Eco-Friendly Disposal and Green Burial

Nov 9, 2011 | 0 comments

There’s a great article on new trends in environmentally friendly disposal methods that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle online recently. It’s titled “The greening of death – eco-friendly burials boom” by Eric Spitznagel with Bloomberg Businessweek.

Jeff Edwards, owner of Edwards Funeral Service in Columbus, Ohio, wants to make one thing clear: He isn’t flushing your grandmother down the toilet.

That, he says, is the biggest misconception about alkaline hydrolysis, a green alternative to cremation that involves liquefying human remains with potassium hydroxide and 300-degree heat. The environmental benefits of hydrolysis are hard to argue with: The process results in only a fraction of the carbon emissions of a traditional cremation.

But when Edwards began offering the service in January – he says he’s the first funeral home in the United States to do so – the media “distorted the facts,” alleging that the liquid created by hydrolysis (only the bone residue is saved for an urn) gets flushed.

“I mean, for all intents and purposes, the liquid remains are released back into the water treatment facility,” Edwards concedes. “So yeah, that does mean they go down the drain. But it doesn’t mean somebody is standing behind a machine with a great big … commode, and you’re flushing grandma down the drain.”

After Edwards used hydrolysis on just 19 bodies, the Health Department of Ohio intervened, announcing in March that it would no longer accept death certificates from or issue burial transit permits to any funeral home using hydrolysis, essentially making the procedure illegal in Ohio. Edwards sued the state, and he’ll have his day in court in February, which he’s confident he’ll win. Alkaline hydrolysis is already legal in seven states, he says, and the numbers are expected to rise.

“The funeral business is changing,” he says. “Green is the future. It’s better for the world, and families are demanding it.”

Cemeteries and funeral homes across the country have been offering eco-friendly death care, from biodegradable caskets to formaldehyde-free body preparation, for much of the past decade. But in recent years the green burial business has gotten bigger – there are close to 300 funeral homes in 40 states offering green services in 2011, as opposed to roughly a dozen in 2008 – and noticeably more eccentric.

Just a few years ago a green funeral might have meant a pine or wicker coffin made without toxic materials.

Acorn-shaped urn

Today it could mean burying the dearly departed in an acorn-shaped urn made of recycled paper, erecting a tombstone with a solar-powered Serenity Panel that plays the deceased’s favorite songs and videos, or casting out to sea a “reef ball” made of cement mixed with cremated ashes – your loved one’s and others’.

“The funeral industry hasn’t had a new idea since the 1870s,” says Joe Sehee, the executive director of the New Mexico-based Green Burial Council. “We’re still burying people like they buried Abraham Lincoln.” While he admits that green burials are a small part of the $12 billion funeral industry – exact numbers have yet to be documented – he believes they’re poised to become a dominant force.

“This is not a fringe market,” he says. “There is an end-of-life revolution at hand.”

For it to succeed, the eco-friendly funeral movement has to convince not only the public that green burials are best, but also the funeral industry.

Thus far, the public has been more receptive. In a 2008 survey conducted by funeral industry publishers Kates-Boylston Publications, 43 percent of respondents said they would consider a green burial. That’s a big increase from a similar survey done in 2007 by AARP, in which 21 percent of those polled were curious about green burials.

One explanation for this rise in interest could be the price tag. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral is around $6,560 – and that doesn’t include a cemetery plot, tombstone and miscellaneous items such as flowers and hearses.

Dig your own grave

“Going green can be half to two-thirds the price” of a conventional burial, Sehee says. And there are numerous ways to cut corners and save money. At the Honey Creek Woodland Cemetery, a green grave site in Conyers, Ga., future customers can save $500 if they’re willing to dig their own graves (or if the bereaved are willing to do it for them).

But the savings isn’t always the selling point.

“When I ask (clients) why they’ve come to us, the answer always comes back: They don’t like cemeteries,” says Jack Lowe, president and founder of EcoEternity, an East Coast green memorial service offering forests instead of graveyards and existing trees instead of tombstones. “Cemeteries remind them of death. These forests are beautiful, and they remind (the families) of life. It’s only when we’re writing up all the contracts that they go, ‘Hey, these costs are really great!’ ”

Also, green funerals are just more fun. Nature’s Caskets in Longmont, Colo., offers a do-it-yourself, biodegradable pine coffin kit for the industrious preplanner. And for an extra $100, your coffin can come with shelves, so you can use it as a bookcase while you wait for the end.

“It’s a fun idea,” says Luc Nadeau, who began Nature’s Caskets in 2009. “It’s like facing your mortality every day. And it looks quite nice.”

The old guard of the funeral industry remains the biggest hurdle for green burials. Some undertakers are wary of eco-friendly funerals for aesthetic reasons but, more often, detractors cite health concerns.

A Good Goodbye