3 MYTHS ABOUT GREEN BURIALS: A FUNERAL DIRECTOR’S PERSPECTIVE

In funeral parlance, ‘green burial’ may be the most hyped phrase around. References to this ‘new’ and seemingly popular type of disposition seem to be everywhere these days, particularly in the press. And since we, or a loved one, may be headed in that direction, we might have looked up the subject.

Reading those stories would make one believe that green funerals are the biggest trend in funeral service. But, in fact, they are not. What’s more, they are certainly not anything new.

Those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths have been having green burials for as long as anyone can remember. The modern concept is an extension of an environmentally concerned society which advocates for a greener lifestyle as a way to leave a gentler footprint on the earth.

For burial to be considered green, a number of elements are essential: no chemical embalming, clothing made of natural fabrics, no cut stone monuments, no vault and a biodegradable casket. The deceased can also be wrapped in a burial shroud depending on cemetery regulations.

But while these burials sound simple – and at first glance may seem inexpensive – that is hardly the case. A number of myths surround this type of disposition.

Green Burial is Less Costly

Perhaps the biggest myth that circulates the media is that green burial is more economical than traditional burial. Quite to the contrary though, green burial can be just as costly – if not more.

Think organically grown fruits and vegetables vs those traditionally farmed. And some of those oft-promoted eco-friendly wicker, willow and bamboo caskets retail for around $2,000 – comparable to the price of a traditional casket.

Shrouds, too, can be pricey, ranging from about $150 for a simple muslin cloak to $800 for a silk shroud lined in a choice of herbs, such as sage.

You Don’t Need to Purchase Cemetery Property

As with traditional burial, you must purchase a gravesite. In many states, certified green cemeteries are few and far between, and often a great distance from major cities. And some states, according to the Green Burial Council website, have none.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

While some cemeteries are entirely green, others are considered hybrids, reserving a section for such burials. Historic Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Valhalla, New York, has set aside about half an acre for natural burial. It is the only cemetery in Westchester County, New York, to provide this alternative.

Called Riverview, the cost of a grave or one interment is $4,000, and the opening charge is $1, 830. A flat, natural stone can be placed at the site through a monument company.

To get a sense of the price differential, graves in other sections of Sleepy Hollow for two interments cost between $5,000 and $6,000, with the same opening charge.

Joshua Tree Memorial Park

Joshua Tree Memorial Park, at the other end of the country, is the only natural burial cemetery in Southern California, according to a spokeswoman. A grave for one costs $3,700.

In addition, there is a grave opening charge of $1,300 plus an endowment fee of $250. Graves are marked by indigenous plants such as cacti to “maintain the integrity of the land.”

Environmental Impact

While some estimate that 827,000 plus gallons of formaldehyde are used each year (thus ending up in the ground), Melissa Johnson Williams, a funeral director and the former head of the American Association of Embalmers, believes those numbers seem too high based on normal use.

 

“There is no way for 827,000 gallons of formaldehyde to be used in one year, based on the way it’s actually used by embalmers.

And in an article for The Dodge Magazine John “Jay” Rhodes, past president of the Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice wrote that “Studies also show that a sewer system can effectively break down formaldehyde rendering it safe.” Rhodes continued, “Up to now, I have not seen anything proving otherwise.”

Factors to Consider if Going Green

  • Lack of embalming will likely preclude an open-casket visitation.
  • Cost of the burial plot, grave opening and maintenance charges.
  • Higher transportation cost to a non-local cemetery.
  • Increased carbon emissions due to distant travel on the day of the burial, and on future visits.
  • May prevent future disinterment for cremation or traditional burial if  family wishes change.

The Bottom Line

In 1998, North America’s first green cemetery opened in Westminster, South Carolina. Twenty years later, the concept doesn’t seem to have taken the industry by storm.

An official of Batesville, the country’s largest casket manufacturer, said the company did a trial a few years ago but did not see a big demand from funeral homes for eco-friendly products.

“There’s a difference between people expressing an interest and speaking with their pocketbook when the time comes. They do not follow through,” she stated.

A 2018 article in Forbes titled What Does ‘Going Green’ Mean for the Funeral Industry? was more skeptical, noting, “All in all, green funerals remain a fascination of the fringe.”

Still, if you decide to opt for a green burial for yourself or for a family member, keep in mind that this is a service any funeral home can provide for you. Do not be constrained by the Approved Provider of the Green Burial Council logo on a funeral home’s website.

Funeral homes no more specialize in green burial than they do in traditional burial or cremation. Green burial is just another funeral option, not a trend.

This blog post originally appeared on sixtyandme.com. If you are considering a green burial, here are some things you should know.

3 MYTHS ABOUT GREEN BURIALS 

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

By Melissa Johnson Williams

Those of us who witnessed the events 56 years ago of President Kennedy’s assassination, remember it vividly. He was so much more than just our President. He was of course a husband, father, son, brother, and friend to many. He was a decorated war hero and an inspiration to generations of people.

Rest on good and faithful servant.

Rosalia Lombardo

By Melissa Johnson Williams

It was my great pleasure to work on the National Geographic program Italy’s Mystery Mummies. I had the opportunity to work two distinguished anthropologist, one of whom was a living legend at the time. Dario Piombino-Mascali known for his work with the Sicilian mummies made it possible for me to complete my fathers research interest in Rosalia Lombardo. Dr. Arthur Aufderheide was the best bonus one could ask for. His nickname, the “mummy doctor” says it all.

My father for years before his death had an intense interest in Rosalia. He corresponded with the monastery about her numerous times and they put him in contact with a living relative of Dr. Alfredo Salafia who embalmed her. Through Dario I was able to put the pieces together that he had been looking for. Below is a blog post by our dear late friend, Christine Quigley discussing the program. Enjoy, Melissa Johnson Williams.

Embalmers and anthropologists

Three of my friends were on TV last night, and the program was fascinating! “Italy’s Mystery Mummies” aired on the National Geographic Channel at 10 P.M. last night (it will air again on Saturday at 7 P.M.). The team included physical anthropologists Dario Piombino-Mascali and Art Aufderheide, and Melissa Johnson Williams, practicing embalmer and executive director of the American Society of Embalmers. They had unprecedented access to the mummies in the churches and crypts of Italy, including that of little Rosalia Lombardo(1918-1920), one of the most perfectly preserved mummies in the world (and Dario’s favorite!). She was embalmed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia (1869-1933), but the ingredients of his formula have been a mystery–until Dario tracked down the niece of Dr. Salafia’s 2nd wife, who still had the embalmer’s papers, including a handwritten memoir in which he recorded the chemical components. They do not include the supposed arsenic, but instead formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. Dr. Salafia was one of the first embalmers to use formalin (a formaldehyde mixture), but also secured Rosalia’s preservation by lining the specially-designed casket with lead and sealing it with wax, making it airtight. The team confirmed with x-rays that her body is intact, but did not break the seal, so she continues to lie in state at the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily. Wow!

Remembrance Day 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day

Poppy field

IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row,
that mark our place: and in the sky
the larks, still bravely singing, fly
scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders’ fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
to you from failing hands we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high,
if ye break faith with us who die
we shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders’ Fields.

By Lt Col John McCrae

Formaldehyde

By Melissa Johnson Williams

From a new study that looks at 30 years of formaldehyde studies.

“We now have much greater knowledge of the distribution of endogenous and inhaled formaldehyde at the molecular level. Two such findings are of great importance: (1) every living cell contains formaldehyde and measurable formaldehyde N2-hydroxy-methyl-dG adducts; and (2) there is no evidence that inhaled formaldehyde reaches sites distant to the initial site of contact. Indeed, there is strong evidence that inhaled formaldehyde does not reach any distant tissues.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3893912/

All Saints Day

From the first centuries after Christ, Christians who died a martyr’s death were considered saints, who live in God’s presence forever. Every year, on the anniversary of the martyrs’ deaths, Christians would visit their tombs and celebrate the Eucharist. This practice grew throughout the centuries to include remembering other outstanding Christians on the days they died. In the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV designated November 1 as the day to remember all the saints.

Dia De Los Muertos

Dia De Los Muerto, the Day of the Dead, is a formal holiday celebrated throughout regions of Mexico where it originated from October 31 – November 2 (All Saints and All Souls Day), each year.  The funeral related industries throughout the world have started dropping the word “celebrate or celebration of life” to replace the word funeral. But nowhere is there more a celebration of life and death then in these communities in Mexico over this formal holiday period.

Historical sources indicate this celebration to be more than 3,000 years old dating back to the Aztecs and possibly first witnessed by the Conquistadors 500 years ago.  There are reports that there were attempts to end the event – that was not successful and has evolved over the years.

Foremost to this celebration is visiting of the graves of deceased family members. In some areas, bones are removed from graves and cleaned, while others spend the day honoring their loved ones with food and activities that the deceased enjoyed in life. Today many outside the Hispanic community embrace this feeling of celebration.  Museum exhibits are observed throughout the US and other countries. A way to help people understand the culture not just of death and dying but of honor and respect for those who have died.  The movie “Coco” that premiered last year, was a good way for children of “all” ages to understand the life and death cycle that so many today say is denied.  Let’s take a moment to remember that we all have the capability to remember, honor and acknowledge our dead. Not just on special designated dates but throughout the year.

 

 

 

The Woman in The Iron Coffin

There have been so many stories related to the discovery of a woman in an iron coffin this week.  Here is a link to one of those stories.

https://www.newsweek.com/woman-iron-coffin-new-york-mummified-remains-smallpox-martha-peterson-1148869

Many have been fascinated by the fact that she was in nearly perfect condition; “She looked like she had been dead for a week, but it was 160 years” stated one of the articles. The iron coffin was first  developed before the Civil War. The “air-tight coffin of cast or raised metal” was patented on November 14, 1848 by Almon (also shown as Almond) D. Fisk of New York. The patent that was granted would be different than what would be produced in the coming years. I have only seen one picture of the original patent version. This was probably a prototype and appeared to be at the scene of a disinterment.

The first coffin was built in 1849 at the Fisk & Raymond Co. Foundry in Winfield, Long Island. Through several years of challenges, Fisk was finally able to go in to full production by 1850, with coffins of every size from infant to adult. Ranging in price from $7.00 to $40.00 depending on the size and finish. There were 3 designs; Mummieform Model 1, Mummieform Model 2 and Model 3 that was an imitiation Rosewood finish and less like the other two models. The first 2 coffins were two pieces with a groove were a sealing compound was placed to make them air-tight. They were then screwed together with bolts. They had a window for viewing and a place for a name plate. They were made to fit the form of the body hence the name “mummieform”.

The patent for the coffin expired in 1862 but was not renewed because of illness and subsequent death for Mr. Fisk. The lapsed patent allowed others to produce similar products for a short period of time.  However, Fisk’s wife was able to petition Congress to grant a seven year extension to protect his work. From the 1870’s onward until about the mid-1880’s there are publications showing designs created and sold by others. From the mid-1880’s forward though there are no further publications related to this type of coffin.

See the source image

But what was the most astounding thing about the Fisk Coffin would be when they were discovered after being buried.  Most frequently they were found when there was a disinterment or when a cemetery was moved.  In situations where the outer surface of the coffin was not breached, the remains inside were in near perfect condition, including preservation of the body and clothing.  Where breaches did occur it depended upon how long the coffin remained open and exposed to the elements, that determined the condition of the remains.

By all accounts of the days when these coffins were in use, they were considered a luxury item because of their cost. Something possibly on the order of the casket that we saw Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin laid to rest in, of that time period. With the most recent discovery in New York City we once again are shown the durability of this invention.  I have no doubt that these will continue to be found in future years.

What It’s Like To Work As A Funeral Director

A few months ago, I was invited to be among the bloggers at sixtyandme. The site, begun by the extraordinary Margaret Manning, has grown by leaps and bounds, now reaching 500,000 readers. The bloggers on the site share their professional expertise gleaned from long careers in their respective fields. I will be blogging on all things funereal, broaching subjects factually and honestly. One of my missions is to combat misinformation about the funeral industry by unlicensed individuals (who have no idea what it’s really like to work in the industry), and those with limited experience.  My first post was a natural, given my many years in funeral service.

What It’s Like To Work As A Funeral Director

Traditions

This hearse represents a bygone era. One that many people miss. Today “dissing” tradition is the thing to do. It’s old, it’s NOT cool, it’s traditional.

Modern is good if that’s what you want. I myself prefer a traditional, old fashioned home style. It feels warm and comfortable. It reminds me of my parents and grandparents home. Modern to me with chrome and glass feels cold lacking feeling and character. But we all get to choose our preferences. Don’t bash families that want a “funeral” and not a celebration. Tradition is something to be honored and cherished. Each generation can create their own without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

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