Funeral Org Pushes for ?Green? Burials

March 9, 2010
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imageThe idea of a funeral and burial with no embalming, no metal casket vault and nothing else to stop the decomposition of the body and container is an enduring idea that is getting the ?green? tag.

The uncomplicated funeral and burial, however, is complicated in the here and now for consumers, according to the leader of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Mid-South.

?Green burial has different definitions,? said Furniss B. Harkness. ?Locally, the interest I think is in ? an old fashioned burial ? meaning without a vault, sometimes without a casket, or if there is one, a wooden decomposable one.?

Other options include a shroud with or without a casket.

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The 10-year-old nonprofit consumer group regularly sends out questionnaires to funeral homes, cemeteries and others to gauge prices and services.

When the alliance recently added a question asking whether green funerals were among the services they offered, Harkness said only four of the 30 companies polled responded.

?You?re looking at something we do now that has taken on the aura of a custom and a tradition and a cultural part of our lives. When you seek to change (that), it?s very difficult to do,? Harkness told The Daily News after the group?s annual meeting that drew a crowd of 20 people Saturday at an East Memphis library.

?One of the major reasons that is driving it, from what I?m hearing, is cost. The cost has gone up and this affords a less costly but traditional ? if you go back far enough ? form of burial,? he said.

Elmwood Cemetery, established in 1852, was among those cemeteries that responded to the organization?s survey.

Cemetery executive director Kim McCollum told the group that such funerals are a significant part of the cemetery?s past.

?I feel certain that caskets were not made available to every single person,? she said.

The cemetery grounds include mass graves for those who died in several Yellow Fever epidemics. During the worst of the 19th-century epidemics, in September 1878, there were as many as 50 burials a day at Elmwood.

The majority of burials at Elmwood involve caskets with vaults and embalming.

?Elmwood has a long-standing policy regarding casket vaults and concrete lining. We do not require it,? she said. ?It would be sort of silly if we were to start requiring them at this point, given our history. I think we?re one of the few cemeteries in Memphis that doesn?t require an outer container of any kind.?

Harkness said some funeral businesses tell consumers that Tennessee law forbids burial without embalming or vaults. The state law permits funerals and burials without either.

But the same state laws also allow cemeteries to set their own rules for burial, which can include requiring embalming and vaults.

Shelby County historian Ed Williams, a former state legislator, said the state laws are the result of political influence funeral home owners have traditionally enjoyed in the state capitol.

?I work with funeral homes all the time,? McCollum said. ?I don?t know of any funeral home that would turn down this sort of business opportunity. I?m sure that they are out there. I just can?t imagine a funeral home turning this business opportunity down.?

Meanwhile, Dr. Helen Morrow, chief medical officer at the local Health Department, said there is little cause for concern that a green burial, under any of the different definitions, poses a health hazard.

?The answer is really no,? she told the group, referring to the HIV virus and hepatitis B and C. ?These particular organisms require a living body to maintain themselves and replicate. So they would not be there. We would actually probably be more at risk from other things that are in the soil naturally.?

Source: Memphis Daily News

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