of natural fibers or placed in a biodegradable casket made of pine, wicker or cardboard. The body and its vessel are buried in a natural setting, such as a farm, prairie or wildflower field. Stones, bushes or trees serve as grave markers, so as not to disturb the natural landscape. Some green cemeteries have no grave markers; instead the deceased are located with a global positioning system.

By doing away with embalming, metal caskets and concrete burial vaults, green burial often costs less than conventional burial, and in some instances, it can be used to facilitate ecological restoration and land conservation.

Where do green burials take place?

The Green Burial Council certifies three types of cemeteries that accommodate green burials:

-- Conservation burial ground—a cemetery where an established conservation partner, such as a land trust, holds a conservation easement on the property and operates it according to principles of restoration ecology.

-- Natural burial ground—a cemetery that is required to engage in restoration planning and land stewardship. It does not have a conservation easement, but it must have a deed restriction or restrictive covenant to ensure it will be operated only as a green cemetery.

-- Hybrid burial ground—a cemetery that accommodates both conventional burial and green burial. In some instances, it simply allows for vaultless burial, and in other instances, it may incorporate tenets of a natural burial ground including sustainable landscape design natural memorialization.

There are only about 10 green cemeteries or cemetery sections in the United States, including two in Milwaukee, that offer green burial options. An additional three dozen green cemeteries or cemetery sections are in the works across the country, said Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council.

How much does a green burial cost?

Because green burial eliminates embalming, caskets and burial vaults, it's often presented as a low-cost alternative to conventional burial.

At Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, the first green cemetery in the United States, prices start at about $2,000, which covers the cost of the burial site.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral is $6,500 (excluding cemetery costs such as a plot, vault and marker), and many funerals cost more than $10,000.


Each year in the United States we bury:

-- 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, including formaldehyde.

-- 209 million pounds of steel in caskets and vaults

-- 5.4 million pounds of copper and bronze in caskets

-- 30 million board feet of hardwoods in caskets

-- 3.3 billion pounds of reinforced concrete in vaults

Source: Mary Woodsen, vice president of the Pre-Posthumous Society of Ithaca, N.Y., as published in the April/May 2003 issue of "Mother Earth News."

Last updated: 10:47 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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