Monday, November 14, 2011

Down to Earth: BD man offers ‘green choice’ for burial

Northwoods Casket made the front page of the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen today (November 14, 2011).  I spent an hour with Assistant Editor, Ken Thomas, last week for a nice chat at Blackwaters Coffee House.  Here is the article contributed by Ken Thomas.  
Jonas Zahn is shown with a Northwoods Casket.
When it comes to the end of life, many are getting back to basics.
Part of the latest groundswell in funeral planning is replacing the fancy steel and bronze confection that served as a casket with a simple pine box. A Beaver Dam manufacturer has taken that box one step further, and is making it “green” in every sense of the word. Northwoods Casket Company not only uses materials that would be classified as waste, but promises to plant 100 trees for every casket built.
Read the rest of this article at Beaver Dam Daily Citizen.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Urban Forestry: Healthy Trees for Healthy Communities

Planting Trees is Good for People
On Friday, October 7th, I attended a meeting in Wonewoc, Wisconsin to discuss urban forestry.  The motley crew of varied backgrounds that assembled for this discussion included a village administrator, an undertaker, a forester, and a casket maker (that's me).  After short introductions the ensuing conversation reinforced that each participant shares a core value:  that planting trees is good for people.

At the Northwoods Casket Company we value trees for the environmental, communal, economic, and social benefits they provide.  This is why we've made a commitment to plant 100 trees for every casket we build.  This commitment is written into our business plan, and it is permanent--this is not a temporary gimmick for publicity.

Urban Forestry for Healthy Trees
The Northwoods Casket Co has partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to aid in tree-planting initiatives throughout the state like the Urban Forestry Initiative.  Next spring the Northwoods Casket Company will pay $1000 each for three communities to plant trees during their arbor day celebrations.  These communities will coordinate with the DNR Urban Forestry program to identify the best trees to plant as well as where, how, and when to plant them so they can provide the maximum benefit to the community.  For some communities, like Wonewoc, this will be a jumpstart to becoming a Tree City USA.

Healthy Community
A good partnership is one where all parties benefit; and so is the case in this partnership between village administrator, undertaker, forester, and casket maker.  The village administrator receives a $1000 tree-planting grant and forestry education.  The undertaker organizes local volunteers and generates goodwill for his business.  The forester reaches a new community with education to plant trees the right way and in the right places.  And the casket maker generates goodwill for the Northwoods Casket Company.  Everyone benefits.

The Motley Crew
The village administrator: Lee C. Kucher, Village of Wonewoc, Wisconsin
The undertaker: Steve Mitchell, Thompson Funeral Service, Wonewoc, WI
The forester:  Don Kissinger, Urban & Community Forestry Coordinator, WI-DNR
The casket maker: Jonas A. Zahn, President, Northwoods Casket Company, Beaver Dam, WI

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wabi-sabi and the pursuit of perfect

The pursuit of perfection.
Perfection and the pursuit of making things complete, balanced, and everlasting is quite natural.  I often find myself holding back until something is completely finished to my liking (such as publishing this blog).  I like structured outlines and have an innate appreciation for symmetry both visually and conceptually.  To some degree, there are also certain things I wish to remain the same indefinitely (like where the milk goes in the refrigerator or the way I pack my suitcase for a business trip).  This is how we create order in the chaos that is nature and life.

Embrace the imperfect.
Beauty lies in uniqueness and intimacy.
There is another way, another aesthetic, a different manner in thinking to appreciate the very natural way in which things are never finished, are never symmetric, and are forever changing.  Wabi-sabi has given me a new perspective when it comes to measuring the quality of our caskets.  While funeral directors and families value quality craftsmanship, structural integrity, and sustainable production practices, this does not mean we cannot appreciate the imperfections in the natural objects from which Northwoods caskets are made.  These imperfections do not take away from the quality of the product as determined by its usefulness.  We embrace the imperfections, the asymmetry, and the irregularities of the natural materials that give our caskets a natural beauty where each casket possesses a uniqueness and intimacy.

What is wabi-sabi?
Simplicity, economy, modesty, and intimacy.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese world view derived from Buddhist teaching of beauty that comes from the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.  "Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes."[1]   "[Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."[2]  Wabi-sabi has made a foray into Western thinking on art, architecture, home design, gardening, and green living. After listening to a broadcast of Here On Earth last June, The Wabi-Sabi Way, with guest author/editor, Robyn Griggs Lawrence, I recognized wabi-sabi in the feedback from funeral directors and families commenting on our work at the Northwoods Casket Company.

Imperfect adds character.
Color, knots, and holes add unique character.
At the Northwoods Casket Company, we share this view when it comes to manufacturing our simple pine caskets.  While we take great care to manufacturer our products with the highest standard in quality when it comes to craftsmanship and construction, we take pride in our forgiveness of the natural elements from which our green caskets are made.  We do not discard pine boards for non-structural "imperfections" like color, unshapely knots, or knotholes.  We regard these imperfections as character making each casket unique.  For those boards with unnatural blemishes incurred by the trucks and machines handling the wood from forest to our shop, we make use of them in the floorboards exposing the unsightly only on the underside of the casket.  None of these practices impacts the structural integrity of the casket during its useful life. 

Is this dishonest practice?
Every casket exceeds structural requirements.
Actually, we believe quite the opposite.  Each casket is as beautiful and unique as it is functional.  Every casket exceeds the functional requirements for its useful life.  In fact, we believe that discarding the unsightly materials which would increase waste from our production would be dishonest to our claim to be the greenest casket on the planet.  These practices have reduced material waste to less than 2%.

Are we just being cheap?
There is a difference between being cheap at the cost of functional quality of our product and reducing waste.  We actually don't save money with this practice.  Our wabi-sabi approach to reducing material waste comes at the expense of human capital.  Our craftsmen set aside boards with imperfections (i.e. unique character) for specific purposes.   Boards with extraordinary wood grain, knothole patterns, and coloration from blue stain fungus are reserved for use in the lids.   In other industries that manufacture with wood, these extraordinary materials are discarded as waste.  This includes boards with such incredibly beautiful knothole patterns that compromise the structural integrity of the board--but since the lid provides zero structural support in our casket design, the lid is a perfect place for those boards with the most unique character.   While careful selection in materials has significantly reduced waste and carbon impact, we've added to the cost of human capital in our craftsman.  We actually incur additional cost by hand-selecting material for different parts of the final product.

Russ & Josh Koepsell admire beauty in simplicity.
Funeral directors appreciate wabi-sabi.
Feedback from families and funeral directors has been phenomenal. In a culture often absorbed in the pursuit of perfection as defined by the absence of imperfection, more of our families are expressing true appreciation for the little imperfections that add character to each and every one of our caskets.  Imperfect is perfect.

[1] Wabi-Sabi.  Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
[2] Powell, Richard R. (2004). Wabi Sabi Simple. Adams Media. ISBN 1-59337-178-0.

Monday, September 19, 2011

How much weight will one of your caskets hold?

We get this question often.  People are curious to know how much weight one of our simple pine caskets can carry. Funeral directors need to be assured that one of our caskets will not end in a terribly awkward moment for the family and a liability situation for the funeral home.  Families are curious if the larger-than-normal interior dimensions of our Northwoods pine caskets might accommodate plus-sized family members (casket inside dimensions are 78L x 24W x 18D inches).

Most commercial caskets are tested to carry 500 lbs.  Previously, we tested our casket to 600 lbs with bags of sand.  This time we took a more scientific approach and documented the test with photographs and a video.  We planned to load the casket until it fails and measured out 1000 lbs. of patio blocks for the job.

Casket Load Test Setup
Four stands support the casket at the handles.
We chose to simulate the load conditions for a casket whereby only 4 pallbearers carry the casket with handles on corners.  In our experience as pallbearers, the smallest cousins carry the middle handles--and don't carry much of the load leaving the heavy lifting to the larger cousins at the ends.  We built 4 wooden stands to support the casket about 8 inches from the floor.  This way, the full weight of the casket rests on 4 of the cotton rope handles.

1000 lbs of patio bricks ready.
We weighed several patio blocks finding the larger blocks to be about 9.25 lbs and the smaller blocks just over 6 lbs.  We stacked the blocks in 10 groups of 100 lbs each.  A total load of 1000 lbs is ready to load into the casket.

Casket Preparation
The casket is our standard Northwoods Pine Casket.  The casket was previously assembled with glue and screws and the screws were removed.  The casket is 100% metal-free and suitable for burial in conventional cemeteries or green/natural burial cemeteries as well as cremation.  The tongue and groove board construction provides optimal strength without building up stresses in the sides and floor due to changes in humidity and temperature.  The rib and dado (groove) construction design provides significant strength.  The entire floor rests in a dado cut into each of the 4 sides.  The entire load on the floor is transferred to the rope handles through the 10 vertical ribs held in place with Elmer's Wood glue.

Loading to 300 lbs
300 lbs in the casket.
We started with a distributed load of 300 lbs.  We let the casket sit for a few minutes listening and watching for stresses in the wood.  The casket floor did not deflect or sag from the weight.  The 4 rope handles supporting the load were tight, but that was the only noticeable change.

Loading to 500 lbs
500 lbs in the casket.
With 500 lbs of patio bricks stacked in the casket, our Northwoods pine casket now contains the same weight with which most commercial caskets are tested.  The rope handles are tight, but there is no noticeable deflection in any of the wood sides or floor.  The room is silent and absent from the creaking, popping, or splintering sounds of stressed wood.

Loading to 700 lbs
700 lbs in the casket
When we started this test, we planned to load the casket to the point of catastrophic failure ready to learn something about the weakest part of our design.  We carefully positioned our cameras and video cameras preparing to catch the moment of collapse on film.  Now we carefully place another 200 lbs of patio bricks in the casket.  We are careful to keep our toes clear from the underside of the casket as the ropes stretch on the 4 wooden stands.  With 700 lbs in the casket, we are pleased in the continued silence.  No sounds of stressed wood can be heard.  No popping glue joints.  We have a look at the underside of the casket and the floor is just beginning to sag--a quarter inch at the most.  This test is proving to be uneventful.

Loading to 1000 lbs
1000 lbs in the casket.
We reset our cameras and video and quickly load another 300 lbs in the casket.  Again listening carefully for that first pop or splinter and looking for signs of failure at every corner of the casket and in the floor, but there are no sounds or visual indications the casket will fail.  We let the casket sit with 1000 lbs in it for several minutes as we take photos and film the video.  The floor is sagging a quarter inch, but with no sign of failure.  The upper sides are bowing in as much as a quarter inch, but no indication the casket will fail.  We have loaded our casket with two times the industry standard and not so much as even one pop, creak, or splinter!

How about 1000 lbs + Jonas + Dave = 1400 lbs!
1400 lbs in the casket.
At this point we have let 1000 lbs sit for a good 15 minutes without so much as one creak or splinter coming from the casket.  Mixed emotions of accomplishment and disappointment fill the room.  We started the day fully expecting to destroy one of our caskets and capture the moment on film--learning something about our design and the properties of wood under stress.  We proceed to seat both Dave and myself on top of the patio bricks adding another 400 lbs to the casket!

With 1400 lbs in the casket, we finally hear a pop!  The pop is the sound of stress somewhere in the wood, but after a thorough inspection we find no sign of failure at any glue joint or any piece of wood.  With 1400 lbs in the casket and no failure, we are finally satisfied.  I am quite certain that the casket might fail at 2000 lbs, but I'm not sure what we would learn from that.  I think at 1400 lbs, we've answered the question, "How much can a Northwoods casket support?" and laid this topic to rest.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Funeral Directors Adapting to Demand for "Greener" Funerals

Wisconsin Funeral Directors Learn More About Natural Burial and "Green" Pine Caskets by Northwoods Casket Co.

Wisconsin-based Northwoods Casket Co. showcased its eco-friendly pine casket for green burial last month at the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association annual convention and shared information about natural burial and other “greener” choices consumers increasingly want.

Beaver Dam, WI – When funeral directors from across Wisconsin gathered for their annual convention in Elkhart Lake last month, they discussed the rapidly growing requests for greener burial options and how they can use this trend to boost business at a time when the growing popularity of cremation has meant falling revenues for most traditional funeral homes – in part due to a sharp decline in casket sales. 

Simple Pine Casket with Natural Cotton Liner
Funeral directors attending the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association (WFDA) convention also had the opportunity to see and touch a simple pine casket made by Northwoods Casket of Beaver Dam, Wis. Several requested a floor model of the casket – made from pine from the Northwoods of Wisconsin – so it will be among the choices families have. 

“Families increasingly want to reduce their carbon footprint – even after death – and are making biodegradable, sustainably-produced caskets a more popular request,” says Northwoods Casket founder Jonas Zahn. 

Making greener choices available in traditional funeral homes isn’t just good for the planet – it’s good for the funeral industry.  In the past 20 years, funeral profit margins have been cut nearly in half according to the Federated Funeral Directors of America, an accounting firm for independently owned funeral homes.  Consulting firm Citrin Cooperman has found that 44% of funeral home directors blame the increasing popularity of cremations for shrinking profits.

James Olson
“People don't choose cremation because it's green – cremation isn't green by its nature,” says James Olson, international speaker on natural burial for the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and funeral director with Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, Wis. Olson led a session outlining opportunities in green and natural burial for the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association in Elkhart Lake, Wis. last month. “People choose cremation because it's the only alternative we give them to a conventional funeral. If green is what they want, and we offer them a natural burial, this will bridge the gap and may give families what they were truly looking for in the first place.”

The biodegradable caskets made by Northwoods Casket help answer the call for a greener burial. The company sells both caskets and casket kits that include everything a do-it-yourselfer needs to make a casket. In accordance with their mission to leave zero impact on the environment from casket building operations, the company could plant a single tree for every casket to offset the carbon impact from electricity and fuel used.  "Carbon-neutral is not good enough,” adds Zahn, “our commitment to plant 100 trees for every casket we build helps our funeral service providers and families rest assured their choice to use a Northwoods Casket will leave a lasting natural legacy.”  A Presidential sponsor of the WFDA convention, Northwoods Casket displayed a simple pine casket and shared information about casket kits, shrouds, natural burial trundles, natural casket liners and pillows.
Northwoods Casket Kit

About Northwoods Casket Co. - Established in 2010 and based in Beaver Dam, Wis., the company’s mission is to provide funeral homes and families with a simple, affordable, wooden casket purposefully designed for quality and a low environmental impact at an affordable cost. The company has committed to plant 100 trees for every casket built. All products are biodegradable and made in accordance to their founding principle to promote sustainable practices for a smarter planet.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Video Killed the Radio Star: My First Internet Video

Last week I submitted an entry in The Green Awards hosted by General Mills Corporation under the company's Green Giant brand.  This contest encourages participants to submit their "great green ideas" in one of four categories including Green Civic Leader, Green Entrepreneur, Green Local Organizer, and Green Parent.  Winners in each category will be announced May 13th in Los Angeles and will collect a $25,000 award to further their ideas.  Each entry must include a 60-second amateur video and a 100-word essay explaining their idea. Entries are judged on creativity and ability to inspire others, impact on community both local and beyond, and rationale for additional funding.  The contest entries will be selected by a panel of judges, but 25% of the judging criteria will be based on popular vote from the general public. (Voting ends Sunday, March 27th.)

This is my first attempt to create a video and I must admit this caused me a lot of anxiety.  Not only was I uncomfortable being recorded on camera, I also had no idea how to compose, record, save, and submit a video.  Here are some tips for anyone else attempting to create an Internet video for the first time.

Tips for Making Your First Internet Video!
Flip UltraHD

Get a FlipVideo.  This handy little video recorder is great!  I didn't have much time to shop so I went with a friend's recommendation and then read the reviews on to select a model.  I decided to purchase a Flip UltraHD from for about $160 and had it in a few days.

Film Short Takes.  At first I thought I would just roll the camera and blabber on and edit this into a video.  This is not a good idea!  I blabbered on for more than 5 minutes and not only was I very uncomfortable (which shows in the video) but my thoughts were haphazard and unplanned.  I changed my approach to make a series of short takes instead.  Each "take" was planned for 10-20 seconds--short enough so that I could memorize the lines.  I did each "take" 4-5 times until I was comfortable with the flow of my words and inflection.  These multiple short takes also helped calm my nerves which helped me appear much more confident in the video.

Plan an Outline.  It helps to have a plan.  I only had 60 seconds to work with so I attempted to create a 3 or 4 part outline that addressed the questions proposed by the contest writers.  For each heading in my outline I composed 2-3 sentences that I wanted to capture for the video.  Each topic was short enough to memorize so that I could film each segment in just one take.

Pad the Takes.  After my first attempt to edit the segments together I quickly realized that it is much easier to stitch the clips together when I "padded" the start and end of each take with about two seconds of silence.  Let me also add that you should have a comfortable expression on your face!  This "freeze frame" expression is what will appear on the video before it starts playing so it helps to have a nice smile and not have your mouth open.

Eye Contact and Delivery.  I learned that eye contact with video is important.  The FlipVideo is such good quality that it is noticeable if I was attempting to read queue cards even when placed right next to the FlipVideo camera.  As for vocal delivery, the FlipVideo produces video with amazing sound quality.  It helps to speak loudly and clearly.  I was filming in my garage so the sound was well protected from outside noise from wind or traffic. 

QuickTime 7 Pro
Editing and File Size.  I was able to trim the front/end of the takes and stitch them together very easily with the software that comes along with the FlipVideo camera.  I spent about an hour trimming the clips to get the video to fit into a specified 60 second video.  Then I exported the video and quickly realized it was 88,000KB in HD!  I had to get this down to less than 10MB to submit.  My brief searches turned up overwhelming volumes of information on video quality, formats, aspect ratios, etc.  This is all Greek to me still.  I opted to upgrade QuickTime to QuickTime 7 Pro from Apple for about $29.  This application allowed me to convert the video down to less than 2700KB while maintaining the letter box aspect ratio.  The sound quality was unaffected by the conversion, but of course, the video quality deteriorated dramatically.  But that's o.k. as this contest is supposed to be for amateurs!

More Videos?

Now that I have my own FlipVideo and know how to create and edit videos, I am hoping to take on a few more projects for my blog and web site for the Northwoods Casket Company and DIY Coffin.  Here are some of my ideas for projects.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Brief History of Caskets

Sky Blue 18ga Steel Casket with Brass Trim
A contemporary burial, known as a traditional burial in today's funeral service industry, has an average price tag of more than $6,000.  This includes funeral services, casket, cemetery plot, grave liner, and a monument.    The largest single line item in the cost of a funeral is the casket--the average price paid for a casket in 2010 was $2300.  Just 50 years ago, the average price paid for a casket in the United States was less than $700.  A typical casket used in a funeral today is a painted steel casket with brass hardware and trim and retails for $3400.  In 1900 a typical casket was cloth-covered wood or plain wood and may cost around $16 --about  $400 in today's dollars adjusted for inflation.  Let's briefly explore the history of caskets in the United States.

The casket industry originated in the 1800s when local funeral directors, then known as undertakers or morticians, often operated a local furniture store and built caskets as needed for the families they serviced.  A simple pine coffin in 1840 cost between $2 and $3 (between $40 and $60 in today's currency adjusted for inflation).

While the first metal casket appeared in the United States in 1848, it wasn't until 100 years later in post-war America when the casket manufacturing industry started to change and the market shifted from wood to steel.  In 1848 the US patent office awarded A.D. Fisk a patent for a cast iron casket that was shaped like a sarcophagus and weighed 300 lbs!  Fisk created a rectangular, smooth sided casket in the 1850s that resembles the metal caskets with which we are more familiar today.  Catalogs from the 1850s tell us these early metal  caskets cost upwards from $40 to $170 as compared to the $2 to $3 cost for a pine casket.  Due to the high cost compared to wood, steel would wait almost a century before gaining a significant foothold in the casket market.

During the 1860s, some casket makers began mass producing caskets to meet the demands of the Civil War.  In the late 1800s casket making started to develop as a separate industry with manufacturers of caskets devoting their efforts solely to the manufacture and sale of caskets and coffins.

Caskets didn't change much during the early part of the 20th century with cloth-covered wooden caskets comprising the largest sector of the casket market.  In 1918 Batesville Casket Company (one of today's largest manufacturers) pioneered mass-production techniques with steel caskets that enabled the manufacturer to produce steel caskets cheaper than wooden coffins.  The number of independent casket manufacturers in the United States swelled with the industrial revolution but these manufacturers were local and regional working with local materials.  The use of caskets became standard practice for the transport of fallen soldiers in the wars between the Civil War and WWII.

In the 1940s Batesville and other casket manufacturers refrained from using steel or wood and instead manufactured cloth-covered cardboard caskets in order to conserve steel and wood for the war effort.  By 1948, with the war behind us and the start of the "booming" economy Batesville switched to manufacturing steel caskets exclusively through the 1960s.  This is the beginning of a major shift in the casket market from wood to steel caskets.
A casket lid fabricated using steel stamping techniques.

In the early 1950s, there were more than 700 casket makers in the United States and 75% of caskets were made of wood.   Most caskets were sourced from local materials and more than 20,000 workers were employed in the US casket manufacturing industry.  As assembly line methods perfected by the auto industry rapidly changed the way caskets were manufactured and distributed in America, the share of caskets made from steel grew to more than 60%.  The casket industry also continued to consolidate with about 500 casket manufacturers in existence by the late 1960s.

During the 1970s and 1980s the casket industry experienced mass consolidation through corporate acquisitions.  By 1996 only a dozen manufacturers in the United States supplied more than 90% of the market for steel caskets; and steel caskets continue to make up more than 60% of all caskets sold in the United States.  By 2003 it was estimated that just three companies (Batesville, Aurora, and York Group) produced more than 70% of all caskets sold in the United States.

The "traditional" burial with a steel casket is a tradition that is less 50 years old as is paying upwards of $2500 for a burial casket.  What the funeral industry today has branded a "natural" burial also known as the more trendy "green" burial is actually much more like the "traditional" burial dating back to the mid-1800s and earlier.  Chances are that your ancestors from the 1800s and earlier were buried in simple wooden casket constructed from local materials at an affordable price and buried in a simple cemetery plot without a concrete grave liner.  Call it "natural" or call it "green" but recognize that this growing trend is a matter of returning to the simpler "traditions" dating back as recently as the early 20th century.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Save Your Money with Natural Burial

The average cost of a funeral in 2010 was $6,560.  Compare that to the average cost of a funeral in 1960 at $708 and the cost of a funeral has increased almost ten times in less than a lifetime!  These are the average prices reported in a survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association.  With an average price tag of $2,295 the cost of a metal casket is the largest portion (35%) of a typical funeral.  These prices do not include the cost of a cemetery plot, monument, burial vault, or other incidentals such as flowers or obituary announcements.  Factor in these added costs and the average cost of a funeral today can easily exceed $10,000!  We may easily spend more on our funeral than we spend on a comfortable bedroom set during our entire living lives!

So how, exactly, can I save money on my funeral?  The first and most important step is to plan ahead.  For an event that is 100% guaranteed to happen to each one of us, there is good reason to maybe a few basic choices and plan our own funerals.  Second, our wishes can only be known if we talk about them with family and friends and write them down.  Your funeral director can be of great service when it comes to planning a funeral, recording your wishes, and helping your family carry out your wishes at the time of your death.  For more information on planning a funeral, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has published Funerals: A Consumer's Guide and it is available for free.

One aspect of funeral planning overlooked by many of us is shopping.  The Federal Trade Commission suggests that you price shop for funeral services the same as you would for any other large purchase--such as a new car.  The consumer's guide published by the Federal Trade Commission has a lot of good suggestions for questions to ask and how to compare prices when shopping for a funeral service provider.

Burial shrouds for less than $300.
Saving money on a funeral is a matter of making smart choices.  While it is true that a natural burial can cost as much or more than the average funeral, the reasons for the additional costs are generally due to special cemetery requests, cost of transportation to a far-away natural burial cemetery, or a special casket for natural burial.  None of these is essential to a natural burial or the cost conscious funeral planner.  As reported by Ken Strauss in the Post-Bulletin in Rochester, MN, "While conventional burials can cost $6,000 to $8,000, green burials can be half the cost or less."  Natural burial casket options include handmade sea grass and wicker caskets ranging from $1400 to $3000, the trademarked Ecopod that retails for about $2700, or burial shrouds priced under $300.  Other options for natural burial include a growing selection of wooden caskets and casket kits ranging in price from $600 to $1500 including freight delivery to your home or funeral home.

Let's take a closer look at natural burial and how it relates to the cost of a funeral.  The Wikipedia entry on natural burial reads,
"The goal of a natural burial is to return the body to the earth in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition and allows the body to recycle naturally. It is intended as an environmentally sustainable alternative to existing funeral practices that may pose future hazards to public health and run counter to modern resource-conservation activities."
Many of the cost-accumulating practices incorporated in a typical funeral today are also contrary to natural decomposition of human remains and, in some cases, pose a threat to public health.  An example of one such practice is embalming.  While most states require some form of preservation of human remains if not disposed within 24 hours, there is no legal or regulatory requirement in any state to embalm human remains.  Embalming has a practical purpose and value for families who need time make travel arrangements and say goodbye.  Seeing the deceased for one last time in a peaceful state, sleeping, for many is a very helpful step in grieving the loss of a loved one.  There is a compromise and we should be aware of the impacts of embalming so that we can make choices consistent with our values.  Environmentally speaking, the formaldehyde in embalming fluid has been the subject of much debate for polluting ground water.  Even worse is the fact that 95% of cremations in the U.S. are embalmed.  Cremation of human remains requires permits and licensing, special training and protective gear to protect crematorium operators from the toxic gases produced.  As of July 2010, formaldehyde is under consideration to be banned in the European Union because of its carcinogenic effects.  For those families who value the environment, forgoing the embalming opting instead for a natural burial may be more in tune with their values.  You can opt to refrigerate the remains of your loved one until the day of the viewing--if a viewing is preferred.  You need not feel rushed to bury your loved one.  With the availability of refrigeration, you have days or weeks to make appropriate funeral arrangements, or arrange for attendance of family and friends who may need to travel from far away places.  Ask any county morgue and you will learn they sometimes have unidentified human remains in refrigerated storage for years before cremation or burial.

Precast concrete burial vaults by Century Group in Sulphur, LA.
Other cost-accumulating practices in a funeral today include the use of concrete burial vaults and elaborate steel caskets marketed to "seal out the elements."  A typical concrete burial vault sells for $1100 and the average price paid for a steel casket is $2300.  While most public and private cemeteries require use of a burial vault, no state law requires this practice.  There is a practical reason for burial vaults in that they prevent additional maintenance to "fill in" graves as they collapse from decay in the first year or two.  Nonetheless, we bury 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete every year in America's cemeteries--that is enough concrete to rebuild the Hoover Dam every 4 years!  Add to that the 100,000 tons of steel caskets and burial vaults and you have enough steel to build a 100-story sky scraper each year.  All of this is, in very practical terms, quite unnecessary.  Some cemeteries have compromised for different religious groups that require a casket be placed directly in the soil for a "natural return to the elements" for their deceased by just using the concrete vault lid to cover the casket.

The meadow at Usk Castle Chase.
The good news in all of this is that the consumer trend is changing as consumers educate themselves about the costs associated with funerals.  The popularity of the "Green" movement has drawn attention to the funeral industry.  The number of green and natural burials in the United Kingdom has risen with the first natural burial ground opening in 1993 and more than 200 in operation today.  In the United States it is encouraging to take note that the number of green burial cemeteries and eco-friendly burial spaces in traditional cemeteries has doubled year over year since 2005.

There's more good news.  Every funeral service provider in America already offers a natural burial service!  Federal law requires that funeral service providers give consumers a general price list of all goods and services without the consumer having to ask for it. As regulated by the Funeral Rule enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, every funeral service provider in the United States must also include a price and description in their offering for "Direct Burial/Entombment".  This service includes the minimum funeral service fee and transportation service to a cemetery.  There is no embalming service, viewing, or memorial service--the family can plan a memorial service at home or the cemetery after the burial and independent of the services provided by the funeral home.  Costs for this basic funeral range from $2000 to $3000 without a casket or burial vault.  Of course, even this basic funeral service is not required by any state law or federal regulation.  There is a small, but growing, number of families opting for a home funeral where all parts of the funeral are performed by family and friends.

Save your Money.  Save your Planet.  I challenge every reader of this post, regardless of age or health, to take action by talking to a friend or member of your family about your end-of-life wishes.  Some of us may say, "I'm dead, I really don't care."  But please ask yourself, where's the dignity in spending thousands of dollars on unnecessary products and services that consume precious natural resources and could bring harm to the environment you are leaving behind to your children?  Individually, we can each have the most influence on our own burial by just taking a few moments to talk to someone about our wishes.  Take the next step and write down your funeral wishes with the help of a funeral service provider or a member of your family.  With a little effort, you could save enough money to pay for a semester of college tuition for your child or grandchild.  How that for a little end-of-life dignity?