Wednesday, February 1, 2012

It's not easy being green, or is it?

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

No doubt there is growing concern among American consumers for the health and preservation of the environment and its precious natural resources.  "What is a carbon footprint?" was one of the top ten green topic searches on Google in 2011.  Responding to consumer interest, industry leaders in automobile manufacturing and alternative energy are finding new ways to "green" their business.  Today's consumer is overwhelmed with campaigns for green products and services from home furnishings, to clothing and apparel, to groceries and even freight services.

The death care industry is no exception.  Being green in the death care industry tends to focus primarily on the choice of a cemetery and the selection of a casket or alternative burial container.  But is there more our industry should consider when working with families who care about environmental impact?  If consumer behavior across the pond is any indication, I would say the answer is yes.

In general, the United Kingdom has led the United States by 10 to 15 years with consumer trends in environmental conservation and sustainable practices.  The trend on green burial is no exception.  With some of the first sites opening more than two decades ago, today there are more than 200 green cemeteries--also referred to as natural burial sites or conservation cemeteries--in the United Kingdom.  By comparison there are around 40 green cemeteries in the United States, but more have opened each year since the first was established in Ramsey Creek, South Carolina in 1998.  Perhaps even more noteworthy are the hundreds of traditional cemeteries offering green alternatives to environmentally conscious families in response to interest in green burial.

As with green burial, the UK also leads the US in the adoption of cremation as an alternative to burial.  In the decades since 1960, the uptake of cremation in the UK grew from roughly 30% to just over 70% today.  This compares to US adoption growing from less than 25% in 1960 to a 40% today--about half the rate of UK today.  The National Funeral Directors Association forecasts a cremation rate nearing 60% by 2025.  Interestingly, the Green Burial Council has found that 80% of those who consider a green burial were originally planning a cremation.  Could green burial as an alternative to cremation slow this trend as the aging Baby Boomer generation considers the environmental impact of cremation as it compares to green burial?  Are Boomers and GenXers steering a new trend in death care by considering environmental impact alongside religion, family, and budget in their end-of-life choices?  

There is so much we can do in the death care industry to "green our business" whether we are responding to consumer demand or just want to reduce our carbon footprint.  Either way, being green is good business.  Being green need not be difficult or cost prohibitive.  In fact, some changes can improve employee morale and save money--and that certainly is good business.

In this recurring column I will offer resources to help you answer questions about green practices and separate fact from fiction when it comes to green claims in our industry.  I’ll also keep you up to date on relevant legislation, answer your questions, and share your best practices.  If you have questions, suggestions of good topics for this column, or your own success stories to share, please send them to

Jonas A. Zahn is the president and founder of Northwoods Casket Co., a manufacturer of environmentally friendly caskets made in Wisconsin.  He has been involved in casket-making since building a casket for his Grandfather in 2004 and now distributes sustainable caskets to funeral homes throughout the United States.  Recently invited by the Green Burial Council, Jonas serves as an advisor to the committee on defining the standards for green burial containers. Jonas has a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Jonas can be reached by email at  Visit Northwoods Casket online at