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Going green

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but could you hold the concrete, please?

By Sandra A. Miller
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2009
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Ruth Faas and Sue Cross watched attentively as the crimson ecopod decorated with the gold Aztec sun symbol was lowered into a grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery last May. Cemetery administrators had proposed a test run with an empty casket to see how its papier-mache material, shaped like an Egyptian mummy's sarcophagus, would work with the hydraulic equipment that typically handles heavy, oblong coffins. Despite a little wobble, the conventional lift handled the 40-pound ecopod just fine - good news for Faas and Cross.

As cofounders of Mourning Dove Studio LLC in Arlington Center, where they sell ecopods as well as other biodegradable caskets, they have a holistic vision for the death-care industry that seems to exceed their commercial ambitions. They are also local groundbreakers in the natural burial movement, now deeply established in Europe but just gaining traction in the United States.

Beyond providing environmentally friendly caskets, Cross and Faas face more complex questions, including whether local cemeteries will accept them. They phoned Mount Auburn, hoping the traditional cemetery in liberal, eco-conscious Cambridge might be open to green practices.

Candace Currie, Mount Auburn's director of planning and cemetery development, invited the women to come test the ecopod.

"I don't know yet what green burial at Mount Auburn will mean," said Currie. "Not many people have asked about green burials, but I suspect that will start to change. And if someone were to request one, we could honor it in some location."

Faas, 48, an occupational therapist, who opened Mourning Dove Studio in December, wants it to be "a resource space for people thinking about death and dying.

"I feel like we've been indoctrinated to do death care in a certain way in this country, and I'd like people to consider the environmental impact of their choices and whether or not these rituals hold meaning for us," she said.

The studio includes a casket display - with options that range from an $80 cardboard box to a $3,500 wicker coffin - and a spacious area for bereavement groups, workshops, art-making and coffin decorating. (For $15 per hour, customers can decorate a cardboard or pine box that they buy.) In Mourning Dove's reading room, people can browse through books about alternative death-care practices.

Prominent among those books is "Grave Matters" by Mark Harris, who will be giving a talk March 21 at Mount Auburn. In his 2007 book, which some consider the bible of the natural-burial movement, he examines the consequences of typical burial practices, and follows a dozen families through a range of green alternatives.

"The modern burial is unnatural, alienating, and extremely expensive, $10,000 to $12,000 on average," said Harris during a phone call from his home in Bethlehem, Pa. "The modern green burial is nothing more exotic than the standard way Americans in the early years of the Republic memorialized their dead." Placed in a simple wooden coffin, a body consigned to the earth would return to the earth, and shortly thereafter become part of it, he said.

Today, bodies are typically embalmed to preserve their appearance, then placed in a hermetically sealed coffin that is set in the ground inside a concrete liner. According to Harris, many people don't realize that embalming is not required in most states, including Massachusetts. Once considered pagan in this country, chemical embalming only became popular during the Civil War, when battlefield surgeons recommended the treatment to preserve soldiers' remains on long train rides back to their families.

Key to the natural-burial movement are natural cemeteries, where bodies are buried in a shroud or biodegradable box and their locations noted with Global Positioning System coordinates. Instead of upright monuments, flat fieldstones or natural plantings are sometimes used as grave markers, and the land is maintained without chemicals or nonnative plantings.

There are 11 natural cemeteries in the United States, according to Joe Sehee, founder and executive director of the Green Burial Council in Santa Fe, N.M., but none in Massachusetts.

Judith Lorei, a board member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts, a nonprofit, Boston-based affiliate of the national organization, is working to change that as she talks to land trusts across the state. "We're looking for a donor who would be willing to use their land for this purpose," Lorei said.

Though her group does not have a commitment yet, Lorei said, there has been serious interest, particularly from a donor in Essex County. She hopes the country will move forward as quickly as England, which established its first natural cemetery 15 years ago and now boasts more than 250 such sites.

Here, cemeteries set their own rules, and typically install concrete grave boxes to keep the landscape even, for easier maintenance, and prevent the ground from caving into a grave site. For Jewish burials, in which an unembalmed body is placed in the earth in a pine box, a cemetery will forgo the bottom of the concrete liner, allowing the casket to make contact with the dirt.

In 2006, when Rachael Stark of Arlington was trying to bury her husband in an environmentally friendly way at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near the town's center, she chose a Jewish burial, which is green by default.

"If I had said I want to do an eco-funeral," said Stark, an environmentalist with Jewish roots, "I don't know that the funeral home and cemetery would have respected that."

Faas and Cross are betting that a generation of aging baby boomers will start requesting green burials as awareness slowly dawns.

"We've been afraid to look at death, plan for it, and talk about it," said Cross, who came to this work by studying death rituals of her own Hungarian heritage. "We also end up spending a lot of money on things like concrete vaults and metal caskets that keep us from returning to the cycle of life."

For Faas, her interest in death care began as a teenager when she spent summers with her uncle, a funeral director. But only after her mother died in 2004 did she think seriously about burial practices. "I kept focusing on my mother's casket," said Faas. "It was aesthetically meaningless to me, and that's a big part of the choice when you're planning a funeral."

While running a booth last May at the Down to Earth Expo, which drew 8,000 visitors to the Hynes Veterans Convention Center in Boston, Faas was not surprised by the number of environmentalists who, like herself a few years earlier, had never considered the impact of their final carbon footprint. Most assumed cremation was the obvious green choice, not realizing that running a cremator for two hours at 1,800 degrees requires an immense amount of energy for a process that, given the right conditions, will occur naturally.

Jacquie Taylor, executive director of the New England Institute at Mount Ida College in Newton, one of the largest funeral service programs in the country, said funeral directors are carefully watching these environmental trends. She also noted that schools are beginning to teach green burial alternatives to the next generation of funeral directors.

"But most of the clients in small-town America are still having a funeral the way their parents and grandparents did," said Taylor, "which is why funeral directors are reluctant to become enthusiastic until they see this is something the public really wants."

Green burial represents the most significant change to funeral practices since cremation, according to author Harris, and the industry is scrambling to figure out how to make it financially viable. "There are ways that the industry can engage and make a profit," he said, "but the margins may be smaller."

Harris said the cost of a green burial can run from a couple hundred dollars to the low thousands, with an average of $3,000. But expensive caskets could bring the cost higher.

"If someone were to ask for an eco-friendly funeral, we would get them the information they needed," said Chad Keefe, a director at Keefe Funeral Home in Cambridge. But, so far, he said, they have not had any inquiries.

In Quincy, Keohane Funeral & Cremation Service has jumped ahead of the trend by establishing the New England Green Burial Society, making it the first funeral home in Massachusetts to be certified by the national council. Funeral director Dennis Keohane said, "The challenge right now is getting the word out there. Many people don't even know this is a possibility."

Still, Harris thinks green funerals will start moving into the mainstream in leaps and bounds. "There is something appealing about returning to the earth as your final act on earth, and using your remains to push up a tree."

Sandra A. Miller can be reached at sandraamiller@aol.com.

Each year in the 22,500

US cemeteries, we bury:

827,060 gallons of embalming fluid

1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)

90,272 tons of steel (caskets)

14,000 tons of steel (vaults)

2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)

30 million board feet of hardwoods (caskets)

SOURCE: Mary Woodsen, Greensprings Natural Cemetery, Newfield, N.Y.

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