Dust to dust, with zero carbon footprint
Folks who have spent their lives recycling metal cans are deciding that they don't want to spend eternity inside one. As they have become...
Star Tribune (Minneapolis
MINNEAPOLIS — Folks who have spent their lives recycling metal cans are deciding that they don't want to spend eternity inside one. As they have become more aware of the lasting impact that traditional burials have on the environment, they're exploring the idea of going green in their final act: death.
The eco-friendly alternative is a burial done in a wooden box or a shroud that is buried without a surrounding vault. The body is not embalmed. The idea is to make the whole thing biodegradable, which, supporters say, shouldn't make people queasy.
"It's a natural process," said Theresa Purcell, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Trust for Natural Legacies, a nonprofit group that promotes green burials. "Some of us who have done research (on traditional burials) have environmental concerns."
Interest is expected to grow. One Twin Cities funeral home expects them to be common in 10 to 15 years and is already seeing an interest among baby boomers, who are following tradition for their parents but considering going green for their own funerals. The idea also got a boost in Minnesota this summer when the state changed the law so that bodies don't have to be embalmed immediately. The simplicity and cost savings of green burials also have appeal.
Nationally, green cemeteries are gaining ground. Wisconsin, California, Florida and New York are among the states where they're offered. Minnesota doesn't yet have a completely green cemetery, but a developer incorporated under the name Green Graves is talking about starting one in the Twin Cities' southeastern suburbs.
"I figured, why not?" said Geo (pronounced Joe) Brening, manager of Minneapolis's Oak Hill cemetery, where two people have been buried "green" at their families' request. "We haven't advertised it or anything," he said. "But people are hearing about it."
Steve Willwerscheid of the Willwerscheid Funeral Home & Cremation Service said he started getting calls when the family's West St. Paul, Minn., chapel advertised "natural burials" on its website after the embalming law was changed.
The phones started ringing with people wanting to be added to his mailing list.
"Our what?" he asked them incredulously. "Who ever heard of a mortuary getting calls from people wanting to be on their mailing list?"
The callers, he said, are baby boomers whose own parents are dying now. "When it comes to burying their mother or father, they want to follow their parents' final wishes. But when it comes time for them to be buried, this is something they want to consider," he said. "I think that 10 or 15 years from now, these (green burials) are going to be common."
Mortuaries weren't expecting the new law to result in a stampede of business, and that's been the case, Willwerscheid said.
"The trends in our industry move very, very slowly," he said. "Something like this can take years to develop, and we're talking about only a couple of months."
One of the appealing factors: cost. A green burial can be significantly less costly because there's no embalming or the need to buy a vault. The coffin also tends to be cheaper, but, Purcell pointed out, there are some very fancy wooden coffins on the market. "You don't have to use a pine box," she said.
And they're an option for those who don't want to "leave a trace" in death.
Under ideal conditions — which admittedly are rare — an embalmed body in a steel casket encased in a concrete vault can become mummified and last forever, while a non-embalmed body in a shroud or wooden box can show significant decomposition within months. (The temperature and amount of moisture in the soil greatly impact the rate.)
Arguments arise over exactly what constitutes a green burial.
To be 100 percent green, the burial must take place in a cemetery that allows the land to return to natural prairie after the bodies are interred.
Some purists argue that if it's not a pure-green burial, it should be termed a "natural" burial. But others, including Purcell, counter that the term "green" covers any and all efforts at an ecological burial.
Maintenance of the grounds is one of the major reasons cemeteries aren't keen on pure-green burials, Willwerscheid said. As the caskets and bodies decompose, the ground above them starts to sag. Vaults keep the ground firm enough for the cemeteries to drive over it with their equipment.
"Some cemeteries are starting to offer the option of bottomless vaults that allow natural decomposition but, at the same time, maintain the aesthetics of the cemetery," he said.
A green burial has no headstone, but natural stones, even engraved ones, are OK as long as they're not encased in concrete footings, Purcell said. Another option is to plant a bush or tree where a headstone normally would go. Technology also provides a reference point.
"Every burial is marked by GPS," she said, eliminating the danger that unmarked graves might be dug up unknowingly in the future.
There are greener-than-thou debates about caskets, too. Some insist that the wood must come from an easily renewable source. Under this scenario, using an exotic wood harvested from clear cutting of rain forests doesn't qualify.
"You don't have to use any wood at all," Purcell noted. "Some people use a shroud or the (deceased's) favorite blanket."
She also reminds people that this is not a new idea.
"People have been practicing green burial since the Neanderthals," she said.
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Trust for Natural Legacies: www.naturallegacies.org
Green Burials: www.greenburials.org
Green Burial Council: www.greenburialcouncil.org
Natural End Network: www.naturalend.com
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