More people want a green burial, but cemetery law hasn’t caught up

by Alex Brown

Visitors to the White Eagle Memorial Preserve in southern Washington won’t find rows of headstones, manicured lawns or pathways to a loved one’s final resting place. Instead, they stroll through an oak and ponderosa forest set within more than a thousand acres of wilderness.

Twenty acres of the wilderness is set aside as a cemetery. Bodies are placed in shallow graves among the trees, often wrapped in biodegradable shrouds, surrounded with leaves and pine needle mulch, and allowed to decompose naturally, returning nutrients to the soil. Grave markers are natural stones, said Jodie Buller, the cemetery’s manager—”rocks that look like rocks.”

“People drive their loved one out themselves, in the back of a Subaru,” Buller said, summing up White Eagle’s granola ethos.

Conservation cemeteries like White Eagle, which was founded in 2008, are still few and far between—only seven have been officially recognized by the Green Burial Council, the industry’s certification body—but they’re part of a growing movement to handle the dead in eco-friendly ways.

Green burial, the catchall term for these efforts, takes many forms, from no-frills burials in conventional cemeteries to sprawling wilderness conservation operations. Cemetery operators say they’re seeing increasing interest in these less conventional end-of-life options.

“It’s been a slow, , but we are seeing the groundswell happening now,” said Brian Flowers, burial coordinator with Moles Farewell Tributes, which conducts green burials along with more conventional options on sites in Washington state.

While no explicitly prevent green burial—generally defined as burials that happen in eco-friendly containers and without embalming—cemetery operators all over the country say outdated state and local laws have made it difficult for green burial to gain a foothold.

Many followers of Islam and Judaism use similar practices, burying the dead in a shroud or coffin of untreated wood without cremating or embalming. Such techniques are allowed in every jurisdiction, but new cemeteries with an explicit focus on green burial have run into obstacles.

Cemeteries were little-regulated until the late 1800s, experts say, when officials began adding rules primarily for consumer protection. The goal was to prevent scam artists or ill-prepared operators from opening cemeteries that might later be abandoned. But the regulations establishing best practices for conventional cemeteries often inhibit green-burial practices.

“The bottom-line issue in pretty much every state is the statutes don’t contemplate this kind of burial ground,” said Tanya Marsh, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who has written books about laws pertaining to the dead. “It’s probably not that the legislators wanted to make things difficult; it just didn’t occur to them that everybody wasn’t going to set up a cemetery in what they conceived of as a regular cemetery.”

While no organization keeps a comprehensive database of all state and local cemetery laws, operators have no shortage of stories about the obstacles they’ve faced. Some laws, for instance, require paved roads to burial plots. Others mandate fencing around cemeteries—both antithetical to the natural settings required for conservation cemeteries.

Many states mandate that new cemeteries set up a large endowment fund for future maintenance, which green-burial advocates say is a burdensome requirement for places that are intended to be left in their natural state.

Some states require a licensed funeral director to handle transportation, and some laws mandate refrigeration or embalming once a person has been dead more than 24 hours. Green-burial advocates say families should be allowed to take care of arrangements themselves, and these laws are based on misguided fears that the dead carry diseases.

In many places, local officials may not give green cemeteries the zoning permits they need or may pass other regulations to block them. In 2008, for instance, commissioners in Georgia’s Mason-Bibb County adopted an ordinance requiring leak-proof containers for burials after neighbors complained about a proposed green-burial cemetery.

Advocates say their movement is long overdue. According to the California-based Green Burial Council, cemeteries in the United States put more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid and 64,000 tons of steel into the ground each year, along with 1.6 million tons of concrete.

Consumers are shifting their behavior as well. More than half of the dead in the United States are cremated today, according to a report from the National Funeral Directors Association, up from an industry-estimated rate of just 4% in the 1960s.

That’s at least partially because cremation is less expensive, but some Americans also have expressed a desire to leave a smaller environmental footprint. However, the council estimates that cremation—which involves heating a furnace to close to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for up to two hours—produces about the same emissions as driving 500 miles in a car.

Burial also is a land-use issue, as cemeteries must claim ever-increasing acres to accommodate new arrivals. Conservation cemeteries, on the other hand, are designed to preserve and expand existing wilderness areas while using the burials as a funding mechanism for the environmental work.

White Eagle, which has buried about 85 people so far and has reserved another 130 sites, charges a little more than $3,000 for a burial, which helps with continued land acquisition, invasive-species monitoring and forest management to reduce wildfire danger.

A 2019 survey from the funeral directors’ association found that nearly 52% of Americans expressed interest in green-burial options. Most cited environmental reasons, but others mentioned cost.

“Most people know what green burial is,” said Lee Webster, who heads education for the Green Burial Council. “They just don’t know how to make it happen.”

The council currently recognizes 72 cemeteries in the country that conduct green burials, ranging from “hybrid” cemeteries that allow green burials alongside conventional plots to conservation cemeteries that can span vast wilderness areas. While an increasing number of cemeteries are adding green options, operators say they face many hurdles in trying to set up new cemeteries dedicated to the practice.

Heidi Hannapel and Jeff Masten run Landmatters, a consulting firm based in North Carolina that helps those seeking to establish conservation cemeteries. The partners are attempting to set up their own such cemetery in North Carolina, but obstacles have stalled the project.

“We’d have to pave an entire road throughout the property,” Hannapel said. “That completely defeats the purpose of what we’re trying to create. We’d have to establish a large endowment that would have to be held back. There’s no room within existing North Carolina law that allows for what we’re talking about.”

Freddie Johnson, executive director of the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Florida, said the cemetery does not sell sites in advance, which exempts it from state statutes that would have required more than $250,000 upfront. However, that requirement makes it difficult for customers who can’t pre-plan their burials.

“The whole industry is set up to accommodate modern burial,” Johnson said. “You’re trying to do something simple and better for the environment, and some rules and statutes become hurdles. There needs to be another model available for cemeteries to choose based on natural and conservation burial.”

Few states are looking at changes to their burial policies. Wisconsin legislators are considering a bill to allow alkaline hydrolysis, an eco-friendly form of liquid cremation that uses a pressurized solution to rapidly decompose a body. But green-burial operators say they’ve seen little action on policy related to their cemeteries.

Aside from regulatory hurdles, operators say there’s also much work to be done in educating consumers.

“Everybody assumes you need to be embalmed or you can’t transport unembalmed bodies,” said Kimberley Campbell, who operates Ramsey Creek Preserve, a conservation cemetery in South Carolina. “The idea that you’re going to be spreading disease if you don’t embalm the body is complete codswallop.”

Buller, who manages the preserve in southern Washington, said she would like to see hospital chaplains and hospice workers present green burial as an option when they talk with families about their end-of-life choices.

Meanwhile, the so-called death care industry has begun to offer options with various “shades of green”—such as wicker caskets, urns designed to grow into trees and an organic mixture that reduces the toxicity of cremated remains, allowing for safe mixing into the soil.

In Washington, lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year allowing for human composting. The measure was based on a technology that rapidly converts human bodies into soil. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the Democrat who sponsored the bill, said it enjoyed broad support.

The bill passed on an 80-16 vote in the House and a 38-11 vote in the Senate. Among those opposed was the Washington State Catholic Conference, which argued that human composting disrespects the body in a manner against church teaching.

“The Catholic Church strongly recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries and other sacred places,” the conference said in a news release when Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill. “The practice of burying bodies of the deceased shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”

Pedersen said that he would be open to looking at more changes to state law to accommodate green burial.

“If there are obstacles to responsible practices for the disposal of human remains,” he said, “it makes sense for us to clear those away and leave space for the practice to develop.”

Any movement to change cemetery law would make Washington a rare case, said Marsh, the legal expert.

Some in the green-burial movement blame that on the existing funeral industry, which they believe has outsize political influence, as well as control over many local cemetery commissions. But Jimmy Olson, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, noted that many conventional cemeteries are adopting their own green options.

“With cremation rates now over 50%, I would think they would welcome this with open arms, because they would see this as an option to continue to use their cemeteries,” he said. “This is only going to help them as more and more people choose not to use a cemetery.”

Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said it’s important for customers to know they can opt for a green burial—and save money—at many conventional cemeteries, simply by declining options that aren’t eco-friendly.

Some green-burial plots are less expensive than conventional ones, but they still cost more than cremation. However, because of the costs for embalming, caskets and vaults, green burials are often more affordable than the full cost of a conventional burial.

The typical U.S. funeral costs more than $8,000, according to the funeral directors’ association, even before the purchase of a cemetery plot. An average burial plot costs from $1,000 to $4,000, according to the life insurance company Lincoln Heritage. Green- operators interviewed for this story charge from $2,000 to $4,500 for plots.

“Everything about death is so commercialized that we have a hard time thinking about anything other than a product that can be purchased,” Slocum said. “No state requires embalming as a condition of being buried. No state law requires a coffin or casket. No state requires a concrete vault.”

Still, he acknowledged that many who choose green burial may prefer not to be put in the ground between plots with vaults, caskets and embalmed bodies. Regulations may need to change to accommodate new cemeteries that don’t fit the traditional mold.

“We need to get over this idea that everything needs to look like an MGM backlot and manicured within an inch of its life,” he said. “I’m hoping that the artificial prissiness that has dominated the American approach can go away.”

Complete Article HERE!

Death Be Not Dull

U.K. restaurateur Oliver Peyton’s newest project, a style-forward funeral home called Exit Here, aims to shake up a very traditional industry.

A stylish new funeral parlor called Exit Here opened in London, promising that memorializing a loved one’s death doesn’t have to be grim experience.

By

Oliver Peyton knows one thing about his death: Thin Lizzy will play at his funeral.

His Spotify playlist is already queued up. Peyton is Irish, and the ‘70s Dublin hard rockers behind “The Boys Are Back in Town” played the first concert he ever attended. He’s thinking that “Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in Its Spotlight),” off 1977’s Bad Reputation, might be the first song to kick things off.

Peyton’s funeral soundtrack doesn’t sound even slightly sepulchral. It also features ’90s groove tracks by Arrested Development, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest, a nod to the first London establishment he ever opened (a hip-hop club). Peyton is nothing if not an entertainer: The longtime restaurateur is a judge on the BBC’s reality chef show, Great British Menu, and he earned an honorary British order of chivalry for his service as a caterer. When it all goes down, Peyton means for his funeral to be something special.

“I want every detail of my funeral to be choreographed,” Peyton says. “I don’t want my family or friends to think, ‘I wonder what Oliver would have liked.’ I think it’s so rude, in a way.”

Six years ago, when his father died, he came to realize that there isn’t enough choice in death. Since Victorian times, Peyton says, Great Britain’s death care industry has been served by a single prevailing model, a traditional means of commemorating life and ritualizing mortality—and it doesn’t suit him. So Peyton launched Exit Here, a funeral parlor, if that’s the word for it, in London’s Chiswick neighborhood.

“After my parents’ deaths, I just kept thinking, there’s no choice. You’re just on a conveyor belt,” Peyton says. “I didn’t achieve the things I know that certainly my father would have wanted. I was too traumatized.”

At first glance, Exit Here looks like a concept cafe, the sort of place where you might expect to order a flat white by day and a craft pour by night. The splashy, neon-backlit script over the entrance could be promoting a brasserie or raw bar (both of which Peyton has experience operating) instead of a funeral home. Nevertheless, Exit Here is a full-service provider of funerals and mortuary services, from traditional wakes to exotic possibilities.

“If you want a party on a beach in Goa, we’ll organize that for you,” Peyton says.

Three of the bespoke caskets available at Exit Here.

Style distinguishes Exit Here from the competition: It’s death, but hipper. The shop stands out for its considerable cheek (and chic). For example, Exit Here offers bright-colored urns shaped like capsules, a punny line called the “Bitter Pill” series. Bespoke caskets include a Día de los Muertos–inspired option and an English willow wicker coffin. Inside, teal and goldenrod hallways, blonde wood floors, and arched doorways (designed by Transit Studio) set Exit Here apart from traditional funeral-home interiors, with their dark woods and drab carpets.

There’s a growing movement to update the funeral business with offerings that reflect a wider range of customer choices. Los Angeles mortician and author Caitlin Doughty, who runs the Undertaking L.A. funeral service, also founded a collective of death care professionals and academics called the Order of the Good Death to help speed the adoption of more inclusive, less environmentally harmful, and more “death positive” practices within the industry. Other efforts, like the nonprofit Death Over Dinner and the Death Cafe initiative, encourage groups to talk openly about their demise, via public dinner events. Exit Here is entering an increasingly vibrant market for style-forward dying.

Since its opening a month ago, Exit Here has hosted four funerals. Peyton won’t talk about them in detail, but he says that the private services have ranged from the traditional to the extravagant. Everyone who has come through his doors has asked for something different. Funeral homes largely serve local neighborhoods and communities, and Exit Here is no different in this regard. Barry Pritchard, Peyton’s partner in the endeavor, is a third-generation funeral director who serves on the board of the U.K.’s National Association of Funeral Directors. All the services associated with a traditional funeral home, from collecting and preparing the body to hosting the reception, are available; the options simply go further.

A wicker coffin might be appropriate for a natural burial in Berkshire, a service provided by Exit Here.

When I ask him what an extravagant funeral might look like, he gives as an example the services for Aretha Franklin. Her televised 2018 funeral featured testimonials by the likes of Reverend Jesse L. Jackson and former President Bill Clinton, performances by Chaka Khan and Ariana Grande, and a procession of more than 100 pink Cadillacs. Peyton asks me whether I would describe the service as tasteful (I would). So why shouldn’t there be a category of funeral that falls somewhere between a faltering recitation of “Danny Boy” and a fantastic spectacle for the Queen of Soul?

Peyton outlines his philosophy on funerals this way: People plan their own birthdays, weddings, holidays, and vacations. Exit Here is for people who would like to plan their final departures as well. Plotting out the details, from the menu to the music, takes a burden off the shoulders of grieving loved ones and gives a person more control over the terms of their final departure. Peyton acknowledges the discomfort that some people might feel at the prospect of a trendy funeral home, but he says that’s ultimately discomfort with death itself. Convention does not ease a loved one’s passing, in the end.

So, what if I want to have a Star Wars-themed funeral? Somebody’s already asked him for a Star Wars casket, he replies, and he’s trying to figure out how to honor that request. Choice is the force behind Exit Here. In an increasingly secularized Britain, more people are searching for rituals that aren’t explicitly religious; other might like some extra flexibility within sacred traditions.

“Having spent most of my adult life in the restaurant business, you think you’re just helping people, and you are—you’re helping people to have a good time,” Peyton says. “But funerals are far more emotional. There’s far more attached to it. People’s grief manifests itself in different ways at different times. Being able to help people through that is a good thing.”

He adds, “It’s still, to me, a hospitality business. People say, ‘Oliver, why are you doing this?’ It’s about taking care of people.”

Costs for services at Exit Here run “a tiny bit above mid-market” for a traditional funeral, according to Peyton. The price point isn’t meant to be exclusionary. For services extending beyond traditional receptions, the prices run the gamut. “If you want a cheap funeral, you’re not going to come to us,” Peyton says, but “we’re definitely not out of reach.”

Death, curated.

Peyton and his partner weren’t expecting to do any funerals before Christmas. But there’s clearly a lively market for Exit Here: About four weeks in, Peyton is already thinking ahead to opening as many as four similar establishments in the future. He says that he is fielding regular queries about franchise opportunities, something he hadn’t predicted (and isn’t considering for now). While Exit Here might look like an effort to disrupt the industry of death, there isn’t any private equity backing the venture. A service is still a service.

Peyton is willing to describe one funeral in detail: his own. It will begin with a lunch, he says. At about 3:00 p.m., when everyone’s thinking about heading home, they’ll bring out the really good wine. From there it’s DJs spinning his favorite music from different periods of his life—Patti Smith, Desmond Dekker, the Ramones—so that people will leave with a lasting memory.

Complete Article HERE!

Can you get your body vibrated into particles when you die? Debate unfolds in Kansas

A process called promession could eventually allow bodies to be buried and turn into soil within months.

By Jonathan Shorman

When you die, do you want to be buried? Cremated?

How about being cryogenically frozen and then vibrated into tiny pieces? If you want to spend the hereafter in Kansas, you may eventually get the chance if legal and regulatory issues are resolved.

A new option called promession, the creation of a Swedish biologist, holds the potential to make burial more environmentally-friendly, its proponents say. A body effectively reduced to small particles and buried would turn to soil in a matter of months.

And while promession has yet to be tried on human remains—only pigs have so far had the privilege—the company pursuing the idea regards Kansas as fertile ground for the new method. So much so that the firm, Promessa, has one of its handful of U.S. representatives based in Overland Park. And a state lawmaker may introduce a bill in 2020 to clear the way.

In promession, the body is frozen using liquid nitrogen, then vibrated into particles. Water is removed from the particles, which are then freeze-dried. The remains are buried in a degradable coffin.

But in a legal opinion released just before Thanksgiving, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt found that promession doesn’t meet the definition of cremation under Kansas law and regulation.

In cremation, the body is reduced to bone fragments and flesh is typically burned up by fire. In promession, both flesh and bone are reduced to particles. That difference is why the process does not legally count as cremation, according to Schmidt.

The decision was a surprise to Promessa representative Rachel Caldwell.

“We thought this would be no hang-ups whatsoever,” Caldwell said.

Interest has been growing in so-called green burials that minimize the environmental impact. A 2017 survey of more than 1,000 American adults 40 and older by the National Funeral Directors Association found 54 percent were interested in “green memorialization options” that could include biodegradable caskets and formaldehyde-free embalming.

“Newer, greener methods of burial, like promession, may help conserve resources and less pollution into the air or ground,” Zack Pistora, legislative director of the Kansas Sierra Club, said. “Why not rest in peace with peace of mind?”

Schmidt cautioned that a decision on whether promession is permissible under other state laws falls to the Kansas Board of Mortuary Arts. The board’s executive secretary didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

Caldwell said Kansas is the first state where she has sought a formal legal opinion because of what she views as the state’s relatively lax cremation laws. For example, Kansas doesn’t require fire to be used in cremation. That’s a helpful distinction because promession freezes bodies instead of burning them.

Caldwell asked her state representative, Overland Park Democrat Dave Benson, to seek the attorney general’s opinion. Benson said Friday he wasn’t surprised by Schmidt’s conclusions because in his experience attorneys general are hesitant to provide new interpretations of law.

Benson suggested he may draft a bill to authorize promession because of interest in alternatives to traditional burial or cremation. And because he’s taken “a little bit of a libertarian” view.

“If that’s what you want, hey, where’s the government’s interest in telling you not to?” Benson said.

Promession has gained attention over the past decade, often when news outlets mention it as an alternative to traditional burial or cremation, said its creator, Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak.

Caldwell said she’s optimistic it could be used on a human body in the United States within five years. Promessa hears from people all over the world who want to undergo the procedure when they die, she said.

Still, it’s likely to take a long time to turn promession into a reality.

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.

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Grounding Ourselves

On rethinking our views of green space and funeral options as we plan for the final disposition of our bodies.

In the historic City of London Cemetery, 1,500 out of 780,000 graves have been reused to date — a practice legalized for the municipality in 2007.

By Regina Sandler-Phillips

In 2008, Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote “The Bells of Mindfulness” about the need for collective awakening to protect the earth. One decade later, master composter David Buckel connected the self-immolation of Buddhist monastics to his own self-immolation for action against climate change. Tragically, Buckel’s self-described “early death by fossil fuel” caught public attention in a way that his long-term, nationwide contributions to community composting could not. Our most sustainable practices — those that quietly prevent the depletion of vital natural resources — are rarely headline-grabbing.

Natural burial, like community composting, involves acceptance that the organic remains of the living are neither trash nor personal commodities. They belong to the earth. Yet, even though human bodies have been continuously returned to the earth for millennia, the idea that our world will be overrun by cemeteries remains entrenched in popular consciousness.

The experience of the United Kingdom — a tiny island nation that has long promoted cremation to save space — teaches otherwise. “For most environmentalists, it’s actually better to fade away than burn out,” concluded UK ethics journalist Leo Hickman back in 2005. “Our lives … already result in enough gratuitous combusting of fossil fuels. Much better, in death, to compost down as nature intended.” (Read more about the energy inputs, emissions, and toxic impacts of cremation in part one of this series.)

While it may seem alien to conventional expectations, the reuse of graves is a sustainable, long-established practice in Europe and elsewhere. In the historic City of London Cemetery, 1,500 out of 780,000 graves have been reused to date — a practice legalized for the municipality in 2007. As reported in The Guardian, graves chosen for reuse must be at least 75 years old, and notices must be posted for six months at the grave and in advertisements. If anyone connected with the grave raises an objection, the grave will not be reused. Gary Burks, who first came to live at the cemetery as the young child of a gardener and is now its superintendent, reports that very few objections have been registered.

In most cases, the original decomposed remains are lowered by deepening the grave, allowing for a new burial above. The original headstone inscription is preserved, but reversed to allow for a new inscription on the other side of the headstone. Burks believes that, with continued sensitive application of these procedures, the beautifully landscaped grounds will be able to accommodate interments indefinitely.

Most predictions of disappearing space focus on cemeteries within major urban centers. But just as city dwellers regularly leave these centers in search of more spacious real estate, the majority of burial plots — especially in the US — remain available outside of city limits. Like Hickman in the UK, American environmental planning professor Christopher Coutts has concluded that the most sustainable form of body disposition is burial without embalming in a simple biodegradable covering, followed by reuse of graves after bodies have decomposed back to the earth.

Another common variation of grave reuse involves a deeper excavation of graves at the outset, so that two or three family members can be buried one on top of the other(s) in the same plot. “Multiple-depth” burial practices are recognized in the United States, and ritually acceptable in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

While the utilitarian, lawn-style suburban cemeteries of the mid-twentieth century may not represent today’s ideal landscaping aesthetics, they still preserve basic green space against a range of more fossil-fuel-intensive onslaughts. The Green Burial Council recognizes this with three levels of North American cemetery standards.

“Hybrid” burial grounds are cemeteries or cemetery sections that simply forego the use of concrete vaults or other outer containers to reinforce the ground. Such vaults are never required by state law in the US, but rather by the regulations of individual cemeteries. Except in areas where the earth is particularly shifting and unstable (as in cities built below sea level), most Jewish and Muslim burial grounds would qualify as “hybrid” — since these traditions have long upheld a simple, natural return to the earth.

“Natural” burial grounds, besides foregoing vaults and outer containers, do not allow for burial of any bodies embalmed with toxic chemicals, or of any containers not made of biodegradable materials. Again, this is consistent with traditional Jewish and Muslim practices.

“Conservation” burial grounds are natural burial grounds legally committed to long-term stewardship for land conservation and preservation of natural habitat. There are very few designated conservation burial grounds at this time — and significantly fewer people can be buried in conservation burial grounds than in conventional cemeteries, which are zoned for many more graves.

Beyond the technicalities of “green” certification, there are always sustainability tradeoffs between each organic, inorganic, emotional, social, and economic consideration in the human ecosystem of funeral arrangements. For example, the greenhouse gas emissions of long-distance transport to a certified natural burial ground must be weighed against the availability of graves in more local cemeteries that support natural burial practices.

As the Funeral Consumers Alliance points out, “You can make any burial greener by eliminating embalming, and using a shroud or a biodegradable casket. Omit the vault if the cemetery will allow it. Otherwise, ask to use a concrete grave box with an open bottom, have holes drilled in the bottom of the vault, or invert the vault without its cover, so the body can return to the earth.”

Of course, the least privileged are not afforded this full range of choices. A cemetery of layered graves for the indigent and unclaimed is known as a potter’s field, referring back to the New Testament. Potters Fields Park in London is quite cheerful about its origins. In New York City, several now-upscale parks served as potter’s fields long before Hart Island — the largest mass burial ground in the United States — was opened for that purpose. More than one million dead, most of them lost to family and forgotten by history, have been buried on Hart Island in layered trenches by prison inmates since 1869.

Following decades-long efforts of family and community activists, supported by organizations like the Hart Island Project and the New York Civil Liberties Union, relatives of those buried on the island have won limited visitation rights in recent years. Those who “affirm a close personal relationship” can visit their corresponding burial area up to twice a month, while access for the general public remains restricted to a public viewing gazebo once a month. This past spring, the New York City Council moved formally toward transferring the jurisdiction of this municipal cemetery from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.

A few years earlier, the New York State legislature outlawed the use — without consent — of presumably unclaimed bodies for medical research or funeral embalmer training prior to Hart Island burial. Meanwhile, Hart Island continues to challenge us with a tangled thicket of ethical dilemmas, from cadaver shortages through prison reform to land use deliberations.

We may offer tips for “how to avoid the fate of a common grave,” but the unspoken truth is that we are all fated to return to a common earth. The most integrated solutions to the dilemmas of Hart Island actually point toward the most equitable and sustainable consumer choices for all of us at death: layered burials in simple, biodegradable containers; preservation of urban green spaces and history; public transportation access; and community education and counseling for informed funeral decision-making — including fully consensual arrangements for needed anatomical gifts.

Archaeological discoveries remind us that layered civilizations inevitably result in layered burials. Our first priority should be helping to insure that our own civilization will not be prematurely buried (or drowned) in the upheavals of climate change — and that there will be equal access, regardless of income, to whatever sustainable burial options exist locally.

In a poignant twist, one of the family members most active in the struggle to open Hart Island as a public space made arrangements for her own burial there. Rosalee Grable, whose mother was buried on the island in 2014, died two years later at the age of 65. “I am getting quite eager for my little spot on Hart Island,” Grable reflected shortly before her death. She knew that under then-current city regulations she would need to forego a funeral attended by family and friends, that her burial would not be confirmed until 30 days afterward, and that local friends would have difficulty visiting unaccompanied by her long-distance family members.

Even so, Rosalee Grable leveraged her power of choice in solidarity with so many whose lack of choice brought them to the same place. By deliberately choosing “the fate of a common grave,” she left a legacy that challenges all of us to plan the final dispositions of our own bodies in affirmation of our common humanity — and our common earth.

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The environmental toll of cremating the dead

As cremation becomes more common, people around the world are seeking greener end-of-life options.

Sarcophagi burn during a traditional Hindu mass cremation event on August 18, 2013, in Bali, Indonesia.

By Becky Little

Over the past four years, cremations have surpassed burials as the most popular end-of-life option in the United States, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. At the same time, companies have been springing up touting creative things you can do with a loved one’s ashes, such as pressing them into a vinyl record, using them to create a marine reef, or having them compressed into diamonds.

Cremation—along with these creative ways to honor the dead—is often marketed as a more environmentally friendly option than traditional embalmment and casket burial. Concern for the environment, in addition to economic considerations, may be driving some of the increase in popularity.

“[For] some people, I bet that’s part of it,” says Nora Menkin, executive director of the Seattle-based People’s Memorial Association, which helps people choose end-of-life options.

But while it’s true that cremation is less harmful than pumping a body full of formaldehyde and burying it on top of concrete, there are still environmental effects to consider. Cremation requires a lot of fuel, and it results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year—enough that some environmentalists are trying to rethink the process.

The average U.S. cremation, for instance, “takes up about the same amount of energy and has the same emissions as about two tanks of gas in an average car,” Menkin says. “So, it’s not nothing.”

Greener funeral pyres

The particular impact of an individual cremation depends on where and how it’s performed. In India, Hindus have a long tradition of cremating relatives on an open-air pyre. This requires cutting down millions of trees, and the practice contributes to air and river pollution since most pyre cremations occur near water.

Since 1992, the nonprofit Mokshda Green Cremation System has been trying to curb this pollution by giving communities access to more fuel-efficient structures for funerary rites.

In these structures, the “pyre” is a metal tray heated with firewood. This setup takes less time and requires less wood than a traditional pyre. It’s also easier to transition from one cremation to another by removing the metal tray filled with ash and replacing it with a new tray containing the next body.

Right now, about 50 such units are spread around nine Indian states. According to Anshul Garg, the director of Mokshda Green Cremation System, one metal pyre can handle around 45 cremations a day. The system also lowers the amount of wood needed from about 880 to 1100 pounds for a conventional cremation to 220 to 330 pounds.

“So, it’s almost less than one fourth of the wood requirement,” Garg says.

Though there has been some resistance to this non-traditional method, Garg says, people are more open to the Mokshda system now than they were in the 1990s. More than 150,000 cremations have taken place on Mokshda pyres in India, saving more than 480,000 trees, averting about 60,000 metric tons of ash from rivers, and releasing 60,000 fewer metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to program officer Chitra Kesarwani.

In addition, Garg says, the nonprofit has received inquiries from other countries in Africa and Asia about making their pyre cremations greener.

In the U.S., by contrast, all cremations happen indoors at crematoriums. The big environmental concerns with this type of cremation are the amount of energy it requires, and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions it produces.

Regional environmental regulations mean that most U.S. crematoriums have scrubbing or filtering systems, such as after-chambers that burn and neutralize pollutants like mercury emissions from dental fillings.

“Most filtration systems are focused on reducing metals and particulate matter and nitrous oxide,” says Paul Seyler, the marketing division manager for Matthews Environmental Solutions, which manufactures cremation technology.

However, these filters do not neutralize the CO2 generated by cremating a body, including the gas generated as a by-product of heating that body up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Matthews estimates that one cremation produces an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. Given this figure, Seyler estimates that cremations in the U.S. account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year.

Back to the earth

For Americans who don’t want to use up so much fuel or release so much carbon dioxide when they die, alkaline hydrolysis may be a more appealing option. Sometimes known as water cremation or aquamation, this way of dissolving a body in water is now legal in at least 18 states.

Alkaline hydrolysis “has about a tenth of the carbon footprint of conventional cremation,” Menkin says. “While the process does take a similar amount of time, it doesn’t have to heat that much, and it’s the water that’s doing most of the work.” In addition, the process releases zero emissions from the body itself.

As with cremation, there are some remains left over after alkaline hydrolysis that families can keep in an urn or scatter in a special location. And the process creates a lot of sludgy organic liquid that has some very practical uses.

“Some facilities capture the liquid, and it’s taken away and it’s used on some farmland; it’s an excellent fertilizer,” Menkin says. “But most places, it just goes into the municipal sewer system. And a lot of sewer systems actually appreciate it, because it actually helps with the quality of the wastewater.”

In the future, we’ll probably see many more alternatives to cremation. This year, Washington State became the first in the U.S. to legalize a type of corpse composting called natural organic reduction, or recomposition. Starting in 2020, this process will convert bodies into useful soil that friends and family can either use or donate to the state’s Puget Sound region. And across the U.S., it’s legal to opt for a so-called natural burial, in which the body is allowed to decompose in the ground without added chemicals, concrete, or synthetic materials.

Ultimately, people have to take into account many factors when making funerary preparations, such as how much a certain option costs, whether it aligns with religious and cultural practices, and whether it’s available in a given area. But with more end-of-life options becoming widely available, it’s getting a bit easier to go from ashes to ashes while still being green.

Complete Article HERE!

First green living, now green dying

Biodegradable caskets, water-based cremation

Jack Davenport, owner of Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory, adjusts a lamp near a wicker casket Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. A biodegradable wicker casket is one option offered to those who want a green funeral.

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Seven years ago Jack Davenport, co-owner of Davenport Family Funeral Homes and Crematory, was approached with what seemed to be an unusual request.

A family trying to grant the last wishes of a loved one wanted the body buried in a biodegradable casket to allow for natural decomposition.

Davenport, 53, was able to accommodate the family, and in the process launched a new line of business that caters to environmentally conscious families. His firm now offers biodegradable caskets and shrouds, which are typically a linen cloth used to wrap the body of the deceased.

“I do this because the environmental, green movement is growing,” Davenport said. “Some families don’t want cremation. They want a burial … their mentality is that what comes from the earth will have to return back to it.”

Green burials aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by cremations and toxic chemicals used for embalming a body. And as consumers become more conscious about the products and services they use, Illinois funeral homes are ramping up their green burial services for a small but growing client base interested in reducing their carbon footprint, even in death.

Several funeral homes in the state offer services in which the body is buried in the ground in biodegradable materials like willow, seagrass or bamboo. Other green options include biodegradable urns and a water-based alternative to cremation called alkaline hydrolysis.

According to a 2019 survey from the National Funeral Directors Association, less than 20% of funeral homes across the country performed green funeral services in the past year. And some funeral homes are limited by state laws in what they can offer. But demand for green funeral services is growing, so much so that the funeral directors group now offers a green funeral practice certificate.

Linen burial shrouds are pictured Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. The shroud consists of overlapping pieces of fabric that can be loosely tied in front and feature woven carry straps and handles.

Davenport, who has funeral homes in Barrington, Lake Zurich and Crystal Lake, said his firm has performed about eight green burials so far this year.

“By and large it’s a request by the deceased,” Davenport said. “It’s something that’s preplanned by families.”

Proximity has helped Davenport in his effort to offer green burials. Davenport said his funeral homes are only a few miles away from Windridge Memorial Park and Nature Sanctuary, a cemetery in Cary that has a nature trail dedicated to natural burials.

The 48-acre cemetery has been offering natural burial sites along the trail for a number of years, Windridge family service manager Kelly Lawyer said. The cemetery is plotting an additional 400 natural gravesites at a different location on the property, Lawyer said.

Illinois state law does not require bodies to be buried in caskets, although cemeteries typically require gravesites to have some type of reinforced concrete box — either a vault or a grave liner — to keep the ground level and prevent settling. A handful of cemeteries are willing to waive the vault requirement and allow natural burials, at least on a portion of their properties.

It’s unclear exactly how many Illinois cemeteries reserve sections for natural burials, but Lawyer said she knows of at least four, including one in Springfield and another in Vernon Hills.

Marion Friel, owner of Green Burials of Love in Norwood Park East, said she also uses Windridge for green burials, a service she has been offering since 2010.

Last year Friel helped Cheryl Barnes, of Beverly, set up a green burial for her 66-year-old sister, who died of uterine cancer on Dec. 28. Barnes said she was able to honor her sister’s last request, which was “to be put in a bag and then be put in the ground under a tree.”

Barnes said her sister was wrapped in a light shroud and buried next to a tree near a hill at the Windridge nature trail.

“I thought I had to settle for a second-rate of what my sister wanted,” Barnes said. “But I was able to give my sister exactly what she wanted.”

Jack Davenport, owner of Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory, adjusts the top of a wicker casket on Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. A biodegradable wicker casket is one option offered to those seeking to have a green funeral.

The overall cost of the burial alone was about $6,000, plus other expenses for the funeral service, Barnes said.

According to the funeral directors group, National Funeral Directors Association, a family can pay up toward $9,000 for a traditional funeral service and a burial. Green burials tend to be less expensive because they don’t involve embalming chemicals and vaults, and instead allow the body to decay naturally. Davenport said he has different prices for green burials — a service with a wicker casket can cost about $5,200 with a ceremony, or about $4,800 for a burial with a shroud.

The availability of green burial options varies by state and locality.

Traci Macz, owner of Irvin Macz and Day Macz Funeral Homes in Sandoval, Illinois, doesn’t offer natural burials yet. Macz said she’s been working with local leaders to reserve a section in the city-operated Sandoval Cemetery for green burials. Currently, she educates families about other green options available to them like less harmful embalming fluids or biodegradable urns.

“For us, having two young sons, we have to set the bar and educate consumers on what is available to them,” Macz said. “That why it was important for us to get the green funeral practice certificate from the National Funeral Directors Association.”

Jimmy Olson, owner of Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, said state law wouldn’t allow his funeral home to accommodate a family’s request to perform alkaline hydrolysis, a water-based cremation process that breaks down the body to liquid and bone using water and either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide.

The relatively new process is sometimes referred to as flameless cremation, resomation or aquamation.

“It’s so new. We are all trying to find a way to explain it and offer it to consumers,” Kurt Soffee, a funeral home director in Murray, Utah, and a spokesman for the national funeral directors group, said of the process.

Several states, like Wisconsin, do not yet permit alkaline hydrolysis. Olson said he found a funeral home in Minnesota that was able to accommodate the family’s request.

“I’ve spent the last year working with (Wisconsin) state Sen. Patty Schachtner to pass a bill that will allow for alkaline hydrolysis,” Olson said.

Although Illinois has allowed alkaline hydrolysis since 2012, only a handful of funeral homes have the equipment to perform it.

Matt Baskerville, who owns four funeral homes under the names Reeves and Baskerville in Illinois, said he began offering the service to clients shortly after it became legal in the state.

Baskerville, who refers to the process as flameless cremation, said it’s a much greener option because it does not burn fossil fuels or release emissions. The funeral home charges about $3,000 for alkaline hydrolysis, which is a little more than cremation because the firm has to use another company to perform the process, Baskerville said.

“I think there are so many different forms of green funerals. Many shades of green,” Baskerville said. “A natural funeral can involve no harmful embalming products or using biodegradable caskets, or it can also include purchasing locally owned flowers. People are more conscious of this today.”

Barnes, who visited her sister’s gravesite a couple of weeks ago at the Windridge cemetery, said she hopes more people will consider the greener options. Barnes said she herself would like to donate her organs after her death and have a natural burial for the rest of her remains.

“My sister, at the time, she did not want to be embalmed or put in a box,” Barnes said. “I hope people realize all they’re doing is putting chemicals into the ground when the body is filled with embalming fluids.”

Complete Article HERE!

Cemeteries Get Creative to Survive in Their Role of Caring for the Dead

by Bonnie Jean Feldkamp, RCN

As a teenager, I frequently walked to St. Stephen Cemetery after school to sit by my mom’s headstone. She died in a car accident when I was seven and I didn’t fully understand it enough to confront what that meant for me until adolescence.

That was the memory that jarred me when my husband sent me an announcement for a movie to be shown in Linden Grove Cemetery. He thought it might be fun. I didn’t like the idea of movie night in a place of mourning. It seemed flip. Disrespectful at the least. An exploitation of death at worst. I envisioned strangers using headstones as seats to keep their bottoms clean and dry while they munched popcorn and enjoyed themselves. It bothered me. I had questions. Luckily, I knew just who to ask.

Cole Imperi is not only a friend but a leader in the death community. She’s a Thanatologist, an expert on death and dying. She also happens to be the Vice President of the Board of Overseers of Historic Linden Grove Cemetery and Arboretum. Imperi helped me understand what I was missing.

Two things I learned right away. One: movies are shown on five acres of greenspace where there are no burials. Two: the cemetery is essentially full. Those two statements seem contradictory to me. How can you have five open acres but still be considered full? Easy. There’s an underwater spring in the greenspace area and any attempted burial would be submerged in water. That means plenty of respectful room for movies and other events.

Cole Imperi

The next thing Imperi helped me understand is this conundrum: when a cemetery can no longer perform burials, how does it afford the maintenance and management of a 22.5-acre graveyard that’s over 175 years old? This struggle isn’t unique to Linden Grove Cemetery. Many older cemeteries face this same predicament. Historic Linden Grove was consecrated in 1843. It’s hard to imagine them not being full.

Whose budget carries the line item for cemeteries? I assumed either it fell on the municipality or whichever religious institution founded it. The truth is, it depends. Some cemeteries, like St. Stephen where my mom is buried, are the responsibility of the Catholic Diocese. Linden Grove Cemetery, however, has a more complicated history of ownership and disrepair. These days the Board of Overseers manages and operates the cemetery with some funding from both the City of Covington and Kenton County. However, that funding does not cover everything.

The next assumption I had to confront was that cemeteries are a somber place of mourning for everyone. That’s simply not true. Linden Grove Cemetery has walking trails and Pokemon Gyms, and it hosts events like movie nights and even an upcoming car show. This is nothing new. Imperi is quick to say, “Cemeteries were our first parks.” Historically, before we had museums and public parks, we had cemeteries. People would take quiet walks among beautiful sculptures. Families would picnic on the lush lawns and there were even carriage races and hunting happening in cemeteries.

Cole Imperi and Bonnie Jean Feldkamp

“Civic engagement and history connects in the cemetery,” says Imperi. Linden Grove Cemetery is so close to both St. Elizabeth Hospital and Kenton County Administration that it’s the place many go for their lunchtime walk on a nice day. The Pokemon activity even prompted a group of players to reach out to the cemetery and volunteer their time in appreciation. On the hottest days of summer, thanks to greenspace, the cemetery stays a whole 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding urban streets. This provides those without air conditioning respite from the heat in a beautiful park-like setting.

My initial perspective was an emotional one, born of fear that stemmed from traumatic childhood experience. My knee-jerk reaction was to internalize and judge. I’m glad I stopped and took the time to reach out to my friend Cole Imperi to learn more. Not only did it ease my pain, but it gave me a different outlook on cemetery experience. Our society likes to separate death from life as something of lore and gore, especially around Halloween time. But death is a part of life, not apart from life. We can honor that connection at our community’s cemeteries.

Complete Article HERE!