‘Green burial’ Movement Gains a Foothold

October 13, 2009
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Deborah Atkinson did not consider herself an environmentalist, family members said, and wasn’t interested in making any statement.

But as she faced her own death from cancer, she told them that she wanted a “green funeral.” And when the 55-year-old Kroger employee died in July, her family honored her request.

Atkinson’s body was not embalmed. She was dressed in organic cotton, placed in a coffin made of recycled wood and buried without a concrete vault at Evergreen Cemetery on the North Side.

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“We buried her between four trees,” said Carol McClure, Atkinson’s sister. “It was actually very pretty.”

Advertised as a “new ethic in death care,” green burials aim to reduce — and, in some cases, eliminate — the energy, materials and toxic chemicals used in traditional funerals.

“We bury enough metal in caskets alone to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge each year,” said Joe Sehee, founder and director of the Green Burial Council, based in Santa Fe, N.M. The council was formed in 2005 to set standards for ecologically sensitive funerals.

In addition, 1.6 million tons of concrete are used every year — enough to form a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit, he said.

In green funerals, formaldehyde is eliminated by keeping bodies refrigerated or embalming them with nontoxic fluids.

Biodegradable coffins or shroud-wrapped remains are laid in soil instead of a concrete vault. A tree or an engraved rock replaces cut-and-polished stone monuments.

Sehee and industry officials say the green-burial movement is in its infancy.

“It’s very sporadic, right now,” said James Olson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.

And some question how “green” a bamboo or wicker casket really is if it is made in China and shipped to the United States.

Another problem, said Josh Slocum, director of the Vermont-based Funeral Consumers Alliance, is that most cemeteries won’t accommodate such burials.

Tom Pfeifer, president of the Ohio Association of Cemetery Superintendents & Officials, said cemetery owners have to either waive rules or set aside unused sections of cemeteries for green burials.

Pfeifer, a superintendent of Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati, said his cemetery doesn’t accept green burials. “Our rules state that you have to have an outside container for (casket) protection,” he said.

Michael Schoedinger, president of Schoedinger Funeral Homes in Columbus, arranged Atkinson’s green funeral. He had to find a cemetery willing to accept a vault-free burial.

Thor Triplett, Evergreen Cemetery’s owner, said some faiths and cultures don’t use embalming, ornate caskets or vaults.

“They talk about (green burials) like it’s a new idea, but it’s not,” Triplett said.

Sehee said green burials can be less expensive than traditional ones, but customers need to be wary of marketing ploys.

Slocum said, “Marketers know that if they call something ‘environmentally friendly,’ they can charge more.”

Foxfield Preserve, a 43-acre nature cemetery near Wilmot in Stark County, offers green burial plots for $3,200 each. Half of that is a donation to the adjacent Wilderness Center, which protects 3,500 acres of forest, streams and prairies.

The Wilderness Center has sold 49 plots and has had nine burials since Foxfield Preserve opened in August 2008.

People are willing to pay more to help the center conserve land, said Jennifer Quinn, the cemetery steward. “A lot of people say it is money well-spent.”

Article By: shunt@dispatch.com, Columbus Dispatch

Photo By: JEFF HINCKLEY | DISPATCH

Photo Caption: Funeral director Michael Schoedinger displays a metal-free wood casket and an older woven basket that would be appropriate for “green burials.”

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