More funeral homes offer green burials

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Gloria and Reggie Weiss of Spring Township page through information about pre-arranging a green burial.

By Jeff McGaw

Reggie and Gloria Weiss love fat, vine-ripened tomatoes; healthy, homegrown asparagus; and good, wormy soil.

They prefer dirt-covered garden gloves to jewelry, mulch their food scraps, conserve water and are partial to a good natural fertilizer – especially, Gloria said, the kind goats make.With reverence for the environment, and appreciation for these simple things in life, the Weisses have made a decision to keep things simple in death.

The Spring Township couple have pre-arranged a green or natural burial.They are among a growing number of Americans who, out of what the National Funeral Directors Association calls “a deepening eco-consciousness,” have abandoned the modern American way of death in which the departed, nattily-clad and chemically preserved, are placed in expensive hardwood or shimmering steel coffins; lowered into one-ton reinforced concrete burial vaults; and, after the clods fall, are memorialized with massive granite or marble headstones.

More adults interested

Natural, or green, burials honor the rituals that are important to people, but without glitzy, synthetic trappings associated with modern funerals.

They are a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact, according to the Green Burial Council based in Ojai, Calif.A 2015 study by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council showed 64 percent of adults 40 and older said they would be interested in green funeral options, compared with 43 percent in 2010.The funeral and burial industry is starting to take notice.Last summer, Gethsemane, a Catholic cemetery in Muhlenberg Township, became the first cemetery in Berks to offer a dedicated green burial section. That means no metal. No embalming fluid. No burial vault. No ashes.About an hour northeast of Reading, Green Meadow at Fountain Hill, in Salisbury Township, became Lehigh County’s first green cemetery when, in 2011, it dedicated a half acre of its 13 total acres to green burials.An hour west or Reading, Paxtang Cemetery in Paxtang Borough near Harrisburg reserved 12 of its 34 acres for green burials, and even had it zoned conservation to prevent future development.An hour southeast of Reading, West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Lower Merion Township was a regional pioneer in the green movement when it set aside an acre for green burials in 2008.

Earth-friendly caskets

Kuhn Funeral Home in West Reading, and Milkins Giles in Muhlenberg Township, stock caskets made of woven bamboo along with their traditional casket of steel and wood. Most funeral homes can easily attain and offer eco-friendly caskets to families, and families can purchase them directly from manufacturers.

Don Byrne, a native of Annville, Lebanon County, lives in Chatham, N.C., where he owns and operates Piedmont Pine Coffins. Using only non-power hand tools, Byrne makes each coffin with tongue-and-groove planks and dove-tail corners. Though his coffins are not used exclusively for green burials, he said the green movement has contributed to his workload.”They find that the simplicity of a pine matches something in the life or personality of their loved one,” Byrne said.His coffins, each requiring about 25 hours of labor, sell for about $1,800. Piedmont Pine Coffins is one of about 400 Green Burial Council-certified product makers, 399 more than existed in 2005.

Embalming

Modern-day funeral and burial practices, which have their origins in the American Civil War, veered well away from the biblical notion of ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Battlefield surgeons and others began embalming dead soldiers during the Civil War as a way to preserve the bodies during transport from battlegrounds to their homes hundreds of miles away. The practice was also useful in combating a gruesome phenomenon known as exploding casket syndrome, caused by a buildup of gases inside the coffin during decomposition. Some 40,000 Civil War soldiers were embalmed of the estimated nearly 650,000 who were killed.The funeral of Abraham Lincoln helped popularize the practice of embalming and set the tone for elaborate farewells, historians say.On April 19, 1865, four days after his death, Abraham Lincoln’s body began a 1,654-mile odyssey that took him from the White House and the Capitol in Washington to his final resting place in Springfield, Ill. The trip included stops in several towns and cities, including Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Chicago. At each major stop, the coffin was moved to a central viewing place and then opened so that mourners could pay their final respects.

Down with the dead

In addition to embalming chemicals, a lot of wood, steel and concrete goes down with the dead.

“For all its verdant landscaping, the typical cemetery functions less like a bucolic resting ground for the dead than a landfill for the materials that infuse and encase them,” wrote Bethlehem-based environmental journalist Mark Harris, author of a book called “Grave Matters” and a leading advocate of green burial practices.A one-acre section of cemetery, with about 1,250 people buried, will contain 3,750 gallons of formaldehyde-based preservative, 187,500 board feet of wood for coffins and 2.5 million pounds of concrete. If steel coffins are used, and they are used often, that would roughly equal 162,500 pounds of steel, more if heavier gauge steel is selected.There are 2,728 cemeteries in Pennsylvania. The Charles Evans Cemetery, one of the most historic cemeteries in Berks County, measures about 120 acres, and more than 70,000 people are interred there. Gethsemane Cemetery in Muhlenberg has about 70 acres, and 32,000 are buried there.Arlington National Cemetery, arguably the nation’s most revered cemetery, is 625 acres.The funeral industry is estimated to be worth $20 billion with about 2.4 million funerals held each year, according to Sara J. Marsden, editor-in-chief for U.S. Funerals Online.The National Funeral Directors Association published the median cost of an adult funeral, with viewing and a burial at $8,508 nationally. According to www.funeral.com, the cost of a traditional funeral, which includes basic fees, transfer of body, embalming or refrigeration, body preparation, viewing and visitation, graveside service and the casket or coffin, ranges from $7,000 to $10,000.”There’s a desire in many areas of our lives to lessen our impact on the globe,” said Jessica Koth of the National Funeral Directors Association.

‘A natural evolution’

“There are electric cars, organic and locally grown food and recycling,” she said. “Green burials are sort of the natural evolution of our lives becoming green.”

In a green burial, the body is shrouded in natural fiber. Caskets, if they are used at all, are made of everything from simple pine to woven bamboo or wicker, sea grass, wool or cardboard. The dead are typically lowered by hand into a grave, where the forces of nature are allowed to exert themselves without obstruction from chemicals, unnatural fibers or man-made barriers of concrete, plastic or steel.The Green Burial Council certifies funeral homes, cemeteries and funeral products as green based on various eco-friendly practices. To be certified, for example, funeral homes must offer three types of biodegradable caskets made from material that is easily harvested and quickly regrown. Cemeteries must disallow burial of embalmed bodies, concrete and metal in their green areas. Coffin makers, among others, must get raw material harvested in responsible ways, to name just a few of the requirements.The Weisses said they aren’t out to make a statement or to prove a point, but given their green lifestyle, a green burial seems appropriate.Working with Kuhn Funeral Home on their plans, they chose simple, wooden caskets similar to those used in Jewish burials.”I don’t need all that contrivance,” Gloria said. “I don’t need all that fancy stuff. But some people do, and that’s fine.”

Back to the future

Green or natural burials are nothing new.

“This isn’t a trend,” said Jim Olsen, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association. “This is what (society) has always done.”Timothy Kolasa, executive director of Gethsemane Cemetery, agrees: “It’s just really getting back to basics.””Some people are looking for a more simplified option,” he said. “Cremation has been that option for many years.”Kolasa added that the cemetery had been considering the move since 2012. No plots have yet been filled, but some have been pre-arranged.Paxtang Cemetery near Harrisburg opened in August, 2014, according to owner Alesia Skinner. An ardent supporter of the environment and green burials, Skinner opened The Woods Edge.Sylvia Crum, Skinner’s mom, loved the idea.”She was a country girl at heart,” Skinner said of her mom. “She came from a farm, and it was one of her happiest places. She was a very whole-earthy kind of a person. She loved nature.”Crum died of pancreatic cancer in August 2014 and became the first person to be buried at The Woods Edge.Tragically, Patrick B. Ytsma, 53, of Bethlehem, an avid bicyclist and architect, was struck by a car and killed while biking. He became the first person interred at Green Meadow in Salisbury Township. Friends, many of whom rode their bikes to his funeral on Dec. 10, 2011, said he would have wanted it that way.

Gravesite charges

Green burials can cost between $1,000 to $4,000, depending on the cemetery, according to CostHelper Inc., a Silicon Valley, Calif.-based provider of consumer information.

The Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, considered by some as the epicenter of green burials in the U.S., charges $2,500 to $3,500 for a gravesite.Natural burial plots at Gethsemane are larger, measuring 5 feet by 10 feet, than normal plots, and slightly more expensive, Kolasa said. “A cemetery’s only asset is land,” he said.Plots at Gethsemane range usually between $500 and $2,500, depending on location. The Weisses chose their little section of eternity near a hilltop and away from the car path.Casket costs can vary. A company called Final Footprint sells green caskets made with materials such as banana leaf, rattan, sea grass, wood and organic fibers for less than $1,000. They are made in the U.S., Poland and Indonesia, and are certified as fair trade. For $4.95, Piedmont Pine Coffins will sell you plans so you can build your own coffin with material that will cost you less than $200.

Movement inches along

Despite its passionate disciples, the movement is inching along in Berks County.

Green burials “will certainly gain in popularity down the road,” said Kyle Blankenbiller, funeral director and manager of Auman Funeral Homes, with two locations in the Reading area.”There’s not a real need right now,” said Joseph D. Giles of Milkins Giles Funeral Home in Muhlenberg Township. “I have no idea what it will look like in the future,” he said.But Olsen, a longtime funeral director from Sheboygan, Wis., who speaks nationally on behalf of the National Funeral Directors Association, said there might be a very good reason for funeral directors to get on board.Soaring cremation rates are burning up profits as families who cremate tend to buy fewer services from funeral homes.”I’ve lowered my cremation rate by offering this,” Olsen said. “I’ve found that by sitting down and listening to the families I serve I’ve actually captured a new portion of business.”Harris believes the pendulum is swinging back toward natural burial faster than some might admit.”This boomer generation is leaning green,” he said. “It’s the greening of society. They launched the first Earth Day, and now the leading edge of the boomer generation is slouching into retirement. They will bring those same green values to bear on end-of-life decisions.”Millennials, he added, are “definitely going green.”And while environmentalists aren’t exactly beating down his doors, Michael Kuhn, who worked with the Weisses, said, “It’s very appealing to some people.”Searching for the right words to describe the trend, Kuhn unwittingly stumbled into what might be the best description of all: “It’s kind of a grass roots movement.”

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