Green Burials and Responsible Reporting

We submitted this piece to The New York Times @nytimes as an Op-Ed letter seven days ago and have never heard from them. We are publishing it here so our voices can be heard regarding this topic.

Recently, The New York Times published an article: Green Burials: At the End of Life, Thinking Outside the Coffin, (NYT, November 15, 2018)
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/business/green-burials-wendy-macnaughton.html

It was clever, and complete with eye-catching graphics and unusual fonts to draw the reader in. However, it lacked basic research to make it useful for those who interested in learning about funeral options. The premise of the article was, in a quirky way, to tell readers the reasons people might want to consider a “green” burial. What has been the problem with nearly all the stories and comments about green burial is that although they are touted as an up and coming way of disposing of human remains, the facts do not support the argument. This hype-driven alternative is the province of a small fringe group who make it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. You often read statistics that claim people are very interested in this type of disposition, but there is an astounding lack of reporting about what percentage of the general public is following through on this choice. If you ask funeral directors how often families select green burial, you will quickly find that this is not a trend at all. Although, funeral and disposition choices have changed over the years, clearly this is not a choice that is widely popular.

Looking at this specific article (many other articles quote the same statistics and material) there is a comparison between traditional funeral costs versus green burial costs at $1,000 – $4,000 for the green burial option. This is an exaggeration. By calling cemeteries that offer “green” options you will find that the burial space alone may take up more than half of the $4,000. The Green Burial Council’s (greenburialcouncil.org) website provides lists of approved and certified green burial funeral homes and cemeteries. For example, if you look at the list of cemeteries near New York City, you will find that the closest one is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, about one hour outside the city. This means that the deceased would need to be transported a long distance for burial (as is the case in many areas around the country where there is no green cemetery nearby), adding additional costs.

The article goes on to look at the type of caskets and shrouds that can be used. Some green caskets are no less expensive than those typically used in funeral homes on a regular basis. A Google search for green caskets and shrouds reveals pages of listings. Memorials.com offers many varieties of green caskets on their website from woolen caskets starting at $1,297.00, up to $2,099.00 for a bamboo casket. kinkaraco.com has a variety of products for green burials. Shroud pages show items costing between $225.00 – $995.00. Bear in mind, these prices do not reflect the funeral home’s charges nor do they include the cemetery space. Combined, these costs can easily exceed $4,000.

The article also mentions urns and a starred box advises that “…cremation isn’t so green. Cremating one body uses as much fuel as a 500+ mile road trip.” There is no reference for this comment (nor for any of the other items in this piece) so one can’t determine its accuracy. Flame-based cremation usage is at an all-time high and continues to be a very affordable method of disposition. And newer flame-based cremation units are much more efficient. Last year, Facultatieve Technologies, a manufacturer of cremators, introduced the FT USA v2 cremation retort which minimizes the burning of natural gas during the cremation process. Flameless and aqua cremations are considered more environmentally friendly, but since they are relatively new their availability is limited across the country.

An exchange between the author and two workers at Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley, California, (fernwood.com) discuss interments with misguided humor. Of note is that Fernwood Cemetery, which bills itself as “one of the country’s first environmentally conscious cemeteries” is not on the list of Green Burial Council approved providers. What’s more, on their price list for ‘Natural Burial Options,’ the least expensive option is $6,700, far exceeding the article’s suggested cost of $1,000 to $4,000. These prices are just for the burial space and no other goods or services.

In the end what does all of this mean for the consumer? We believe it means that while people may be curious about alternatives to tradition funerals that curiosity has not led to a greater demand for green burials. At a time when traditional funerals today are sometimes mocked and treated like vulgar, pagan rituals, the majority continue to find them normal and comforting. The funeral of President George H. W. Bush is a case in point. So, let’s validate the consumer’s choice by telling them that whatever they want for their final disposition is okay. Surely, each individual should have the type of final disposition — burial, cremation, entombment — that they want and can afford, and that includes adhering to time-honored rituals or trendy alternatives. Just don’t be taken in by the hype.

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