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A greener afterlife: Cemeteries, funeral businesses are offering more options for those who want their burial to be more environmentally friendly

September 15, 2008

Some people think it's always important to be kind to Mother Earth-even in death.

A concept known as "green burial," in which one is laid to rest in an environmentally friendly fashion, is gaining some popularity nationwide.

Methods of green burial vary, but often involve a more natural interment of the body without the use of toxic embalming chemicals. Simple pine or cardboard coffins that will decompose quickly are used instead of steel caskets. Bodies are laid to rest in natural settings that eschew fertilizers and other lawn chemicals.

The movement began in England in the 1990s and is spreading around the world, even to nongranola-type places such as Indiana, where two funeral homes are leading the charge.

Hippensteel Funeral Service and Crematory in Lafayette and Nathan Butler Funeral Home in Worthington in southwest Indiana are the only two in the state certified by the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Green Burial Council to provide green services. Both are developing natural burial sites that would resemble bucolic fields and forests more than traditional cemeteries cluttered with headstones or mausoleums.

Even Flanner and Buchanan Funeral Services, a fixture of the local funeral industry, is taking notice of the green movement. It manages seven cemeteries under its Washington Park Cemetery Association and is eyeing one property for green burial development likely next year, said spokeswoman Barb Milton.

Yet, the market remains relatively small. About 70 funeral homes and a dozen cemeteries-the closest to Indianapolis is near Cleveland-are certified to conduct green burials. But advocates are betting the practice becomes more accepted-not only because of the environmental benefits, but due to the cost savings as well. Green burials cost typically cost about $2,000, compared to a modern burial that can top $10,000.

"Less and less people have that kind of money to spend for a one- or two-day event," said Matt Mulligan, a partner of Nathan Butler Funeral Home. "I feel like this is not going to be a phase or a fad but the wave of the future."

A lot of concrete

Nathan Butler Funeral Home is seeking approval to develop a green cemetery west of Bloomington on property it is purchasing from the Miami Beach owner who wants the land preserved.

Graves would be identified by sandstone markers, or no markers at all. If that's the case, GPS devices would be used with the coordinates of each grave mounted on a wall plaque.

Simple demand is driving development of the property. Of the 80 funerals Nathan Butler has conducted this year, 30 have included some form of green burial, Mulligan said. The green burials have been accomplished despite cemetery rules that require the use of a burial vault.

Vaults are used to keep the ground from settling over the grave and to maintain the pristine look of a traditional cemetery. But removing the top of the vault and flipping it upside down allows the biodegradable casket to be in direct contact with the earth.

Environmentalists applaud green cemeteries because they make steel caskets and concrete burial vaults unnecessary.

About 1.6 million tons of concrete and 90,000 tons of steel, more than enough to build the Golden Gate Bridge, go in the ground each year for burial purposes. On top of that, funeral directors dispense more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid annually, according to statistics from the Green Building Council.

"For many people, it provides more solace to go into the ground naturally," said Joe Sehee, president of the council. "That's what people are really excited about."

Sehee recognizes green burials won't appeal to everyone, but thinks choice is good. When speaking to funeral directors about the subject, he likens the trend to General Motors Corp. building both Hummers and hybrids.

Advocates for the consumer

Joe Canaday, business manager of Hippensteel, concurred. He is part of a group that operates Spring Vale Cemetery in Lafayette that is pursuing a green burial site nearby. The 1.5-acre tract would support between 200 and 250 plots and should be open sometime in October. Plans call for an additional 20 acres of woods and seven acres of prairie to be developed as well, Canaday said.

"With the issues we have with oil and fuel," he said, "for many people this has become a lifestyle and a final statement of the values and issues that they represent."

Not all in the funeral industry are embracing the trend, however. They contend that makeup application, often used to make the deceased look better after long illnesses, is difficult without embalming. And they assert that embalming cuts down on the risk of disease transmission from buried corpses. Embalming is usually not required by law unless there's a long delay or the body crosses certain state lines.

Green advocates say many of the services sold by the funeral industry are unnecessary. Mulligan at the Nathan Butler Funeral Home said grieving family members often receive the "worms and water" pitch in an effort to sell more durable, more expensive caskets that offer longer protection from the elements.

At Nathan Butler, however, an Amish man makes wooden caskets for as little as $400, Mulligan said.

Jim Todd of Rushville, president of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association, bristled at the notion directors might sway consumers away from a green burial simply because they're cheaper.

"I think funeral directors will be an advocate for whatever people want to do," he said. "If somebody wants a dove release, we're going to do that. If someone wants bagpipes, we'll do that ... and we're going to treat green burials no different."

But, like cremation, he thinks it could take several years for green burials to become commonly accepted.

Returning to tradition

For much of the last century, the funeral industry remained unchanged, until cremation became more popular the last 25 years. From 1975 to 1999, cremations rose from 150,000 to more than 595,000 annually, accounting for 25 percent of all burials in the United States.

In the early 1900s, only 20 crematories operated nationally. At the time, Flanner and Buchanan boasted the only one in the city. Being at the forefront of another industry innovation-green burial-is important to the funeral home, Milton said.

Refrigeration units and non-formaldehyde-based embalming products already are available there. But anyone choosing a natural burial would need to be transported out of state to a green cemetery. Having the option available closer to home would continue Flanner and Buchanan's pioneering tradition, Milton said.

"If the consumer is interested," she said, "we'll make it available, if it's within our power."

Embalming dates to the Civil War, when the Union wanted to get soldiers home for burial before decomposition. Arsenic initially was used. Now, burials could be on the cusp of reverting to their natural origins.

"It's been something that's been going on for thousands of years," Canaday said. "It's simply a way to preserve the ecology and the rites of the old traditional way."
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