Sunday, December 1, 2013

Funerals, Fiber, and Fabric

Much of our discourse on green and natural burial is focused on the biodegradability and toxicity of casketed remains in a cemetery burial.  The five standards published by the Green Burial Council in 2011 for shrouds, urns, and burial containers extend our thinking on green burial to also include local-sourcing of organic or sustainable materials.  Let us explore the fibers and fabrics that are used in caskets and burial shrouds and how they measure up to our talking points on green and natural burial.
Organic cotton has a lower carbon footprint.


In previous installments of this column we've used five key talking points to measuring how green a funeral product or service might be.  The five talking points include biodegradability, toxicity, local-sourcing, sustainability, and carbon life cycle assessment.  Each of these talking points is evident in the Green Burial Council standards for burial containers, but not all five of these are necessarily in alignment all the time.  There are compromises to be made.  If we view each of these points through a lens of a harmonious and healthy environment for all living things, the compromises are easier to discuss.

The textile industry is the 5th largest contributor of carbon emissions in the United States followed by primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum, and chemicals according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  World-wide fabric production consumes 1,074 billion kWh of electricity or 140 million tons of coal and 2 trillion gallons of water annually.  Here in the United States the textile industry accounts for 1 ton, or 5%, of every individual's annual carbon footprint.  So when it comes to maintaining a healthy environment for living things, fiber and fabric matter.

The impact of fabric production can be broken into two components.  First, there is the production of fiber to make thread and second, there is the energy required to weave thread or yarn into fabric.  The energy required to operate a fabric mill to weave threads into fabric is about the same for both synthetic and natural fibers.  The differentiation is on the production side.  Natural fibers like hemp and cotton are cultivated and harvested.  Animal fibers like wool also require land and water resources to raise and harvest.  The good news is that agri-fibers are renewable and sustainable.  While synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon do not have an agricultural impact, synthetics are produced from petroleum or other chemicals which have significant toxicity and carbon emissions.

Overall, the heaviest polluters and carbon producers are synthetic fabrics.  Polyester generates 21 lbs of CO2 emissions per ton of fabric produced.  Acrylics produce more than 25 lbs of CO2 and nylon is worse yet.  Domestic cotton by comparison, emits 13 lbs of CO2 per ton of fabric.  Organic cotton does not use nitrogen fertilizer.  Just 1 ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits more than 7 tons of CO2!  Domestic organic cotton weighs in at just over 5 lbs CO2 per ton of fabric produced.  Organic cotton emits less than 1/4th of the CO2 that is emitted by the same amount of polyester.  In short, synthetics are bad, natural fibers are good, and organic fibers are better yet.

Descriptions for conventional casket interiors include words like taffeta, velvet, crepe, pebble, chalet, and chiffon, but nearly all conventional casket interiors are made from polyester.  Polyester fabric is available in various different weave patterns and textures that are durable, wrinkle-resistant, and easy to work with for making casket interiors.  Polyester is less than half the cost of cotton and far less than the cost of organic cotton.  So from a manufacturer's perspective, polyester is a logical choice for making casket interiors.

Lyocell is a low impact fabric alternative.
If we revisit the talking points on greening the funeral industry, any natural fiber-based fabric is biodegradable and organic fabrics have a smaller carbon footprint. Local-sourcing, however, limits our choices in the U.S.  The Green Burial Council standards limit material sourcing to within 3000 miles making domestic organic cotton a good choice.  While some Egyptian, Indian, and Romanian organic fabrics may have a smaller carbon footprint than even domestic organic cotton, these materials compromise on the local-sourcing standard.

On a side note, there is a growing variety of green burial caskets made from natural fiber plants including wicker, willow, cane, seagrass, bamboo, and banana leaves.  While all of these are 100% biodegradable, few meet the local-sourcing guideline for distribution in the United States.  European willow caskets and Indonesian seagrass caskets must be imported racking up carbon emissions from transportation.  Some of these natural fiber materials also fall under scrutiny in their production practices.  For example, the bamboo industry, while touting the sustainability of bamboo as a renewable resource has become subject of criticism for cultivating in marginal waters, displacing local fishing industries, polluting waters, and unfair labor practices.  Seagrass production in Indonesia has been subject to similar criticisms.

Recently the clothing and fashion industry has been subject to scrutiny on fair trade, safe working conditions, pollution, sustainability, and carbon life cycle assessment of textile production.  There is a bright side to all of this scrutiny.  The textile industry has organized the new Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to address the many issues in world textile production.  This new standard is a tool for an international common understanding of environmentally friendly production systems and social accountability in the textile sector.  The new standard covers the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fibers.  The standard is promoting the use of certified organic fibers, prohibition of all GMOs and their derivatives; and prohibition of a long list of synthetic chemicals (for example: formaldehyde and aromatic solvents are prohibited; dyestuffs must meet strict requirements such as threshold limits for heavy metals, no AZO colorants or aromatic amines and PVC cannot be used for packaging).  So there's a lot going on in the textile industry to change the way the fabrics are made to make for a healthier and safer environment for all living things.

So what is the Green Verdict for fabrics in caskets and burial shrouds?  We should look for fabrics made from
Natural cotton monk's cloth casket liner.
natural fibers for their biodegradability.  Organic fibers are slightly better in terms of carbon life cycle assessment.  On local-sourcing, domestic cotton is widely available.  Organic cotton is better from a toxicity perspective.  Cultivated fibers are renewable and sustainable materials.  Interesting alternatives not as easily available as cotton include lyocell, a wood-pulp fabric produced with low energy, fewer emissions, less water, and no bleach.  There are also eco-friendly fabrics made from plants including hemp, soy, and linen (from flax).  These, too, are great green alternatives to the conventional polyester, but not as readily available as cotton.  Animal-based fabrics including cashmere (from goat hair) and alpaca wool would be green alternatives, but are expensive and long-lasting and thus may be better suited to clothing than casket interiors.  Domestic organic cotton might be the greenest and most readily available option for natural burial caskets and shrouds distributed in the U.S.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Conversational Undertaker

Finding the meaning of "green" in green funeral inquiries

I've heard this story many times in the last few years as relayed to me by funeral directors.  A couple arrives to make funeral arrangements for an elderly family member in the final days of life or immediately after death.  Early in the conversation, a member of the family says something like, "Dad wants one of those Green Funerals... you know, like we heard on Public Radio."

As professionals in the death care industry, hearing a family ask about a Green Funeral is a good conversation starter.  In the whirlwind of news, sensational articles, books, television shows and Hollywood productions in the last several years, many people are interested enough to ask about a Green Funeral.  However, not every family knows fully what "green" can mean regarding a funeral.  The family's request could be motivated by any of several factors and warrants further conversation to understand the family's wishes.  The better we understand the reason for the family wanting to know more about green funeral options, the better we can serve them.

Often times the key motivator for inquiring about a green funeral is cost.  Many funeral directors have shared with me the family's directive, "Dad just wanted a simple pine box.  Simple and plain, nothing fancy."  Directives like this are sometimes a bit hostile and motivated by Mitford's writings on American funerals.   We've learned that after presenting an inexpensive "simple pine box" like our Phillips Simple Pine Casket, many families shy away from this option unless the deceased had made explicit arrangements beforehand with the funeral home or a family member.  In this early stage of grief, many families are not prepared to make as bold a statement as might be perceived by the family and community with just a plain pine box.  For this family, we can show a more conventional-looking wooden casket like our Pine Panel Casket that appeals to the family that is both price-conscious and eco-conscious.  Additionally, we can address their concerns for cost in other ways--planning a funeral to meet a budget is not new to the death care industry.  The lesson learned here is that there are a few families who will ask for a Green Funeral when they mean to be more informed about ways to manage cost.

For some families the foremost concern when inquiring about a green funeral is the environment.  Unlike the cost-conscious, this family is primarily concerned with minimizing the impact on the environment.  Until recently, the only perceived alternative to a conventional funeral has been cremation.  We now have alternatives to cremation that convert many families to a full service green funeral that may be much more appealing to the eco-conscious.  A good indicator that a family has already done their homework on green funerals is their openness and willingness to discuss detailed matters such as the cemetery, burial vaults, biodegradable
Handcrafted Pine Casket by Northwoods Casket Co.
caskets, and embalming alternatives.  Cost is typically not an issue when it comes to paying a premium for a burial site in a natural burial cemetery, a hand-crafted wooden casket, and the added cost for refrigerated storage and/or dry ice in lieu of embalming.  For the family most interested in avoiding environmental impact, it may be appealing to complement the funeral services with a memorial tree-planting or a donation to an organization that will plant trees as an off-set for the impact of the funeral.


For other families, the main concern when considering a green funeral is more personal.  A family that is well-informed about natural burial may seek a funeral that inters the remains of the deceased in a manner that does not prohibit decomposition and allows the body to return to the earth.  For some, this is a spiritual matter and they want to be in direct contact with the soil in order to return to the earth more naturally.  Depending on the cemetery requirements, there may be options to fore-go the concrete vault altogether or use a grave liner.  The family may ask about biodegradable caskets that do not contain precious metals or chemical finishes.  For these families it is important to recognize that "biodegradable" and "low environmental impact" are not the same.  (Recall from a previous installment of this column that a biodegradable natural burial casket shipped from Indonesia via ocean cargo and air-freighted across the US would have more than twice the environmental impact when measured with carbon life cycle analysis than a steel casket assembled in the US.)

We all have much to learn as the death care industry changes.  The more families are willing to get involved, make advanced arrangements, and ask questions about death care, the more opportunity we have as death care professionals to make a lasting impression.  For many of us, it is that lasting impression, and the loyalty earned with it, that keeps us engaged in our profession.  When we are prepared to talk about Green Funerals with those families that inquire about them, we can better serve their interests, varied as they may be.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Green Funerals are for the Living

A Simple Pine Box by the Northwoods Casket Co.
Dead people don't have choices.  They're dead.  Living people understand that dead people don't have feelings, don't care about money, have no interest in being comfortable, and do not care about the weather.  These are concerns for living people.  And yet, when living people make funeral decisions for the deceased many of these elements come to the forefront in the decision making process.

As death care professionals, we've seen it all.  While there are those moments we witness something we've never seen before, we are intimately familiar with the grieving family and their difficulty in making funeral choices.  Is this the casket Mom would have wanted?  Are these flowers too much, or not enough?  What will the rest of the family and her friends think?  Yeah, Dad wanted a cheap pine box, but is this too cheap? Will Grandma be comfortable?  We just cannot stand the thought of Grandpa's casket being submerged in water--maybe we better get the sealed concrete burial vault with a 5-year warranty.

When it comes to making smart choices in death care, we've noticed that living people make decisions very differently for themselves than they do for the deceased.  At the Northwoods Casket Co. we can attest that our funeral home partners sell very few Simple Pine Boxes to a family in an at-need funeral situation; yet in the same time our partners have sold more than 200 Simple Pine Boxes to living people making choices for their own funerals.  What does this mean?

Our industry is on the verge of change.  The decade beginning 2010 is one of significant social, economical, and political change.  The population itself is changing--aging baby-boomers are reaching their final stages of life, GenX-ers are becoming late parents or early grandparents, and a new generation raised on social media is entering the working class.  The "green" marketing fad is maturing into a movement built on an imperative for Environmental Sustainability.  Attitudes toward the environment, the economy, and entitlements are changing.  Today, there are volumes of information (and mis-information) available through multiple channels of media for the voter, consumer, or otherwise individual searching for an answer or the confidence to make an informed choice.

In death care, we see casketed burials shrinking by 2% annually despite a growing death rate giving way to cremation--the only alternative to a casketed cemetery burial in the last several decades.  At the same time, we see exponential growth in openings of new green cemeteries, and new "green" areas of existing municipal and private cemeteries.  In its third year of offering natural burial, River View Cemetery shares that nearly one-quarter of all burials at their cemetery in Portland, Oregon were natural burials in 2012.  There are more local casket builders today than there have been since the First World War.

Living people make choices, and the living people are choosing local and sustainable alternatives to Big Business.  This is as true in food with the rapidly growing population of local community supported agriculture producers (CSAs) as well as with the trend toward local breweries and distilleries (the ATF has awarded more distillery licenses in the last 5 years than in all the years since prohibition).  These are just two examples of many trends toward local, sustainable, and environmentally friendly practices that transcend ethnic, class, and geographic divides in our population.

Here's the rub for us death care professionals.  There's a growing trend in death care not unlike those in the food and beverage industry.  There have been more green funerals in the last 5 years than in the previous two decades.  There are hundreds of funeral homes, churches, and volunteer groups organizing in America to offer assistance with green funerals.  At the Northwoods Casket Co. we answer more than a dozen callers each week asking for help with local ordinances and state laws, casket & vault requirements, and the many other questions best answered by a licensed funeral director.  We refer every caller to their local funeral director.

As death care professionals, the opportunity is ours to embrace changing attitudes and reestablish ourselves as local partners committed to both environmental sustainability and helping our families make informed choices in death care.  We already recognize that funerals, like choices, are for the living.  The death care industry may shrink [in dollars] in the coming decade despite the long over-anticipated 25% growth in the death rate by baby-boomers, but as with all change those of us who embrace change will persevere.