Eco-friendly burials a lively trend
Like a hand from the grave, an underground green movement is slowing reaching out and taking hold, both nationally and in the Sacramento area.
Rather than cold, clammy fingers, the movement, known as green burials, is grabbing hold with such things as biodegradable caskets and conservation stewardship, while mixing ritual with restoration.
“Burial practices have become so industrialized, there is new involvement in making it cool to have a natural burial,” said Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, during an interview at the Sacramento airport as he passed through town to discuss the conservation easement component with a local business.
Inspired by a movement begun in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, the U.S. eco-burial shift began in the early 2000s. After initially working with a funeral company in Marin, Sehee launched the Green Burial Council with his wife six years ago.
“Green burials are slowly gaining momentum and are increasingly seen as an emerging market rather a fringe market,” Sehee said.
In California, there is just one cemetery, in Joshua Tree, that has been certified by the Green Burial Council. But others, including one in Davis, are introducing their own green programs.
“There has been rapid growth in this sector, and about 40 percent of our cemetery is devoted to green burials,” Susan Finkleman, manager of the Davis Cemetery, told SN&R.
Green practices at the Davis cemetery include biodegradable caskets or shrouds and a central plinth with names on it, rather than individual memorial markers. Though unlike some green cemeteries, graves are still dug with an excavator rather than by hand.
Finkleman also added that she works closely with the Green Burial Council to adhere to its standards, although completing the full green-certification process is tricky.
Typically, standards for green burials include avoiding toxic chemicals, such as the formaldehyde used in embalming; not using steel, concrete or hardwood caskets; allowing for natural landscaping in burial grounds (rather than obtrusive vaults, for instance); and using a natural item such as a tree or bush for a memorial marker.
One town in Sweden has also reportedly experimented with freeze-drying bodies and then shattering them into compost. In some cases, land for burials has also been preserved for open space, though the $15,000 to $20,000 costs can be prohibitive.
The Green Burial Council developed its standards with the help of ecologists, the Trust for Public Land and funeral-industry groups. Other trade groups, such as the National Funeral Directors Association, have their own green guidelines.
“There have been some good reasons for burial practices, such as deterring grave robbers and protecting the body from the elements,” Sehee said.
Green-burial advocates see the practice as the next big thing. The cost for such funerals generally starts at about $500.
“In Davis, particularly as a forward-thinking and eco-conscious community, there has been a lot of interest,” Finkleman said.
“We have been ahead of the curve,” Sehee added. “But I anticipate 10 years from now baby boomers will come back to natural burials as more in line with their values.”
So far the Green Burial Council includes about 300 green-certified providers in 41 states and five provinces in Canada. The National Association of Funeral Directors also says green funerals are likely to grow in popularity.
Sehee sees this as a natural progression, one that already aligns with burial practices in some cultures and one that can make dying a less industrial process.
“Modern funerals don’t jive with a lot of folks who recycle,” he said. “Green burials are for people who want to do something with their last act, something that is restorative and can help save the planet.”