Rental caskets with replacement insert and liner are not new to the funeral industry. Rental caskets first emerged as an option for cremation families to conduct a funeral service prior to cremation. Fees charged to families for casket rental services generally range from $350 to $1000. With growing interest in cremation as an alternative to cemetery burial, the rental casket has gained some popularity in the last five years. As "green" as it may seem, the idea of using a rental casket for a green funeral is not a common option presented to families curious about green or natural burial alternatives. And yet, the rental casket might just be the perfect choice for families who value the environment but do not wish to make a bold statement with something as different as a natural burial shroud or simple pine box.
From a sustainability perspective, rental caskets could be a very attractive option for families seeking options to minimize impact on the environment. Our opportunity in funeral service is to suggest a rental casket to families interested in reducing environmental impact. There's no reason a funeral service with a rental casket could not be followed by direct burial with a burial shroud in a natural burial cemetery. For conventional cemeteries that require a burial vault, remains could be interred with a burial shroud or the same type of cardboard box container used in cremations.
It is difficult to write this column without a shameless reference to the pun, "thinking outside the box." True or not, our funeral service industry has a reputation in the media for being resistant to change and slow to adopt new ideas. Compounded by the fact that we live in a time in our Western culture where people generally avoid talking about death and death care, it is ever more important that we think outside the box and be prepared to talk about different options with our families as they explore sustainable alternatives in death care.
In preparing to talk to families about green funerals, I offer the following five talking points. "Green" has many meanings to different people so it helps to hone in on specific perspectives to better understand the values and priorities of your families. These five talking points include (1) biodegradability, (2) toxicity, (3) sustainability, (4) carbon footprint, and (5) local sourcing. Each of these talking points has many aspects, facts, and figures and are all interrelated. There are others, but these five tend to be the most common and are easily understood in the context of death care choices.
If biodegradability is important, as would be the case with a conservation cemetery, then it is important that the casket rental insert that is to be interred be made from biodegradable materials such as cotton and paper whereas synthetics like polyester and sateen be avoided. Steel staples and toxic adhesives may also need to be avoided for burial in a conservation cemetery like the Penn Forest Natural Burial Park in Verona, PA.
A funeral service with a handsome locally-made rental casket followed by either cremation or a cemetery burial (with or without vault) complemented with a memorial tree-planting ceremony at someone's home or in a city park could be a relatively green funeral. A single hardwood memorial tree can offset the carbon impact of the cremation or burial vault after 10-15 years--and if that tree lives on to 80-100 years the tree continues to sequester carbon every day.
For a rental casket that is used over and over again, the biodegradability of the casket is no longer relevant. The carbon footprint and toxicity of the materials and methods of construction may still be important but certainly less relevant than for a casket that is used once and is interred in the earth.
A family primarily concerned about sustainability from a perspective of conservation of natural resources and limiting the use of non-renewable resources might best be served by a funeral service with a rental casket and cremation complemented with an offset activity to plant a few hundred trees. The Arbor Day Foundation offers a "Trees in Memory" service (www.arborday.org) that will plant one tree in a national forest for every dollar donated. We might suggest the family request that all memorial donations go toward planting trees.
The rental casket combined with alternatives with which we are already familiar could be the beginnings of an exemplary "green" funeral service offering for most firms. Sustainability and being "green" isn't only about the casket, or the cemetery, or embalming. Try to keep the five talking points close at hand to help uncover the values upon which your families will make choices. These talking points might invite more questions than provide answers, but these are the conversations upon which we build everlasting trust in personal relationships. And that's good business.