Ashes to Ashes -- Burial Becomes Environmentally Conscious

Capital News Service
Friday, November 13, 2009

WASHINGTON - Norma Hooks described laying her sister, Leona Miller, to rest in the Chesapeake Bay as a "wonderful experience."

Miller's cremated remains, combined with an environmentally safe cement mixture, were cast as an artificial "memorial" reef and personalized with Miller's "jewelry and knickknacks," said Hooks, 64, a Finksburg resident.

The memorial reefs, also located off Ocean City, become new habitat for sea life, according to Don Brawley, founder of Eternal Reefs, Inc., a Georgia-based company that provided the service.

Hooks said it's "quite possible" that she will choose the same option. She and her sister represent the growing number of people who seek green options, not only for their life, but also after death.

"People are waking up to the fact that there are consequences of the ecologically unhealthy choices we have been making for the last 100 years," said Elizabeth Knox, founder of Crossings, a non-profit green burial and home funeral care resource center in Takoma Park.

Green or "natural" burial is releasing the deceased into the earth as naturally as possible. Green burials replace poisonous chemical embalming, metal or exotic hardwood sealed caskets, cemented burial vaults and imported marble headstones with biodegradable caskets, hand-dug burial spaces and non-harmful grave markers, like a GPS, shrubs, wood or stones, according to Knox.

Combined with home funeral care, a green burial can cost less than $300 and provides a "meaningful and affordable alternative" to a conventional burial, Knox said.

"The only expense would be dry ice, materials for coffin or shroud and state filing fees," Knox said. "That is the least expensive way."

Home funeral care, also known as after-death care, enlists family and friends for "performing the last deeds of love" -- washing, dressing and laying out their loved one's body for burial, according to Knox.

"No one can care for the departed as well as those who love them," Knox said. "It is the most healing, empowering and loving thing to do."

The increased interest in green burial has prompted many cemeteries in Maryland to provide the option, including Bestgate Memorial Park in Annapolis.

"It (green burial) is a new concept but it's getting increasingly popular," said manager Bill Bowen. "The more the concept gets out there, those that are interested are contacting us for information."

However, for funeral directors, green burial is a small market that "fits certain groups of people who are environmentally conscious," according to Bowen. About 5 percent of his clients opt for a green burial, a consistent number in the last few years, Bowen said.

People who choose green burials in funeral homes tend to save about $1,200 on visitation and embalming charges, Bowen said.

Other funeral directors across the state have also reported receiving inquiries regarding green burial as "there have been increased interest in the last couple of years," according to Hari Close, president of the Maryland State Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors.

"Because of the environmental and economic concerns, people are being conscious at various levels," Close said.

Despite the increasing interest, green burial still faces a big hurdle -- lack of information, said Mark Harris, the author of "Grave Matters: A Journey Though the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial" and a former environmental columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

"The majority of Americans believe that the body needs embalming," Harris said. "Once they find out that embalming and other procedures are not required, their eyes open to the possibilities," Harris said.

However, embalming is required in certain circumstances, according to Close.

"Embalming is not a federal or state requirement," Close said. "However, a body must be embalmed for health reasons for a public viewing, viewing for a funeral or if the body is being transported out of the state or the country."

Besides memorial reefs, after-death green options also include cremation, according to Harris.

Though cremation includes burning of natural gas and generates some pollutants, "it stacks up pretty well" when compared with modern burial that includes embalming and metal caskets, Harris said.

For 38-year-old Cathy Brennan, a lawyer from Baltimore, green burial is "just the next logical step in decreasing our impact on environment."

Though she does not have specific funeral plans yet, Brennan said she has a will that "incorporates her intention" of using green options after her death.