‘Green burials’ remain a niche market in afterlife industry
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ken Buzzelli seeks his late wife in a blade of grass, as instructed on her grave marker.
Before she passed away from lung cancer at age 50 in 2009, Laura Buzzelli — who worked with emotionally disturbed children and was an environmentalist before going green was trendy — opted for a natural burial in the prairie grasses of Foxfield Preserve, a nature cemetery near the Stark County village of Wilmot.
“It’s a burial ground, but there’s bluebirds and butterflies. It’s teeming with life, which is ironic,” said 59-year-old Ken Buzzelli of Canton. “It’s the old ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust.”
Amid concern over climate change and pollution, more consumers such as Buzzelli are contemplating the impact of their last carbon footprint. Cemeteries and funeral homes are seeing a modest uptick in interest in green burials, but the age-old practice remains a niche in the afterlife industry.
“It’s really not a new concept,” said Amy Henricksen, steward of Kokosing Nature Preserve near Gambier. Since 2015, the site has performed four natural burials and sold 18 interment rights. “I think it’s awareness; people don’t realize it’s an option.”
Green burials limit a corpse’s earthly impact by minimizing or eliminating the energy, materials and toxic chemicals used in conventional practices, funeral professionals say. Unembalmed bodies are wrapped in a shroud or placed in caskets made of wicker, cardboard or another biodegradable material. They are laid in soil, not concrete vaults. Trees, native plants or natural stones mark graves.
No objective data tracks green burials, funeral professionals say. But nearly two-thirds of adults 40 or older expressed interest in green funeral options, up from just 43 percent five years earlier, according to a 2015 Funeral and Memorial Information Council survey of 1,200 people.
Yet interest rarely translates into commitment, said Dan Gochenouer, caretaker for Glen Forest Cemetery in Yellow Springs. In the past three years, Gochenouer has overseen 250 traditional burials and just nine natural ones.
“We’re pretty liberal, natural, organic. I get a lot of interest, a lot of calls asking about it,” he said. “It’s a very popular idea. But traditional is still the tradition.”
The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit group that certifies eco-friendly burial practitioners, has approved five cemeteries and 24 funeral homes in Ohio.
However, establishments don’t need council approval to perform natural burials.
“If the need would arise, we would get more proficient,” said Mark Gordon, managing funeral director at Newcomer Cremations, Funerals & Receptions in Columbus.
Other afterlife caretakers are preparing for a surge in natural-burial demand as consumers seek more ways to reduce their environmental impact beyond recycling, buying local food and reducing fuel consumption, said Jessica Koth, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
Cremation — now the most popular funeral rite in the United States — requires heating a body to 1,800 degrees using natural gas. The process also releases pollutants, including climate-changing carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, traditional burials require wood and steel for caskets, concrete for burial vaults and carcinogenic embalming fluid. They also take up green space that might be kept preternaturally green with pesticides and weed killers.
“It’s a tremendous amount of natural resources and requires a lot of energy. We’re pouring that in the ground just to stop what’s a natural process,” said Sara Brink, manager of Foxfield Preserve.
The 43-acre Foxfield has sold 325 plots and performed 150 natural burials since its 2008 opening. It offers green burial plots for $3,200.
The median cost of a traditional funeral, with burial and vault, is about $8,500, excluding cemetery or gravestone expenses. The national median cost of a cremation funeral is about $6,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Three-quarters of the green burials at Evergreen, Eastlawn and Far East Asian cemeteries in Columbus come down to pricing, owner Thor Triplett said. He oversees a handful of natural burials each month that cost about $1,200, he said.
“We offer what people want,” Triplett said. “The merchandizing of funerals with vaults and fancy caskets has created a false narrative that those items are required.”
In time, the simplicity and environmental benefits of natural burials will boost their popularity, said Cathy Elkins of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Central Ohio, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people understand their funeral options and costs.
“I think when we get to millennials and Generation X — they’re the ones who are going to want this. They’re just not thinking about it yet,” Elkins said.
Families who have held green burials for loved ones often discover that the natural process provides an unanticipated sense of comfort, Brink said.
“People who come back to visit aren’t walking among row after row of headstones. They’re walking through wildlife ... and the natural cycle of life happening all around them, season after season,” she said. “I see people achieve a deeper sense of closure.”
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com