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Is There Really a Demand For Green Burials?

Source:  Minnesota Public Radio

ST. PAUL, Minn. — As environmental consciousness has grown in the country, some people like Theresa Purcell have questioned the practice of pumping dead bodies full of chemicals before they’re buried in thick, concrete vaults in the ground.

“People are unfamiliar with the embalming process. People just hear that if you’re going to be buried, you need a concrete vault but don’t actually question the reasons behind that,” said Purcell, who runs the Full Circle Project, which advocates for natural burials. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a huge waste of resources.”

Purcell and her group promote a range of options, from wrapping a body in only a shroud to burial in a simple, biodegradable casket. She said traditional cemeteries are starting to offer services that are more environmentally friendly along with conventional services.

“A full-blown conservation cemetery is basically a nature preserve that has trails to walk through and it’s 100 percent green burial: No embalming, no concrete vaults, only natural grave markers,” Purcell said. “More existing cemeteries are starting to set aside an acre for green burial or just mixing them in with the other headstones.”

There are no hard numbers regarding how many green cemeteries exist in the United States. But Joshua Slocum, who runs the national Funeral Consumers Alliance, said when he joined the organization a decade ago, there were only two commercially run green cemeteries. Now he knows of about 60.

In Minnesota, a couple options have emerged in recent years for people who want a green burial.

One of those is Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco Gardens, which Tony Webber and a business partner just opened in Inver Grove Heights. Plans for the three-acre cemetery include space for about 1,600 green graves, as well as areas for the interment of ashes.

“We will not allow any above-ground monuments, we won’t mow the grass. The headstone will consist of a natural field stone with the head cut off,” Webber said. “The concept is to feed the earth and not to damage it with the compounds.”

Another advantage is cost. The National Funeral Directors Association put the cost of a conventional funeral at $7,755 in 2009. Webber puts the price for a green funeral in his cemetery at about $5,000.

Webber hopes people will come to regard the cemetery as a sort of public park. It will contain wooded areas, native grasses and a pond.

That’s not that unusual. Although people don’t hang out in cemeteries much now, they did in the past, said John Troyer, deputy director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath in England.

“The 19th century cemetery was very much designed as a park, as a public sphere for people to go and stroll through and eat,” Troyer said. “Cemeteries that are going to more meadow type setups — or what’s described as green burial — they are in some ways creating sort of a 21st century reinvention of what might be thought of as a burial ground.”

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  • don morris

    get on board!

  • Erin Phelps

    My funeral home has been ready to serve families requesting a green burial for many years. But while our fees for transportation of the deceased and minimal use of our staff & facilities are very reasonable (1/2 the cost of most other FH’s in the area), the cost of the graves in a green or hybrid cemetery are as much as a conventional cemetery. Also the wholesale cost of many of the caskets and shrouds that are touted as “Green” & “Natural”, even from local artisans, are priced at more then what I charge for a simple cloth covered casket. It seems that “Green/Natural Burial” is a boutique mode of disposition and is counter to what the early members of the movement envisioned.

  • BT Hathaway

    Here in the SE Massachusetts I have had a few sheepish questions about the concept of green burial (vague curiosity without any particular interest) but no one actively seeking the service. There are no options within easy driving distance either, and we have no legal right to own a cemetery, so I have no way to encourage the process myself.

    Especially now that the issue of man-made climate change has been muddled by political activism, I don’t see people expressing as many concerns about the environmental impact of standard burial or cremation.

    Those concerns may return down the road. Probably will. But for now the public attention has shifted away.

  • fluidpusher

    No interest expressed by my clientele in our community. No green cemetery nearby.

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