One of the more welcome developments in the green burial movement has been the willingness of some funeral directors to consider — and in some cases, actually venture into — green burial.
Perhaps the greenest of the bunch is Bob Prout. A third generation Prout funeral director, Bob runs Prout Funeral Home in Verona, New Jersey, an ex-urb of Manhattan. Bob made news two years ago after he’d installed solar panels on his funeral home (per the CNN clip above). The former Boy Scout (and current assistant Scout master) and livelong conservationist has more recently begun offering families green burial goods and services, from seagrass coffins to embalming-free viewings. His wife has even gotten into the act, sewing cloth shrouds by hand.
Bob’s at the forefront of a new wave of funeral directors who “get” green burial and are working to help their families lay their dead to rest in more natural, personal ways.
I interviewed Bob not long ago to ask him about his solar panels, the green burials he has arranged, and what fellow funeral directors make of his ventures into the natural burial movement.
How did you come by your environmental ethic?
Conservation has always been second nature to me. I was brought up in Scouting, and safeguarding the natural resources we have is a mainstay of the Scouting movement. All through grade school and high school I worked in a garden center and thought I’d pursue a career in either landscape architecture or garden center management. In college I majored in horticulture. But after the first semester I realized that I enjoyed it but couldn’t see myself doing it day in and day out.
What inspired you to install solar panels on your funeral home?
I’ve been interested in solar energy for more than thirty years. But the cost [of installing solar panels] was prohibitive and the technology wasn’t there yet. What [made it feasible] were the incentives being offered by the New Jersey Clean Energy Program. When we installed the panels in the summer of 2005, I enclosed the solar inverter behind a glass viewing window in a former smoking room, and built in an educational display on sustainable and renewable energy. I invited local schools and Scouting groups, Rotary and Lion Clubs and science classes to come through the funeral home to see the display.
How did you learn about green burial?
The solar panels got a lot of notoriety. There were articles in the New York Times, the New Jersey Network News. Then we starting getting calls from people, saying, I see you have solar panels. Do you also do environmentally-sensitive funerals? I knew a little bit about the natural burial movement. I did some more research on it, learned about Greensprings Natural Cemetery (outside Ithaca, New York) and went to one of their open houses. It was a spectacular place, and what they were doing there was absolutely incredible.
I came back and started putting together natural burial packages. We now have packages for Greensprings Natural Cemetery and for Steelmantown [a new natural cemetery in Tuckahoe, New Jersey]. We also offer “greener” funeral options for existing cemeteries and work within the constraints of their requirements.
What’s included in the package?
We either won’t embalm or will embalm with gluteraldehyde or Aardbalm [two formaldehyde-free embalming solutions I'll write about in an upcoming blog]. We have sustainable caskets made from seagrass, wicker, bamboo and native pine. We also work with shrouded bodies and do home funerals. We’ll work with families to meet whatever needs they have.
Some funeral directors have said green burial is a fad and, like most fads, will fade. Do you agree?
I don’t think green burial is a fad. The funeral directors [who think it is] are probably the same ones who twenty-five years ago [mistakenly] thought that cremation urns were a fad.
I don’t think green burial will become as popular as cremation or overcome traditional funerals. But I do think there’s a growing movement that will certainly feel very comfortable with the concept of natural burial and the green funeral.
Have you handled any green burials?
I have made pre-arrangements for future natural burials at Greensprings and Steelmantown. I’ve handled more “green funerals” in existing traditional cemeteries, about one to one-and-a-half per month since the beginning of this year. That’s because there are more people out there who want to be buried in family plots they own [at existing, traditional cemeteries] but want to do it as green as possible.
What do those green funerals entail?
In January I had a family that wanted to give their mother a green burial. We wrapped the woman in a shroud, placed her in a very simple pine box. The following day there was a gathering in the funeral home. There was no embalming, no viewing in this case, a closed casket. We went off to the church for a traditional funeral Mass and then buried her in the cemetery next to her husband. The cemetery did not require a concrete burial vault, so although she was buried in a traditional cemetery she had a natural burial.
I think you’ll see more of those green funerals happen because older family members want to be buried in the plots they already have. As the Baby Boomers grow in number and choose for themselves, then you’ll see more growth in the true natural burial concept [i.e., a natural burial in a true natural cemetery, ala Greensprings].
How do families react when they enter your casket display room and see your array of natural caskets?
A number of them have said, I’m [choosing a metal casket] because this is what Mom would want. Then they look at their spouse and say, “But when my time comes, I’d be more comfortable with something like this [natural casket].”
Why do you think some people are turning away from “traditional” funerals and to green funerals and burials?
The traditional funeral has become like some weddings. If you look at your watch and it’s four o’clock you know they must be cutting the cake. If it’s four-fifteen, they must be doing the garter bit.
Green burial offers families a personalized funeral. It offers them what they need at the time they need it. And a funeral director can’t personalize a funeral by [simply] changing a cap panel or unscrewing a corner post. That’s not personalization.
How have your fellow funeral directors reacted to your foray into green burial?
Some of the funeral directors who know me understand where I’m coming from. Some others think I’m a little off the bean. And that’s all right. I’m not going to try to change their mentality, because some of these fellows are also trying to decide whether cremation is here to stay or not.
Any final comments?
The general public should understand that while some funeral directors are reluctant to change not all of them are Tom Fieldings [the modern funeral director I present in chapter one of Grave Matters]. We’re not all totally stuck in the mud. As the funeral industry is educated to the concept of green burial, some funeral homes will start responding to the natural burial movement. It will take time. It’s a different concept than what a lot of us funeral directors have been brought up with. To change what has been the norm through the course of a lifetime is going to take time.
You can reach Bob Prout at Prout Funeral Home, 370 Bloomfield Avenue, Verona, NJ 07044. Phone: 973-239-2060.
The Prout Funeral Home has been certified “green” by the Green Burial Council.
Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
In the last couple of months, some half dozen natural burial grounds have cropped up in this country, taking root on former farmland and cattle ranches, within unspoiled tracts of big wilds, and even inside the historic cemeteries near urban cores.
The latest additions:
Foxfield Preserve (Wilmot, Ohio)
Former farmland on 43-acres in northest Ohio that’s being restored to original prairie and forest. Owned and operated by a non-profit nature center and land trust.
Galisteo Basin Preserve (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
A natural burial ground within a 13,000 permanently protected conservation area on a one-time cattle ranch.
White Eagle Memorial Preserve (Goldendale, Washington)
A 20-acre cemetery within 1300 acres of permanently protected oak and ponderosa forest, meadow and steppe on the edge of Rock Creek Canyon near the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
Steelmantown Cemetery (Tuckahoe, New Jersey)
An active cemetery dating back to the 1700s where green burial has been practiced by default. Its one-acre grounds are overspread with oak, cedar and pine and border the Belle Plain State Forest.
Makemie Woods (Lanexa, Virginia)
The third Ecoeternity Forest in the U.S., which is sited within a hardwood forest between Richmond and Williamsburg. Burial of cremated remains only. Opens October 5.
The natural cemeteries join the existing green burial grounds I’ve reported on in Grave Matters and in this blog: Ramsey Creek (South Carolina), Honey Creek Woodlands (Georgia), Glendale (Florida), Cedar Brook (Maine), Rainbow’s End (Maine), Greensprings (New York), and Ethician (TX). A score of others are in the planning stages.
This list does not include the growing number of existing cemeteries that are offering green burial within their grounds. More on those developments coming shortly.
Note: I’ll be joining Joe Sehee (of the Green Burial Council), Karen van Vuuren (of Natural Transitions) and others at the first-ever green burial conference in Boulder, October 4. This promises to be an inspiring, informative and fun-filled event. Karen, who is organizing the event, is looking for participants and sponsors. For more information, click here.
Note Two: The photo above was taken at White Eagle Memorial Preserve.
Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
A couple of thoughts on today’s announcement by the National Funeral Directors Association that the average cost of a standard funeral in America has risen to ,323.
First. You’ll pay more than that.
NFDA’s figures are from 2006, when gas prices were in the enviable mid-.00/gallon range. With pump prices two years later just now backing down from nearly twice that amount – and this before Gustav makes landfall — you can be sure you’ll be shelling out more than 3 to have the funeral director retrieve the deceased from the hospital and drive it to his funeral home, or 1 for use of the gas-guzzling hearse. Same goes for almost every other item on that General Price List.
Second. Seven grand doesn’t bring the dead to ground.
NFDA’s figures include the cost of a vault, metal casket, and basic goods and services for a funeral only – not burial. Expect to pay thousands more for the cemetery plot, opening and closing of the grave, foundation for the headstone/marker, the headstone and market itself, and perpetual care fees, among others.
Third. Modern sendoffs are de facto pricey propositions.
Yes, funeral directors sell caskets at a steep mark-up from the wholesale price, sometimes by more than 300 percent. As does every other service operator, they pad their margins. That said, outfitting even the basic American funeral — with its embalming chemicals, metal caskets, concrete burial vaults — demands the inputs of vast amounts of resources that are bought with hard and plentiful dollars. Next time you’re in Lowe’s or Home Depot, do a quick price check on construction materials (and so much of modern memorialization is just that, a construction project). Have you seen how much concrete mix costs these days?
Fourth. Value depends on who’s paying.
Is a modern funeral worth ,000? That’s up to the individual family to decide for itself. My purpose in writing Grave Matters was to present a fuller reckoning of the American Way of Death — to present the costs not just to the pocketbook, but to the environment, the corpse, and even the health of the funeral director himself. If after reading my book a family still chooses to plunk down ,000 for the modern send-off, they’ll get no argument from me.
Fifth. Green funerals and burials can be expensive, too — and be worth it.
By skipping the embalming, metal casket, burial vault and the other goods and services that fill out the funeral director’s GPL, green burial is almost always a less expensive way to go. But not always, and not necessarily.
A highly biodegradable wicker coffin can set you back ,000. A burial plot in a woodland ground can cost double what you’d pay at the local city cemetery. And be worth every penny. Your burial fees may not only push up a tree and renew the cycle of life that supports all of us, but they may also fund the preservation and ecological restoration of a piece of threatened wild. That expensive casket may not only encourage an earth-friendly, dust-to-dust return to the elements, but it may also employ workers in a good, green business. Less is more, runs the green mantra, but sometimes more really can be better.
Note: The music video above plays Iron and Wine’s “Naked as We Came,” a folksy anthem to cremation.
Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
In a previous blog about eco-friendly funeral directors, “T” posts a question I suspect a number of funeral directors have been asking themselves as they look to cater to the growing green burial market: “Is it possible to offer both traditional embalming techniques for our traditional customers alongside green techniques for our ‘green’ customers?”
As far as I’m concerned, the answer to that is yes.
Since the publication of Grave Matters, I’ve welcomed funeral directors into the natural burial movement and encouraged them to add green goods and services to their General Price Lists. The arrangement, I’ve argued, benefits not just families and the environment, but funeral directors themselves.
Refrigerating remains, for one, reduces morticians’ exposure to the toxic formaldehyde they’d otherwise be exposed to in the embalming room. Offering a wide array of handsome and affordable caskets made from cardboard, pine, willow and other readily biodegradable materials attracts the increasing number of families who say they are interested in a natural return to the elements (as is true of 43% of all Americans, according to once survey). Green is good for their bottom lines.
That said, I recognize that we’re at the beginning of the green burial revolution. Converts are increasing in number but, at this point, perhaps not in large enough sizes to wholly support a funeral home that’s green only. As a pure business matter, offering both green and modern funeral/burial services makes good financial sense. And that’s just what many funeral homes have done.
What happens then? Well, I’m reminded of the comment that New Jersey funeral director Bob Prout made when talking about families’ reactions to seeing the seagrass/willow/bamboo coffins sitting out in his casket display room. The families buy the metal caskets their loved ones requested but tell Bob they want the eco caskets for themselves, when their time comes.
After walking out of Ramsey Creek Preserve for the first time in the summer of 2003, I was convinced most people would ask to be laid to rest in that lush, living pine forest if they could only see it. I think the same can be said for most green burial strategies. If families come into T’s funeral home to make arrangements for the typical, modern funeral but then see a willow casket or cloth shroud or learn that T will help them hold a funeral in their own home — and at a lower cost — I know what choice most of them will make.
Note on the photo above, which was taken by Penny Rhodes during the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival, in Kempton last week. This is the table where Penny, Greta Brown and Jenny Bingham set out information on home funerals and talked to countless people who stopped by. Penny, Greta and Jenny are home funeral practitioners who service families in southeastern Pennsylvania. Web: www.naturalundertaking.org
Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
It could be that funeral directors averse to green burial decided to sleep in on the morning that Joe Sehee, Darren Crouch and I hosted a panel on green burial at the annual convention of the National Funeral Directors Association in Orlando earlier this month. (Not that I begrudge them the extra shuteye: we did start at 7:00 am.)
But the seventy or so who did show up – and the larger group that attended our roundtable discussion later that afternoon — seemed to accept the fact of a green burial movement. At least no one contradicted the Jewish funeral director who, very eloquently, stated that green burial was clearly an idea whose time had come and that his colleagues would do well to get involved.
The questions and comments that followed suggested that many of those funeral directors had moved beyond acceptance and were looking to actually venture into planet-friendly burial. Some of those comments and my replies:
One funeral director told the group that he could refrigerate remains and provide the biodegradable coffin easily enough. What he couldn’t offer his natural burial clients was a cemetery that would allow for a vaultless grave.
Supply is an issue — for now. Green cemeteries are springing up around the county (there are some 20 by my last count). I know another score are in various stages of planning. That does not include the growing number of regular cemeteries that are allowing for vault-free burial or are reserving sections of their grounds for natural burial preserves. We’ll see hundreds of these open to burial in the coming years. As demand for natural cemeteries increases, sites will grow.
Is it possible to have a home funeral for remains that had been autopsied or whose organs had been removed?
At the biannual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance last June, I’d asked that same question of Jerrigrace Lyons. Jerrigrace, one of the country’s leading authorities on home funerals, said that she had held home funerals in such cases, with no issues. Addressing the possibility of fluids leaking from autopsied remains, Darren Crouch said his company was in the process of developing a biodegradable plastic body bag that could be used to capture liquids for the period of a home funeral.
How much are green cemeteries charging?
Prices vary widely from cemetery to cemetery, but most tend to be in the ,000 to ,000 range for the plot, plus another 0 for the opening and closing. High? Maybe compared to regular cemeteries. Although I would argue that burial in a green cemetery is a worthy investment in more than just one’s interment: the burial not only nourishes soil and pushes up vegetation (rejoining one’s remains to the cycle of life that turns to support those we leave behind) but in the best of schemes helps preserve good land from being developed. A powerful legacy, I’d say. Also, in cemeteries that have partnered with land conservation organizations, some of the cost may be tax-deductible.
After the morning session, I walked the huge convention showroom which, as much as anything, proved that the funeral industry is indeed a multi-billion dollar business.
Still, I was pleased to note a number of green enterprises.
One of them is Ecoffins, a British company that’s producing coffins made from a biomass of compostable material, like bamboo and the wicker that’s woven into the casket pictured above.
I’ll report on them and on other green funeral providers in the coming weeks.
Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
[Prairie Home natural cemetery manager David Brenner of Waukesha Wisconsin has a good article in here about transitioning his cemetery to natural burial - ed] About 2 years ago, I was reading various environmental articles about such things as carbon…
When I first ventured into the green burial underground more than half a decade ago, I had to travel far afield from my home in eastern Pennsylvania to gather the material that would become Grave Matters.
When it came to natural return, not much was cooking here at the time (besides the very real bake taking place in the hearths at Philadelphia Crematories, a model crematory I ended up profiling in chapter three).
Since then, a green sea change has colored funeral and burial customs in this part of the Keystone State, with most of it coming in the last couple of months. Here’s what’s happening in:
Last week I drove up to the Poconos and walked the grounds of Pocono Plateau (pictured above). It’s one of three ashes-only EcoEternity Forests I blogged about a couple of months ago. On a chilly afternoon, I caught up with president Jack Lowe, who talked about how families had approached him with such enthusiasm because they’d been holding onto their loved ones’ ashes and didn’t know what to do with them — until now.
Since its consecration back in June, Pocono Plateau has seen three interments (one of which involved a daughter who’d removed her father’s ashes from their mausoleum niche for greener burial in Jack’s forest). Nearly ninety families in all have purchased burial plots in the three EcoEternity sites, including the newest location due east of Richmond, Virginia.
Pennsylvanians will soon have even more choices for a natural return with the help of EcoEternity. In the coming year, the company plans to open a pair of new sites in the southeastern part of the state.
Two weeks ago, the owners of West Laurel Hill Cemetery opened up a corner of its expansive grounds for natural burial. Founded shortly after the Civil War on the northwest outskirts of Philadelphia, West Laurel Hill is part of Laurel Hill, the second of the “rural” cemeteries that flourished in this country in the nineteenth century during a greening of the American deathscape.
The cemetery’s “Natural Sanctuary” is a 3.5 acre parcel where only green burials may take place. Embalmbed bodies are banned, burial vaults prohibited. Natural stones may mark the grave. A funeral home on site understands green burial concepts, makes basic caskets and can help families conduct home funerals.
I’ll write more about the Natural Sanctuary in an upcoming blog.
Eastern PA Home Funeral Providers
Families in eastern Pennsylvania — as is true for the rest of the state, and, for that matter, for most of the country — have always been able to care for their own deceased. Now, they can turn to two area organizations for help with those family undertakings.
In the Philadelphia region, there’s A Natural Undertaking, which is staffed by Jennifer Bingham and Donna Larson. Families in the greater Allentown region can turn to Penny Rhodes (610-756-6253) and Greta Brown (610-865-9050). Penny and Greta might work with a local funeral home that’s just gone green. More on Elias Funeral Home shortly.
Barbara Kernan: 1962 – 2008.
Finally, my sympathies to the family and friends of Barbara Kernan, an early advocate of home funerals in the Southern Carlifornia area, who died from breast cancer at the end of October.
Barbara was the founder of Thresholds, an organization that offered home funeral services and support in San Diego. I’d interviewed Barbara for the home funeral chapter of Grave Matters. We very quickly figured out that she grew up literally around the corner from my home in Pennsylvania and knew some of the friends I’d made since moving here. We’d hoped to meet up when she came back to visit her parents.
What I remember most from our exchanges was Barbara’s good humor and her spirited engagement with the funeral industry, to the extent that she even earned a funeral director’s license (to make it that much easier to encroach on their turf). I hear that Barbara’s own home funeral was a moving tribute to her life and work. A celebration of her life went into the wee hours, and when her body was taken to the crematory on Halloween Day, her friends wore witches hats.
Mark Harris, author
Grave Matters (www.gravematters)
“Going Green in the Afterlife” CLIPPING: You can now go green even in the afterlife. Funeral homes are offering more options to those who want to return to nature more naturally.Going green, even in death, can be a reality. “This…
The answer is, yes, I do speak about green burial and general funeral issues. In the last year, I gave some dozen presentations around the country on “grave matters” to college students, pro-consumer funeral groups, church congregations, hospice workers, and funeral directors, among others. The events have generally been free and open to the public.
For me, these engagements have offered the opportunity to present an updated tour of the green burial movement using images I’d wanted, but was unable, to include in Grave Matters. It’s one thing to write about a moving natural burial at Ramsey Creek Preserve; it’s quite another to see photographs of families gathered in that lush pine woods, circled around a plain, wood coffin that’s suspended above a cavity strewn with flowers and pine needles, the sun filtering through the tall canopy overhead.
That visual tour includes scores of photographs I took in the course of my research and travels, including those of natural burial grounds and backyard cemeteries, of burials at sea and via memorial reef ball, a honeycombed dome containing the deceased’s ashes that serves as an aquatic nursery off the U.S. and Canadian coastline.
Archival photographs I’ve collected show early American funerals and their progression to the more involved sendoffs of today. By way of contrast, I address the environmental aftermath of the standard funeral and how funeral directors are coming to embrace more natural returns.
If you’re interested in seeing one of these presentations, I’ll be speaking this spring in Rochester (NY), Princeton (NJ), and Greensboro (NC). You can find a full list of engagements, with specific locations, by clinking on this BookTour link.
If you’d like to bring me to speak to your group, you can reach me by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll tell you more about the presentation and arrangements. I can also send testimonials from organizers of past engagements.
More on Bibb’s Ban of Green Burial (the subject of my last blog post)
Beth Collins — the CEO of the would-be Summerland Natural Cemetery in Macon, Georgia — attended a standing-room only board meeting of the Bibb County Commission earlier this week and asked members to repeal their anti-green cemetery ordinance. The chairman said he’d consult with fellow board members but, according to this story in the Macon newspaper, said he “didn’t think they would change their minds.” If they don’t, Collins suggested she’d bring a lawsuit against the county.
In the meantime, neighboring Twiggs County has quietly been considering its own green cemetery legislation. (The Twiggs County line borders one side of the Summerland cemetery.) From the looks of this item in the April 1, 2008 agenda of the County Commission, any ordinance would seem less than friendly to natural burial:
“After discussion and input from several citizens in attendance, Commissioner Epps made a motion to send a letter to the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission expressing our concerns regarding the placement of this type of cemetery so near to this County, and the environmental impact of such a cemetery. Floyd seconded. Unanimous Vote. Motion Carried.
Commissioner Epps made a motion to send a letter stating these same concerns to Mr. Dave Blankenship, of the District Health Office in Macon. Floyd Seconded. Unanimous Vote. Motion Carried.”
A Green Cemetery Ordinance for Twiggs County was passed on November 18. I’ll post a copy of the ordinance when I get it.
To see how one county council — this one in Wellington, New Zealand — has embraced, not fought, green burial, click on the video at the head of this blog. It profiles the folks who worked to establish the first modern natural cemetery in the southern hemisphere, the Wellington Natural Cemetery.
Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
Paul Diamant reports on Eco-Funerals in New Jersey for the Star Ledger:LINK “[a natural burial is] what Paul Magalhaes Sr. wanted, so last October, when the 78-year-old North Bergen man was considering personal burial plans, he settled on a new…