Saturday, December 1, 2012

Green Illusions

This column originally appeared in the December, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

What lies ahead for sustainability in death care?

I borrowed the title for this month's column from author and scholar, Ozzie Zehner, who recently published a book of the same title.  Zehner explains in great detail how every alternative energy technology including solar, wind, nuclear, bio fuels, fuel cells, hydrogen and clean coal are extensions of the hydrocarbon economy.  Solar, wind, nuclear, and bio fuels actually cause more harm than good for the environment.   Fuel cells and hydrogen violate the laws of physics.  Worse yet, the hydrogen car and clean coal amount to little more than a hoax specifically designed to advance a political agenda for commercial gain.

Green Illusions is an intriguing and entertaining read, and I want to share one particularly useful insight by Zehner that applies to our death care industry.  America does not have an energy production problem.  America has an energy consumption problem.  That is to say that Americans use more energy than any other developed nation on earth.  Americans use more than twice as much energy per capita than Europeans or Japanese do.  The worst part is that an estimated 80% of energy consumed in the United States is wasted.  By "wasted" we mean that 80% of the energy we consume brings no enjoyment or improvement to our quality of life.  

How might Zehner's ideas on energy conservation apply to the death care industry?  Let us first take on the controversial endeavor to define green as it applies to funerals and the death care industry.  (I have avoided defining green for the last ten installments of this column.)  There are many definitions of green as it applies to the natural burial movement.  Definitions invoke terms such as biodegradable, non-toxic, carbon footprint, recycled, and organic.  I offer you my definition of green--that being green is a matter of maintaining or improving quality of life for all living things in the environment as they may be affected by the creation, use, and disposition of a product or service.  This is a broad definition that seeks to demonstrate clarity in its purpose.  We need to include all activities that support the cradle-to-grave life cycle of any product or service we aim to market as green.  This definition does not give credit to marketers whose products are just "less" toxic, or "less" harmful to the environment.  Such marketing is akin to marketing low-tar cigarettes as the "healthy" option.

Our broad definition of green gets even broader if we accept the idea that "all living things" should include future generations of living things.  And wider again if by "environment" we also include harmonious politics and healthy economies in addition to the well-being of the earth and the living things in her air, lands, and seas.  This sounds exceedingly difficult and perhaps a chore of calculus reserved only for those with a certain amount of insanity for mundane details or scholars adequately funded to ponder, measure, and publish the details of all the products and services involved in conventional funerals in the United States.

It doesn't need to be difficult.  Being Green can be as simple as following a personal ethic to "do the right thing" and never stop asking questions.  In my own experience making decisions about raw materials, suppliers, and methods of production, I am always asking questions.  Where does this stuff come from?  How is this stuff made?  Who makes this stuff?  What is the measurable impact of this stuff?  There is the magic word: measurable.  I continue to find good science in carbon life cycle analysis.  Every activity on the planet can be measured, to a degree of certainty, as either sequestering or producing carbon dioxide (CO2) or CO2 equivalents.

What might be the net effect on jobs for locally-made caskets?
Being Green should not end with carbon life cycle analysis; we must also include a broader appreciation for quality of life.  For example, a pair of jeans produced in a dimly lit sweatshop by the hands of a child in Indonesia might have a smaller carbon footprint than the same produced in New York City by a boutique seamstress.  We could hardly agree, however, that the effort of child labor is Green if we include quality of life, politics, and economic factors in our definition.  While we might want being Green to be entirely objective and scientific, we need to maintain some degree of common sense and compassion for quality of life in our pursuit to be Green.

Let us explore a few scientific facts about death care through our new lens of compassion.  The impact of producing the raw materials for America's funerals is in the neighborhood of 0.5% of United States annual CO2 emissions.  Caskets and burial vaults account for 30 million board feet of lumber, 90,000 tons of steel, and 1.6 million tons of concrete annually.  Add the impact of assembling, storing, and shipping caskets and burial vaults and the United States funeral industry is responsible for as much as 2% of total CO2 emissions annually.  We could reduce carbon emissions by 80% or more by simply using "green" caskets made from sustainable, local, air-dried lumber.  As an alternative to 2700 lb concrete burial vaults, polyethylene vaults are 95% lighter (140 lbs), stronger, and longer-lasting than concrete.  Although Polyethylene is not an eco-friendly material given that it creates one to three times its weight in CO2 emissions, the net impact over concrete would result in 80% savings in CO2 emissions annually.  Would these changes take away from the quality of life for all those involved?  What might be the net effect on jobs for locally-made caskets and polyethylene burial vaults?  We could achieve 1-2% reduction in CO2 emissions without spending an extra dime for these products.  Federal spending on wind energy amounted to $14 billion in 2012 resulting in an estimated annual savings of CO2 emissions far less than one tenth of one percent.  Just think about it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Meet Margaret

This column originally appeared in the November, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

Answering the Call for Green Funerals

...but I don't want a typical funeral with all that unnecessary expensive stuff!

Keep dancing, Margaret.
Meet Margaret.  In her sixties and still working as a nurse in a county hospital for the elderly, Margaret has dedicated much of her life to caring for people in their final moments.  Margaret is familiar with death, even comfortable with it.  Less than three weeks ago Margaret learned the uncomfortable feeling in her throat was more than just a lump.  Margaret expects that esophageal cancer will take her life before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Without a moment to spare, Margaret took it upon herself to plan her own funeral.  An eccentric and sophisticated woman, she wants to be buried in an old rural cemetery with a reputation for being haunted.  Margaret had professional pictures taken of her as she danced in this haunted cemetery in a night gown.  I met Margaret when she called to ask about a simple green casket.  I invited Margaret to my home to see and touch some of our green caskets.  Upon her arrival, Margaret had a cascade of questions.  How do I find a green cemetery?  What is a burial vault and are they required by law?  Do I need to be embalmed?  How will my family transport my body from the hospital to my home and to the cemetery?  Do I need to be stored in a refrigerator?  Where can I find a refrigerator? What is required to dress and prepare my body for burial?  Can my children dress me?  Are there any requirements for my monument?  What happens to my body if sealed in a burial vault vs. a wooden casket buried in the ground?

I have answers to all of these questions and am happy to participate in such discussions.  I refer Margaret to John Leiting at Murray Funeral Home in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.   I am a casket maker.  These are questions better suited for a Funeral Director--a licensed professional with all of these answers and a deep understanding of the federal and state laws, local regulations, and cemetery policies.  Margaret is visibly uncomfortable with my advice--as uncomfortable as her daughter was a few minutes prior while Margaret was explaining that she wanted her two daughters to transport and prepare her body for burial.  She tells me she doesn't want a typical funeral with embalming, fancy casket, and all of those unnecessary expensive services--I want a Simple Green Funeral, she tells me.  I explain that John Leiting is a professional and will listen to her, answer her questions, and carry out her wishes.  Margaret only finds comfort when I tell her John did something similar for my own Grandfather eight years ago when I built my first casket.

We receive a lot of calls from people like Margaret--about two per week--and refer them to their local funeral director to answer questions about Green Funerals.  I am constantly reminded by these families that green funerals appeal to a wide variety of demographics.  From my anecdotal experience, I've had this same conversation with people both young and elderly, religious and secular, conservative and liberal, affluent and impoverished.  It occurs to me that the characteristics of a natural burial are generally appealing and often sparked by those searching for alternatives to the conventional (a.k.a. "traditional" burial).  What troubles me is that people like Margaret don't feel they can go to their local funeral director to have this conversation and ask these questions--that the funeral home only sells one kind of funeral service.  I am committed to help change this perception--even if we have to by answering one call at a time.

If you've read this far, you might be a professional in the death care industry.  Maybe you are not a licensed funeral directory, but perhaps your work is related to a cemetery, church, or hospital.  I ask that you keep reading about Green Funerals and if you aren't already, be prepared to have conversations with people like Margaret.  Her family will benefit from the help of a funeral service professional when she passes.  There's value in the services a funeral director provides to ensure Margaret receives the right-of-passage she desires and her family is left with peace of mind knowing that all the details a funeral requires have been tended to by a professional.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Memorial Tree

This column originally appeared in the October, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

The Memorial Tree

A simple gesture and a lasting legacy

Plant a Memorial Tree
For thousands of years and around the world people have been planting trees in honor of loved ones lost.  For survivors, planting a memorial tree is a simple gesture that will benefit the earth and many generations to come.  It is a yin-yang of a sort--the end of one life honored by the creation of a new life.  It is in this simple act that many people find comfort.  For some, a living memorial tree is a pleasant reminder as the years pass and the tree grows to maturity keeping the memories of loved ones alive to share with the children of the next generation.

There is so much value in trees.  There are few opportunities in life where a tiny investment--less than a few pennies to plant a single tree from seed--can return so much value year after year.  The rewards compound each year as a tree matures and continues to sequester carbon, absorb storm water runoff, and shade our streets and homes.  Real estate sales data shows that property with mature trees sells for a 15% to 20% premium over property without trees.  The shade of one tree and the cooling affect of releasing water vapor from its leaves on the south side of a home can reduce energy costs by as much as 12% for a home or small business.  Various methods of appraising different species of trees suggest the value of even a 15 year old tree is at least $1000 and could be upwards of $10,000.  There are very few investments that can compound from a few pennies to thousands of dollars in 15 or 20 years--perhaps none as certain as a tree.

The Memorial Tree is one way the entire death care industry could participate in sustainability.   Any service provider in death care--funeral homes, churches, cemeteries, hospices, hospitals, vault companies--could complement their products and services with a memorial tree planting kit.  This inexpensive gift would not only help green our industry, but would also generate much goodwill as a kind gesture to the family of the deceased.

Many in the death care industry have made a memorial tree a standard part of their practice.  Years ago, Steve Mitchell, owner of Thompson Funeral Home in Wonewoc, Wisconsin, would send a memorial tree in time for Arbor Day to all of the families that he serviced in the previous year.  Steve expressed to me how he received thank-you letters and goodwill from those families for years and years afterward.  Sadly, Steve discontinued this practice when the partnering vendor who prepared and shipped the trees stopped providing the service several years ago.  This story is the reason that we, at the Northwoods Casket Company, have worked with the DNR and forestry experts to create our own memorial tree planting kit.

What if the death care industry were to expand the practice of planting a memorial tree to all funerals?  What if planting a memorial tree were as common place in funerals as sending flowers?  Imagine the goodwill, the value created in our communities, and the environmental impact of the trees we could plant.  Would you like to give it a try?

If you'd like to try a memorial tree planting kit, we'll send you one for free.  Our kit includes 50 seeds for up to 5 species of trees appropriate for planting in both urban and forest settings.  We've prepared simple 3-step instructions for germinating and planting the seeds.  The little peat pots included in the kit are easy to start indoors and then you simply transplant the whole pot come Arbor Day (in North America, anyway).  Learn more about our memorial tree kit and get one for free on-line at  (Enter coupon code MAPLE.)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Golden Circle of Motivation

This column originally appeared in the September, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

The Golden Circle of Motivation
The art of explaining why

A friend recently shared with me an inspiring TED talk by Simon Sinek that introduces a visual model of motivation that can be applied to both individuals and organizations.  This model has three concentric circles--it looks like an archery target.  In the outer most circle, Simon writes "What" to represent the idea that all enterprises know what they do.  At the Northwoods Casket company, we manufacture and sell green caskets.  Most organizations create their marketing messages from what their business sells (ex. Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?).
"Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?"

The middle circle represents a smaller group of companies--those who know "How" they do whatever it is they do.  In many organizations only a select few individuals know exactly how they do what they do.  For example, think of food companies where employees and consumers really don't want to know "how the sausage is made" when deciding to purchase.  For some companies there is much benefit in explaining how as it more easily (but still indirectly) conveys the seller's motivation.  Some marketers use the how in their marketing messages to motivate consumers to buy their products.  We've certainly experienced success in telling our story and explaining how we manufacture our eco-friendly casket products.  (ex. We make green caskets by using locally harvested sustainable pine lumber.  We air-dry our lumber instead of using a fuel-burning kiln.  We use no metal in our caskets and no chemical finishes making both our manufacturing environment and our product clean, safe, and healthy for our craftsman and for the environment.  Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?)
"Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?"

The inner-most circle is where this model gets interesting.  This small circle represents "Why" we do whatever it is we do.  And "make money" isn't a valid answer.  Despite how Wall Street and Banking has shaped our economy, consider for a moment that companies make money to exist--they don't exist for the sole purpose of making money.  Just as we humans do not exist for the sole purpose of breathing air, but rather breathing is a necessary activity to support life.  Without making money a corporation's life would be short-lived.  Not every organization knows why it exists, but those that do demonstrate inspirational leadership.  Mr. Sinek cites several examples of individuals and organizations that truly understand why and use it in their messaging.  Apple, for example, illustrates this with the simple fact that loyal consumers are willing to buy phones and music players from a computer company.

Planting trees is important to our family.
The reason my friend shared Simon Sinek's TED talk with me is that he recognized that we know why we do what we do at the Northwoods Casket Company, but our marketing message does not espouse this.  We exist to plant trees--lots and lots of trees.  We helped plant more than 10,000 trees last April in state forests as well as urban areas with the guidance of the Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry Initiative.  We have a goal of planting 10 million trees in the next decade.  We do this for the health and enjoyment of our community.  This is important to me, my family and others close to me.  Planting trees is the reason my wife and I created our casket company, but we haven't taken this message to our customers--at least not as bluntly as Mr. Sinek suggests.  Here's how our message might change:  At the Northwoods Casket Co, we value the quality of life and the world in which we live.  That's why we plant 100 trees for every casket we make. This is our permanent commitment to our children and the next generation.  We do this by making green caskets with locally harvested sustainable pine lumber air-dried and assembled using no metal and no chemical finishes making both our manufacturing environment and our product clean, safe, and healthy for our craftsman and for the environment.  Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?
"Want to buy an eco-friendly casket?"

There is some science to Mr. Sinek's Golden Circle model.  As it turns out, scientists and psychologists have understood for years that the part of our brain that makes a purchase decision is emotional.  It is not logical.  This is why it can be so difficult to make a purchase decision.  I've done this before by grabbing a pair of jeans at my local home improvement store.  The jeans were on sale for a good price, the right size, satisfactory color, and good brand name--the product is functional and logical in every respect, but I didn't come to this store to buy a pair of jeans.  Something doesn't "feel right" and I cannot explain it despite how logical this purchase decision might seem.  That's the emotional part of my brain at work in making this decision.  We can't explain it with logic and the best thing we can do is simply say, "It just doesn't feel right."  Then I put the jeans back on the rack.

The opportunity for marketers is to recognize the why and supplant our messaging to lead with why we do what we do and the rest will follow.  If we can appeal and attach our message to the emotional part in decision making, the how anbd what will naturally follow to support the decision.  I think this whole idea is particularly compelling in funeral planning decisions--especially when related to being green.  We already fully understand that families making funeral decisions are doing so in a very emotional context.  Simply espousing how "green" some part of the funeral may or may not be isn't likely to generate an effective response.  Those of us who learn to lead with why and be transparent in our motivation may find more success in marketing our products and achieving our mission--whatever that mission may be.  Making a purchase decision motivated by agreement with your mission is a very powerful motivation in any decision.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Conversational Undertaker

This column originally appeared in the August, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

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.
For some, a "plain pine box" is a bold statement.

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 Simple Pine Box 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 Three 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.

This pine panel casket appeals to both price-conscious and eco-conscious.
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 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.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Greening the Funeral Home

This column originally appeared in the July, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

Greening the Funeral Home
Appealing to eco-conscious families in the developing market for green funerals

In previous installments of this column we discussed green burial in the context of cemeteries and caskets.  Green cemeteries and caskets have received most of the media attention in recent years with the growing popularity of green and natural burial in America.  Another topic worth exploring but not receiving near the media attention is greening the funeral home.  Some funeral homes, like the solar powered Prout Funeral Home in Verona, New Jersey, have embraced sustainable and eco-friendly practices to garner media attention and local community support.  There is a wealth of opportunity in "greening the funeral home" that will save money and portray a funeral home as eco-conscious.

The funeral home, like any commercial property, has opportunities to improve energy efficiency.  Two decades of research in the "green building" industry tells us that the incremental cost of new construction for a green building is less than 2% with a return-on-investment more than 10 times in savings over the life of the building.  If your firm is considering expansion or new construction, it may be well-worth seeking the expertise of an architect with experience in green building.

For existing facilities, there are countless ways "go green" that save money and appeal to families who value an environmentally conscious business.  While some means to green your business require up-front investment, there are many ways to green your business with little more than a commitment from staff to follow sustainable practices.  An important first step is to make it a priority and empower your team.  While the adoption of greener practices is made possible from the bottom-up in your organization, the commitment to do so best originates from top-down leadership.

Trees sequester carbon.

As much as half the energy used in our facilities is energy lost in heating and cooling--this means zero value realized from 50 cents of every dollar spent on energy!  An easy way to reduce energy use is at the thermostat.  Each degree you turn down the heat saves 3 percent of heating costs, while each degree you raise the temperature of your air conditioner saves 3-4 percent of cooling costs.  Adjusting the thermostat by 2 degrees year-around will save 6% on the energy bill.  As for the environment, the added savings in CO2 reduction is equivalent to the carbon sequestered by as many as 400 adult living trees in the same year.  Call your local utility company for a free energy audit of your funeral home facility.  A free energy audit will expose ways reduce both energy loss and energy use.  Your auditor can also identify opportunities for tax credits or grants to pay for weatherization and other energy-saving improvements.

When planning facilities improvement projects, consider using eco-friendly replacements for carpeting, furniture, window treatments, and paint.  There are countless green alternatives made from renewable resources including cork and bamboo flooring, all-natural and hydrocarbon-free textiles, and carpet, paint and textiles that contain zero VOCs (volatile organic compounds).  Milk Paint, an alternative to oil and latex paint, contains zero VOCs and is available in a variety of colors that can be mixed for a full spectrum of color options for home decor and furniture.  Milk Paint, in fact, is a popular choice in childcare facilities, hospitals, and schools because it contains zero VOCs.

Perhaps the easiest and fastest way to green a funeral home is in lighting.  In the last two years CFL light bulbs have dramatically decreased in price and have become available in a wide variety of types of light.  The CFL bulbs available today easily replace incandescent lighting without compromising the color or quality of light.  Significant improvements in CFL light bulbs have eliminated the delay in getting to full brightness, ended the flickering, and made CLF bulbs compatible with dimmer switches.  The payback period on a CFL light bulb in a fixture used 8-12 hrs per day is 3-4 weeks.  The savings on electricity alone is enough to warrant switching out all incandescent light bulbs used more than 10 minutes per day.   Add the environmental benefit and switching to CLF light bulbs is the easiest and fastest way to green a funeral home.  Additional savings can be achieved with the use of dimmer switches, timers, and motion-sensors to reduce the energy used in lighting.

Many funeral homes provide bottled water to guests.  Bottled water is one of America's most criticized industries for its impact on the environment.  Consider switching to filtered tap water or a water cooler.  Replace disposable plastic cups with biodegradable cups made from paper or corn starch.  If your funeral home provides refreshments or food services, use biodegradable plates and tableware.  James Olson of Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan Wisconsin provides all products for their receptions sot that all waste including food, plates, napkins, forks/spoons, and cups are biodegradable.  All waste is deposited into the backyard compost bin without sorting.  The compost, in turn, is used in flower beds and window flower boxes around the funeral home.

Further savings can be achieved in the restroom.  Automated "touchless" faucets, flow reducers, and low-volume flush toilet fixtures reduce water consumption again saving money and reducing impact on the environment.  A programmable touchless paper towel dispenser will reduce paper waste (which can also be composted).  All of these updates have a paypack period of less than one year from savings in water and paper consumption.

Additional savings can be achieved in the funeral home office.  Switch to paperless billing for all utility and bank accounts.  Opt out of pre-screened credit card mailing lists (and compost the junk mail you do receive).  Setup your office printer for two-sided printing, use printer paper made from post-consumer recycled paper, and be sure to recycle those old toner cartridges.  Recycle (or compost) your scratch paper.  Turn off all computers at night--preferably with a power-saving power strip.

There's no end to the little things we can do to "green" a funeral home facility.  Whatever you do, take credit for your effort.  Talk to your families about the ways you are caring for the environment and greening your facility.  Put up small informative signs by that new water cooler with compostable cups, above the paper towel dispenser, or in your new waiting room decorated with bamboo flooring and walls colored with milk paint.  Most people will be interested to learn about your efforts to green your facility and will appreciate and support such measures for a healthier environment.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Farewell Grandma Esther

Today our family celebrated the life of Esther A. Caughlin who died on Monday, June 25th. Having celebrated her 92nd birthday, Esther's life was filled with the laughter and joy of a large family.  Esther's room was a reflection of her life as it was filled with many photographs, cards, and artwork from 11 grandchildren (and their spouses) and 19 great-grandchildren plus countless nieces, nephews, and friends.

Hands both large & small.
Esther had requested that she be buried in a Northwoods Casket.  As our family made Grandma's funeral arrangements, my wife Julie (a grand-daughter) had the idea to invite the family over to our Carriage House shop to decorate Grandma Esther's simple pine casket.  Several grandchildren & great-grandchildren arrived at the task with paint and brushes in hand. First we used old-fashioned milk paint to stencil flowers on the casket.  Next we encouraged everyone to add a hand-print or two with any color of their choosing for a wide variety of hand-prints both large and small.  Finally, with as many children and adults as could crowd around the casket we painted rainbows, flowers, colorful designs, and even a birthday cake.  The whole process was a very pleasant four to five hours as family made time to drop by and paint a few strokes.

I have to say the result was an impressive tribute to Grandma with so much depth in the personal touches of so many hands.  I have not experienced anything like it before.  During the visitation before Grandma's funeral, I was sitting quietly with one of Julie's cousins when we both noticed something. There were many small children at this funeral and ALL of them regularly approached the casket.  They were not afraid to stand right next to Grandma in the open casket and talk to her.  Children, ages 3 to 13 were not hesitant to put their hands on the beautiful casket or briefly touch the back of Grandma's hands.  Then we noticed her casket filling up with more and more drawings and artwork as the children shared paper, colored pencils, and crayons to create their own personalized farewell messages and artwork.  None of us have ever experienced a funeral where the children were as comfortable as they were today with Grandma Esther.   We could only believe that the hand-painted casket, now familiar to several of the great-grandchildren who helped decorate it, was welcoming and warm in a way that most of us have never experienced before--especially as children.

For our family, this act of decorating Grandma's casket may be a new trend and become a part of our healing as we learn and teach our children to deal with the inevitable passing of our loved ones.
The inside head-panel included photographs and art from the great-grandchildren. 
An owl, a rainbow, and a birthday cake!
Only the hands of family and children could have done this.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Greener Funerals with Green Caskets

This column originally appeared in the June, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

Greener Funerals with Green Caskets
Comparing caskets with carbon life cycle analysis.

Last month we discussed trends in green cemeteries in America.  Another popular topic in greening the funeral industry is green caskets.  Families seeking green alternatives often start with questions during casket selection.  In the last several years dozens of green alternatives for burial containers ranging from wood and paper caskets to cloth burial shrouds have surfaced in the market.  The green claims behind these products are as creative as the entrepreneurs marketing them.  This month we discuss carbon life cycle analysis as it applies to casket selection for a green funeral.

When comparing caskets and other creative burial containers it helps to consider three key activities that contribute to the carbon footprint of the product.  These activities include raw material extraction or production, manufacturing, and transportation.  We should consider the carbon impact, or carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e), for each of these three key activities in our attempt to objectively compare different green caskets and casket alternatives.
Before we talk about casket production, let us first illustrate the CO2e of familiar activities as we compare.  For example, burning a gallon of gasoline releases 22 lbs CO2e and a kilowatt hour of electricity produced from coal generates 2 lbs CO2e.  A typical 4-person family produces 50 tons of CO2e each year.  On the side of carbon sequestering, a typical leaf-bearing tree absorbs 1 ton of CO2 over its 100-year life.  An important observation on carbon impact and sequestration is the aspect of time.  A child learns with a weekly allowance that it takes time to save but any amount saved can be spent in no time at all.  Next, let's look at the carbon impact of raw materials, manufacturing, and transportation for different caskets.

Let us compare a green casket to a conventional 200-lb casket made from imported Chinese steel, manufactured in the US, and distributed in the Midwest.  I have not yet found a comprehensive carbon life cycle analysis on caskets, so we will use some comparisons.  Carbon life cycle analysis in the automotive industry estimates that manufacturing a 3600 lb sedan produces 18 tons CO2e, or 1000 lbs CO2e for every 100 lbs of sedan.  This includes producing raw materials like steel, fabric, plastic, metal hinges, handles, etc.  This estimate includes transporting raw materials and operating a manufacturing facility.  If we compare a sedan to a conventional steel casket with cloth interior, rubber seal, brass hinges and latch, and a painted "automotive" finish, the impact of manufacturing a steel casket, at 200 lbs, might be about 1 ton CO2e.  If we investigate more closely, we know that producing steel has a net impact of about 1/2 lb CO2e for each pound of steel--or 100 lbs CO2e for a 200-lb steel casket.  Significant research on the carbon impact of ocean cargo and freight trucking informs us that the impact of moving 200 lbs of freight from China to the Midwest is nearly 300 lbs CO2e!  With 400 lbs CO2e just to manufacture and transport the raw steel to the Midwest, our estimate to extract, produce, and transport raw materials, manufacture a steel casket, and transport to the US is probably reasonable at 1 ton CO2e for a single steel casket.

A popular category of green caskets are those woven from grasses such as willow, bamboo, and seagrass.  These grass crops are generally grown and harvested in cottage industries without the impact of industrialized equipment and manufacturing processes.  Most woven caskets are made by hand and thus have a very small carbon footprint.  At 50 lbs shipping weight woven caskets also benefit by reducing the carbon impact of transportation.  However, few of these products are made in the United States and most are imported from Indonesia, China, or Europe.  If shipped by ocean cargo to a US port and then via freight truck to the central US, the total impact of a 50 lb seagrass casket from Indonesia might be 150 lbs CO2e.  That same casket, however, shipped by air freight produces 2400 lbs CO2e--the air freight alone is more than the impact of 1 ton CO2e estimated for steel casket shipped from China by ocean liner.

A locally-made pine casket has a very small carbon impact.
Dozens of casket makers in the emerging US green market are building caskets from locally sourced and reclaimed woods.  The carbon impact to produce a board-foot of lumber varies by species and region and ranges from less than 1/2 lb CO2e for softwoods to just more than 1 lb CO2e for hardwoods.  Smaller caskets require 60 board-feet of pine while others may require 120 board-feet of hardwood making the material carbon impact range from 30 lbs CO2e for an eco-friendly pine casket to 120 lbs CO2e for a conventional oak or cherry casket.  The impact of manufacturing processes also varies widely and largely depends on the source of heat/electricity in the facility and the finishes applied to the casket.  An unfinished pine casket made in an eco-friendly facility may have as little as 20 lb CO2e whereas a commercial operation might be as high as 100 lbs CO2e for a similar product.  The greatest benefit of locally made caskets is reduced transportation.  A locally delivered casket with a light commercial truck averaging a 500 mile trip produces 15 lbs of CO2e by sharing the load with other deliveries.  The same light truck on a dedicated 100-mile trip would contribute far more--as much as 200 lbs CO2e for the round-trip.  The total impact of a locally made wood casket ranges from as little as 50 lbs CO2e but up to 250 lbs CO2e depending on the wood used, manufacturing processes, distance traveled, and method of final delivery.

In each of these example scenarios we see that transportation can be the largest factor in the carbon impact of green casket alternatives to a steel casket.  For the steel casket, due to great efficiency in ocean cargo, the dominating factor is the impact of the steel production and casket manufacturing processes.  Let's summarize the comparison of green caskets to a domestically manufactured steel casket from imported Chinese steel at 1 ton CO2e.  A woven casket shipped by ocean cargo compares at roughly 150 lbs--more than 90% less CO2e than a steel casket.  However, the same woven casket shipped by air freight exceeds 2400 lbs CO2e which is 20% more than the steel casket!  An eco-conscious casket maker using local sustainable pine compares at 50 lbs CO2e when being conservative with transportation.  A locally made pine casket may have the smallest carbon footprint comparing at 98% less impact than a steel casket and 1/3 the impact of a woven casket.  But again, if shipped single-unit on a light truck for 200 miles round-trip, the impact of the same pine casket may be as much as or exceed the 150 lbs CO2e estimated for an imported woven casket.

So what do I recommend as the "greenest" alternative in caskets?  Buy Local.  Drive Less.  And get to know your supplier by asking lots of questions.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sheboygan Plants 700 trees in Maywood Park

We were in the news again with our donation to the Sheboygan Parks and Forestry Department this spring.  On Saturday, May 5th, volunteers planted 700 trees in Maywood Park in Sheboygan as part of the annual Join Hands Day in the park.

"About half the trees were donated by Walmart. The rest were purchased from Sheboygan County's annual tree sale with donations from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and Northwoods Casket Co. in Beaver Dam and its local partner, Lippert-Olson Funeral Home.

Northwoods Casket has also funded a reforestation project with the state Department of Natural Resources in the Kettle Moraine State Forest Northern Unit in Sheboygan County.  Patricia Murphy, the regional forestry supervisor, said in a press release that "Northwoods Casket's funding will help plant approximately 10,000 seedlings, or about 10 acres, and will be part of a larger reforestation project scheduled in the state forest this spring."

The entire article can be found at the Sheboygan Press.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Green Cemetery Trends In America

This column originally appeared in the May, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

Green Cemetery Trends in America
What's really happening with America's green cemeteries?

Since 2009 the death care industry in America has been witness to a flurry of activity on green burial.  National news stories follow a formula often leading with a cliche regarding death, burial, and getting back to nature followed by an explanation of green (or natural) burial.  These news articles typically quote Joe Sehee from the Green Burial Council or James Olson from the NFDA and then cite statistics on the volumes of hardwoods, steel, and concrete buried each year in America's cemeteries.  Many of these articles include a quote from Grave Matters, by Mark Harris.  Every news story uses statistics to demonstrate growing public interest in green burial including the 2007 AARP pole indicating 21% of respondents were curious about or considering green burial and the 2008 Kates-Boylston survey finding 43% of respondents would consider a green burial.

A quick analysis of Google search trends on keywords like "green cemetery" shows significant growth in searches since 2009.  With almost no searches prior to 2008, we see growing interest in the United Kingdom in 2009 and 2010.  However, the United States search trend shows almost no search activity until 2011 and then significant upswing to nearly 10 times average search volume in 2011.  

Over the last three years I have observed that approximately one-third of all news stories on green cemeteries and green burial are special interest pieces by national news outlets. The majority of news stories on green burial originate from local TV and newspaper media announcing the planning of, or opening of, a green cemetery or a recent green burial at a local cemetery.  Many dozens of existing municipal, religious, and private cemeteries have opened new sections of property dedicated to varying "shades of green" burial services.  There is also the rapidly growing number of new cemeteries entirely committed to green burial.

The Green Burial Council (GBC) describes three tiers of green to include burial grounds that are Hybrid, Natural, or Conservation.  A fourth, and perhaps lightest shade of green may include the Traditional cemetery without strict vault or casket requirements.  One example is the municipal cemetery in my hometown of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.  John Neumann, caretaker, explains the city has no strict requirements on the use of a burial vault or containers so a green burial would be accepted.  The GBC uses many criteria to certify a green cemetery including the cemetery's policies on burial vaults, caskets or shrouds, embalming, use of chemicals in lawn care, grave opening/closing techniques, and land status.  Land status must guarantee adherence to green practices through deed restriction, conservation easement, or other irrevocable legally binding agreement in perpetuity.  Conservation burial grounds are those that can demonstrate a legally binding responsibility for perpetual stewardship of the land.  There are only a few green cemeteries in the U.S. that have achieved the highest rating of a conservation burial ground as defined by the GBC.

There isn't a lot of data on the adoption of green burial in America.  I can, however, share several anecdotes and observations from green cemeteries that help tell the story of adoption of green burial in America.  The Friends South Western Burial Ground established in 1861 borders West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  This cemetery, home to roughly 4000 grave sites, is the final resting place for Quakers (and others) seeking a simple "environmentally aware" burial.  Graham Garner, warden/manager of the 17 acre site tells us that while they have not actively promoted green burials, they have had five such burial requests already--a significant number because sometimes a year will go by with no burials.  Two families used simple caskets made from particle board, and three used cloth burial shrouds.  Graham explains they do not have vault or casket requirements, but they do have some restrictions on headstones.

A very new burial ground by contrast is the Natural Path Sanctuary that opened June, 2011 in Verona, Wisconsin.  Kevin Corrado, coordinator for the sanctuary, explains that while they prefer shrouded burials they will accept caskets made from "unfinished non-precious woods" and free of non-biodegradable materials.  Conventional practices including burial vaults, embalming, and grave markers are not allowed  All graves in the wooded sanctuary are dug and closed by hand.  There have been four burials since August of last year including one infant and one placement of cremated remains.  Earlier last month a family dug a grave for a family member who is terminally ill.

In March, the Catholic Sentinel reported that Mount Calvary in Portland, Oregon is the second Catholic cemetery in the nation to offer a dedicated area of the cemetery for green burial.  Tim Corbett, superintendent of Catholic cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Portland, explains that he first started hearing about green burial five years ago.  He views this movement as a way for people to leave a natural legacy adding that if everyone opted for a green burial, he'd have 500 acres of endowed forest.

I've spoken with more than a dozen green cemeteries that have opened since 2008 and have had more green burials in the last year than in the three years prior to 2011.  The Green Burial Council ( and the Centre for Natural Burial ( each list about 30 green burial sites in the U.S.  If we include all of the family-owned, municipal, and church operated cemeteries that allow green burial options there may already be more than 200 cemeteries in the U.S. where people can opt for a greener burial.  Trend or fad, I'm optimistic that awareness on green burial is growing, more options are becoming available, and that our industry is changing for the better when it comes to protecting our natural habitat. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

More Trees for City of Beaver Dam

John Neumann talks to students on Arbor Day.
Last month the Northwoods Casket Company donated $1000 to the City of Beaver Dam Tree Nursery where John Neumann, the Parks and Forestry Supervisor for the city of Beaver Dam, plants trees and cares for them until they are ready to be transplanted around the city.   According to John, "Every $1 spent on a sapling today translates to a savings of $50 or more later when the trees are transplanted."  

On Arbor Day, four trees from the nursery were transplanted to a site on Washington Street near the city's new police station.  Crews planted four Japanese Tree Lilacs that will grow to be roughly 25 feet tall and bloom every June.  Students from Washington Elementary School attended the planting and sang a song about Mother Earth.  The Mayor of Beaver Dam, Tom Kennedy, said a few words as did Olivia Witthun, Regional Urban Forestry Coordinator for the DNR.  Olivia spoke of the benefits that trees provide, producing oxygen, shade and habitat for wildlife.  She then presented a Tree City USA flag to the mayor and congratulated the city for being a Tree City USA for 21 years.

At Northwoods Casket Company, we are proud of our city's commitment to maintaining a healthy tree population for current and future residents to enjoy.  

To see the local news article about the Arbor Day event, please visit the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen.  

Arbor Day Celebration in Wonewoc

Don Kissinger of the DNR demonstrates the proper way to plant a tree.
The village of Wonewoc celebrated Arbor Day on April 27th by planting maple trees at the village high school and started what hopes to be a long-standing Arbor Day tradition.  Northwoods Casket Company's $1000 donation will allow the village to achieve its goal of becoming a Tree City USA, something the community has aspired to become for many years.  

The Arbor Day planting was led by Don Kissinger, the DNR Regional Urban Forestry Coordinator.  Don demonstrated the proper way to plant a tree and then oversaw the planting of several more trees at the high school by Mr. Rueckheim's sophomore biology class.  Steve Mitchell from Thompson Funeral Home helped plan the event and was also in attendance as well Paul Saether from the Northwoods Casket Company.

Students from Mr. Rueckheim's sophomore biology class plant a tree.
To be a Tree City USA, a city must establish a community forestry program with an annual budget of at least $2 per capita, organize an annual Arbor Day observance with a tree planting event, and pass a Tree Care Ordinance that establishes a Forestry Program meant to provide clear guidance for planting, maintaining and removing trees from public places.  Village Supervisor Lee Kucher commented, "The Arbor Day celebration is the beginning of a new era for Wonewoc. We recognize that trees are valuable assets and this event demonstrates our commitment to establish a tradition of tree planting in the village."  

 At Northwoods Casket Company, we are thankful to all the individuals who made this event a successful one and we hope this is the first of many Arbor Day celebrations for the beautiful Village of Wonewoc, Tree City USA.  To see more photos from the event, visit Wonewoc's Community Photo page online.