Burials and Cemeteries Go Green
Ginny Boll loves life. The 78-year-old former nun operates a dog-grooming business in Wisconsin in a small shed near her home on her woodland property. When she dies, Boll says she wants her friends to hold a party to celebrate her life and then to bury her simply.
She's not interested in being embalmed or laid to rest in a fancy casket. Boll wants to return to the earth in a more natural way.
So-called "green burials" are catching on in some areas as an alternative to traditional burial. They are simple, often more affordable and environmentally friendly.
Formaldehyde-based embalming is taboo in green burials, as are concrete burial vaults. Caskets are made of biodegradable material, and sometimes the deceased are wrapped in shrouds alone.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral is $6,500 plus cemetery costs.
A green burial can be significantly less costly — in some locations, it's only a few thousand dollars; the burial of cremated remains is even less.
Cremations — which are also inexpensive — are increasing in number. But Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, says that unlike with cremations, green burials present little possibility that mercury or other potentially hazardous emissions will be released.
Sehee says it's up to individuals to decide how green they want their end-of-life process to be, but he believes current funeral practices are reason enough to go green.
"We bury enough embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools, enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and so much reinforced concrete in burial vaults that we could build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit," Sehee said.
It wasn't until the Civil War — when bodies were transported from the battlefield to home — that current funeral practices became popular. So in many ways, green burials are simply a return to traditions of the past. And some religious groups adhere to those practices even today.
The concept of green burials, though, is more popular overseas. In Great Britain, there are 200 green cemeteries. In the United States, there's just a handful in a few states. The first, Ramsey Creek Preserve, opened in South Carolina in 1998.
Even so, there has been enough interest in these alternative burials that some conventional providers are starting to think green. That includes the Forest Home Cemetery, a historic landmark in Milwaukee. Cemetery President Tom Kursell says a two-and-a-half acre meadow full of native Wisconsin grasses will be used for green burials as early as next spring. That's where the process of "ashes to ashes" will take place at a much more rapid place.
Whether it's a conventional cemetery carving out areas for green burials, or burial grounds being created in an effort to preserve open space, Sehee says it's all connected to the same idea: One's final act can have meaning for a family while having less impact on the earth.
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