Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reverse Brainstorming: What is the most unsustainable funeral a person could choose?

A creative thinking technique employed by Speedo researchers in 2009, reverse brainstorming helped the team conceptualize new designs for competitive swimwear when the company's revolutionary and controversial swim suits were banned after the record-breaking 2008 Summer Olympic games.  Experts in fluid dynamics, biomechanics, and psychology envisioned a combination of oversized goggles and a body-compressing suit to create drag.  Imagining the opposite of what we want can help hone our creative thinking to get closer to the results we do want.

Now imagine the company of a casket builder, a physician, a funeral director, and a pharmacist along with our wives enjoying an evening of cocktails on the patio at a local supper club.  I cannot share all of the details of our reverse brainstorming on the worst funeral choices we could imagine for the environment, but the highlights are worth repeating.  As for the exercise, I invite you to try reverse brainstorming this, or any, subject and experience the creativity that can result in a collaborative discussion among your family, friends, or work colleagues. 

We quickly listed all funeral choices that we know are harmful in some manner to the environment or our health.  Casket? Yes.  Concrete Burial Vault?  Yes.  Embalming?  Yes.  Cremation?  Yes.   Burial Plot?  Yes.  Large grave stone?  Yes.  As we explored the details we set some boundaries for ourselves.  We didn’t intend to confuse “elaborate” as the opposite of being eco-friendly.  We also didn’t want to consider impractical choices nobody would ever make (like cremating a 24-karat gold casket).

Our reverse brainstorming helped us imagine the worst possible set of choices money could buy in funeral service.  We concluded our evening with several good laughs and each of us took home some ideas for our own end-of-life plans.  So what might the worst possible (but reasonably probable) funeral service look like from a Green perspective on funerals?

Well, there would have to be a cremation for a carbon footprint of about 600 lbs. of CO2, but not without a full service funeral with our embalmed body.  After all, a large number of cremations in the U.S. are embalmed.  In addition to the carbon footprint, cremation generates emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen chloride (HCl), NMVOCs, and other heavy metals, in addition to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP).   For those of us metal implants or dental fillings, the impact of incineration releases harmful dioxins and mercury.  There is an ongoing debate on how to address mercury poisoning from cremation which the United States EPA believes is the 3rd largest contributor of air-born mercury contamination.

Our casket would have to be an imported Indonesian natural burial casket made from seagrass.  While it is biodegradable, a seagrass casket weighing 70 lbs. would have a carbon impact of more than 2500 lbs. (even more than imported stainless steel) after being shipped to an American port by ocean cargo, then air freighted to a commercial airport in the Midwest, and finally transported by truck to our funeral home.  And if our seagrass came from a controversial area where fisheries were compromised by seagrass farming, even better.  And if our casket could be woven by the hands of underpaid laborers (or even children) we’d be sublime.

We planned a funeral home visitation followed by a full service funeral the next day at a church for the added fuss of transporting our body and our families.  After the cremation we’d have our cremated remains interred at a cemetery and another memorial service so that everybody could start their cars three times to drive to at least three locations to pay their respects during our funeral.  All three of our funeral events would be thoroughly adorned with cut flowers—another industry rife with environmental and energy controversies.

Our cremated remains would be interred in a concrete cremation vault in a full-sized cemetery plot next to our loved ones.  We’d hope that our cemetery of choice used only the finest pesticides and herbicides to maintain a plush green lawn manicured regularly with two-stroke oil-burning trimmers and leaf blowers.  Oh, and the trees, of course take out the trees because they leave such a mess every fall.  After all of this, we will have left behind a larger impact after our death than in the final 2-3 years of our living lives.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sustainability in Death Care: From Trend to Movement

Trends come and go without consequence.  Movements come and stay until they are no longer needed because the world has changed entirely.  Movements happen when a group of people work hard toward a change.  A movement with a humble beginning credited to the 1998 opening of Ramsey Creek Preserve in rural South Carolina has blossomed into a momentous change in modern burial practices.  One example includes the expansion of natural burial service offerings by one of the industry's largest cemetery and funeral service providers, StoneMor Partners, L.P. (STON).

Mark Harris, author of the 2007 award-winning book, Grave Matters, opined on his blog last month at how quickly America’s cemeteries have changed.  While there were very few modern green cemeteries in America prior to 1998, today there are hundreds of existing and new cemeteries embracing sustainable burial practices to varying degrees of “going green” from merely allowing families to forgo concrete burial vaults to prohibiting vaults, monuments, and embalming entirely.

Several national market surveys by leading research groups in the last three years have reported that most people would consider a natural burial.  In some regard, almost everyone values the environment when making choices in how they live from choosing what car they will drive to deciding what food they will eat.  When asked specifically, most people extend their environmental values in making end-of-life choices.  Making end-of-life choices consistent with one’s values is a matter of being informed when it comes to the environmental impact of cremation, embalming, caskets, vaults, and other choices in death care.

The natural burial movement has brought death care discussions to the dinner table.  When people ask good questions and share their values with one another, real change happens.  The independent film, “A Will for the Woods,” is the first feature-length documentary on the green burial movement.  The film has stirred attention and conversation around the world through a comprehensive campaign including a Kickstarter project, social media buzz, film festivals, and local screenings.  This movie is garnering the attention of Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers alike adding to the momentum of the green burial movement.

Many in the death care industry in the early 2000s contended that “green burial” would be a short-lived trend.  Some early adopters of greener funerals were subject to accusations of greenwashing from their contemporaries.  Today, we are witnessing a new era of Big Business on the Green bandwagon.  We are living in a time when a Mountain View, California Walmart store hosted the President of the United States for a press event highlighting the White House’s renewed push for solar energy.  Conservation, recycling, carbon emissions, toxicity, pollution, energy use, renewable energy… these are all part of big business initiatives to some degree in every trade or industry.  Death care is no exception.

I’m sort of done with Green.  It isn’t enough to declare one’s individual or company intentions as “good for the environment.”  The sustainability movement has made such declarations pointless and irrelevant.  Every company—even big companies—from Apple to Walmart are going green.  Even the nation’s largest trash removal company, Waste Management, has built an entire marketing campaign on going green.  I say that if we aim to convince somebody that they should consider our product or service because it is greener, we must be prepared to talk about exactly how we will contribute to creating a safer and healthier environment right now in the present and in the future.  We need to provide specific and measurable benefits of our products and services, or our families won’t pay attention.  While it is true that “being green” isn't easy, it is no longer a differentiator either.  Sorry, Kermit.
It's not easy being green.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sustainable Businesses

By guest author, Jeni Tyjeski

Consumers today are increasingly aware of the effects that their decisions have on the environment. When faced with the option to purchase a product from a company that has environmentally friendly practices or buy a cheaper product from a company that isn’t sustainable, many people are making the choice to purchase the green product, even if they do have to pay a little more. Sustainable businesses “create products and services that compete on price and performance while significantly reducing humankinds impact on the environment” (Fried, 2014). As consumers seek out the green products more and more, green businesses become more competitive within their market and sustainability becomes a greater subject among the producers, regardless of their size.

I interviewed two Wisconsin businesses that either incorporate green practices into their business or were founded as a green alternative to a heavily polluting industry. Their business practices are environmentally friendly, educational for consumers, and extremely different from each other. Differences within the market are common, though, and Rona Fried, president of sustainablebussiness.com, comments that “sustainable businesses operate across all business sectors” (2014). Differences within the green market have been incredibly apparent while interviewing Northwoods Casket Company and Central Waters Brewing Company. Though these two businesses create vastly different products, they both have sustainable practices that set them apart from other businesses within their field. What efforts are these small business owners taking to grow and build their products sustainably and lessen their ecological footprint, and what is the value of a sustainable business? Could other, larger businesses, adopt a greener business approach similar to the paths taken by the companies interviewed?

After the passing of his grandfather, Jonas Zahn wanted to create a casket that was both skillfully designed and environmentally friendly. He also wanted the time spent creating the casket to be time where he could remember and honor his grandfather. What Zahn ended up with was a simple and unique design created with local materials that both honored and respected his grandfather’s memory. Following the creation of his first casket, Zahn further researched the natural burial movement. His first product was a kit that allows other families to spend the memorial time creating a casket for their loved one. After his first design, he continued to do more research and built many more prototype caskets, changing designs and materials to introduce a truly green and attractive product that exceed industry standards. In addition to the local materials used in the creation of the casket, Northwoods plants 100 trees for every product sold. The 100 trees sequester 200 pounds of CO2 in their first year, 4 times
A Simple Pine Box by Northwoods Casket Co.
more than the carbon footprint of Northwoods Simple Pine Box (Personal Interview). Compared to the 2000 pounds of carbon produced from a creation of a traditional steel casket, the Northwoods casket is actually bettering the environment from which their product is made (Personal Interview). One unique quality of the green casket business is their ability to create a product that is extremely sustainable. Brewing, on the other hand, has taken a different approach to creating a sustainable business, focusing on both their product as well as the process used to create it.

In 1999 Paul Graham added his years of brewing knowledge to the Central Waters Brewing Company team. With his understanding of the brewing process he brought passion for sustainable and local practices, which he used to expand the business. Graham, along with his co-owner, Anello Mollica, source a large percentage of their ingredients from local farmers, cutting back on transportation emissions in addition to sustaining local businesses. Central Waters has demonstrated a forward thinking approach to sustainable practices that not many other breweries have. They have two solar arrays at their brew house; one that provides hot water to heat the facility and preheated water for brewing needs. The other photovoltaic array produces twenty percent of their energy needs. Graham thought sustainability was important when choosing the packaging for the products as well. Sourcing the bottles from a green manufacturer and using post-consumer recycled cardboard, Central Waters shows an attention to detail in all phases of their production, a feature that appeals to a generation concerned with the future of our planet (Personal Interview). Though many consumers today are looking for a greener alternative, not all retailers are as willing to supply the newer and greener products to their specific clientele.

Julie Zahn, wife of Northwoods founder Jonas Zahn, commented on the difficulty of changing minds towards greener alternatives. Like Brodwin mentioned, sustainable practices are often thought of as nice, but not practical. It took Northwoods five years and many conversations, trade shows, newspaper articles, press releases, etc. to get the funeral industry to take their sustainable caskets seriously. A large percentage of the funeral directors “have been happy offering funeral options that do not account for environmental impact or sustainability for a very long time and are not very open-minded to change” (Personal Interview). Since green caskets are becoming more popular, and more consumers are looking for the green caskets, the families are pushing the funeral homes to add the green options to their casket offerings. Zahn adds that that is why consumer education has always been such an important aspect of Northwoods’ business plan. Though they can convince the funeral industry to carry their product, unless consumers are seeking to purchase green products, Northwoods efforts will be in vain. A successful sustainable business needs knowledgeable consumers looking for their green products in order to change traditional industry minds and survive in their market.

The practices that the businesses interviewed have implemented are sustainable and community-minded, but Northwoods Casket Company and Central Waters Brewing Company are relatively small businesses. Their products are geared toward select audiences: those looking for a casket or a beverage. What would happen if a larger business, like Wal-Mart, were to create and sell legitimately sustainable products? Though Wal-Mart is not typically thought of as a community-minded business, “big business plays an important role in sustainability due to its legitimizing value in the eyes of the public” (Brodwin, 2014). Though the products produced by Central Waters and Northwoods are sustainable, David Brodwin, cofounder of the American Sustainable Business Council observes “policymakers and others may dismiss it unfairly as too small to matter to the economy as a whole” (2014). Brodwin adds that the entry of large businesses into the green and sustainable market “proves the legitimacy and importance of sustainability as a concept and as a market force” (2014). It proves that sustainable practices work and can be implemented into any business, regardless of size. It tells competitors “’there’s money here’ and that brings more investment capital to help sustainable businesses grow” (Brodwin, 2014). It portrays the realness of the practices, and in turn, the media writes “serious stories about sustainability going mainstream rather than just human-interest stores about mavericks bucking the trend” (Brodwin, 2014). In order for success of sustainability as a widespread marketing plan, smaller businesses need to continue to model the success that they are having and push the larger businesses into action.

Central Waters Brewing Company and Northwoods Casket Company have not only envisioned a company ran sustainably, but also implemented practices into their business in order to reduce their carbon footprint and sustain local industries. “The arrival of big companies offers powerful, credible testimony that sustainable business is indeed good business” (Brodwin, 2014). The foundation of sustainable practices was created by small, grass roots efforts, and is growing into an increasingly important aspect of business ethics. These businesses have created effective plans for reducing their carbon footprint and producing environmentally friendly practices that need to be noticed and implemented by larger businesses. Green producers, combined with educated consumers are putting the necessary pressure on larger businesses to add more sustainable products and practices, helping to make sustainability an industry norm.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Could Biodegradable Caskets and Urns be Subject to FTC Scrutiny for Greenwashing?

In the fifteen years since the opening of America’s first modern green burial cemetery at Ramsey Creek, South Carolina in 1998, there hasn’t been a month with as many headline news articles from major news outlets on the topic as there were this past March.  The Green Burial Council estimates that as many as a quarter of America’s aging want a nature-friendly burial absent of concrete burial vaults, steel caskets, and formaldehyde embalming chemicals.  The NFDA hosted a workshop entitled, "It’s Only a Matter of Time: Are You Ready for Natural Burials and Green Funerals?” for funeral directors attending the annual convention in Austin, Texas last October.  Some funeral directors, including Amy Cunningham of Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services, say the time is now with one quarter of their clients prearranging green funerals.

Biodegradability is the most asked about aspect of green and natural burial alternatives when we receive inquires from families by phone or email at the Northwoods Casket Company.  The Green Burial Council has certified more than twenty firms who market green burial products including caskets, urns, and burial shrouds.  While the 2011 GBC Standards/Eco-Rating system for funeral products never cites the words biodegradable or degradable, nearly every marketer of green burial caskets, shrouds, or urns cites biodegradability as one of their key claims for eco-friendliness.

The October, 2012 update to the FTC Green Guides includes specific guidelines for using the word degradable or any of its derivatives when marketing green products.  The guide specifies that a degradable product must completely decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.  Any degradable claim for items customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities are deemed deceptive because these disposal environments do not promote decomposition within one year of disposal.

The guides were open for public comment for two years before the 2012 update.  Cynthia Beal, founder of the Natural Burial Company, commented on the new language for degradable in the proposed update.  She explained that caskets and urns customarily disposed in cemeteries are not likely to degrade (return to their natural elements) in one year as the law now requires.  Marketers of green funeral products use degradable to differentiate from non-degradables such as steel caskets, concrete burial vaults, and urns made from metal or ceramics.  Cynthia Beal stipulated that use of the word biodegradable in this context does not mislead consumers.  The FTC did not adjust the content of the Green Guides to further specify, or make an exception for, funeral products customarily disposed in cemeteries.

What, really, is the relevance of biodegradability in funeral service products?  An accelerated return to its natural elements does not necessarily make any given burial choice greener, or better for the environment, than another.  As a matter of science, the argument is that decomposition, which releases carbon dioxide into the soil & atmosphere, should be slowed and not accelerated if we aim to reduce the degradation of our environment.  Nonetheless, claims of biodegradability are only meant to discern those funeral products that are degradable from those that are not.  However, the FTC Green Guides of 2012 could scrutinize marketers of natural burial caskets, urns, and shrouds for being in violation of the law for using the word biodegradable to describe their products!

Natural burial has shifted from trendy topic to modern movement in the United States just as it did almost a decade earlier in the U.K.  As more consumers research green[er] funeral options and make inquiries for eco-friendly alternatives to the conventional funeral, we should expect scrutiny from the FTC.  The funeral industry has not yet been the subject of FTC scrutiny for greenwashing, but that could change.  Funeral service has been in the crosshairs of the FTC before—recall The Funeral Rule.  Let us keep in mind that the FTC’s primary concern is protecting consumers from deceptive marketing.

What should we do?  Biodegradability is a great conversation starter with families interested in green funerals.  As funeral service professionals, we should be prepared and address this talking point transparently to avoid accusations of deceptive marketing.  We should explain that in a conservation cemetery where the casket is in direct contact with the soil, the availability of moisture and organic bacteria create prime conditions for rapid decomposition of wooden caskets or urns, and shrouds made from natural fabric.  By contrast, the same wooden casket or urn "customarily disposed" in a sealed concrete vault in a cemetery will not degrade rapidly.  There are creative alternatives in a conventional cemetery that can accelerate decay, but in my experience, the family is more interested in environmental conservation than accelerated decay.  It might be time to shift the conversation.

What is better for the environment?  Biodegradability [of casketed human remains] is hardly relevant to the preservation of our natural habitat.  We professionals should take the opportunity to explore other topics far more relevant to “being green” in funeral planning.  Talking points such as carbon footprint, sustainability, toxicity, pollution, and local-sourcing are far more interesting than biodegradability.  Furthermore, these talking points are more easily aligned with an individual’s core values and can better aid families making decisions, especially when choosing between burial and cremation.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Greening Funeral Service with the Three R's

Reducing, reusing, and recycling have been touted by civic, private, and environmental organizations world-wide for the better part of three decades as a simple reminder that, over time, it is the choices we make every day can make a big difference in the environment.  Could there be opportunities to reduce, reuse, or even recycle in funeral service?  My first thoughts on this topic were along the lines of, "not so much" when it comes to funeral service products.  While it is certainly a good idea to apply the three R's in the funeral home office, break room, catering services, and restrooms, these are not the items we're all thinking about right now, are they?  I made a few calls in the last several months and I am, quite honestly, surprised and thoroughly fascinated at what I learned from some of you.

I'd never considered, not for one moment, the idea of recycling or reusing a casket or burial vault.  That is, not until I had the opportunity last October to speak with Charles "Buddy" Stiffler, 3rd generation funeral director at Stiffler Funeral & Cremation Service in Madison, Wisconsin. Buddy tells me of three baby-boomer couples in the last two years who have made prearrangements to share both casket and burial vault.  The couples were all acquaintances and conceived the idea together and then each couple made their own arrangements to share their burial plot, casket, and vaults with their spouse.  Two people, one cemetery plot, one casket, one vault, and one monument.  That is reducing, reusing, and recycling in funeral service!

I asked the obvious questions, of course.  Certainly the couples cannot coordinate the timing of their deaths.  "We exhume graves a couple times a year, but for investigative or relocation purposes," Buddy shares with me.  "It's not a stretch of the imagination to return the casket to our facility where we will carefully place the husband and wife together in perpetuity."  The second funeral service, of course, is a closed casket.  In fact, the casket won't be present as the condition of it is not predictable despite the decision by each couple to use a 16 gauge stainless steel casket in a sealed concrete vault.

Warming up to the idea, I wrote a few letters looking for more examples of the three R's in funeral service.  Could this be a new idea?  Maybe a trend?  After all, the thought of husband and wife sharing a final resting place together sounds nice.  Co-mingling human remans is not a new idea.  For many centuries in Europe, underground crypts and catacombs have served as the shared final resting places for human remains, "Shall we say unto the bones of our fathers, Arise, and go into another land?"  (For a fascinating story, look up the CNN documentary on the 200 miles of catacombs under Paris that serve as the final resting place for more than 6 million people.)

Next I heard from Theodore "Tidy" M. Balmer, a licensed funeral director in North Carolina.  Tidy shares that he's conducted one such service for a family that chose to reuse both casket and burial vault for an elderly gentleman who passed just two weeks after his wife was buried.  "I'd never considered opening a casket before, but we made it work for the family," said Tidy.  "They were rather petite individuals so there was plenty of room in the standard-sized casket for the couple to lay comfortably."  

"Oversized caskets are generally available as a suitable burial container for our growing [sic] population," says Cass Ketmacher at  Walters Casket Company in Indiana "but I didn't imagine fulfilling a request for an oversized casket suitable for two people!"  That's exactly what happened one day last summer when a Chicago widow buried her husband in an oversized casket. She didn't need the larger casket for him--he was an average size.  She made advanced arrangements for her own internment to share both casket and burial vault with her husband.

I also heard from several of crematory operators that, while not common, a number of families reuse the same urn for cremated remains for two members of the same family to co-mingle in one urn.  Samuel "Smokey" Chambers, assistant crematory operator at a crematorium in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, tells me over a cup of coffee, "If this trend gains momentum, there'll be a whole new market for larger oversized urns."  He continues with a smile, "I can imagine trading in your old urn for a larger one when the time arises and selling perfectly usable pre-occupied urns for a few dollars less than the new ones."  After a few more sips of coffee, we chuckled at the possibilities including an urn detailing service that could guarantee the previous occupant had thoroughly vacated the urn.

Examples of the three R's in funeral service is a timely topic for the first of April.  I trust you are warming up to new ideas as our long-awaited Spring brings milder temperatures.  If you have any examples of reducing, reusing, or recycling in funeral service, please comment here.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Green Funerals for The Minimalists

Could minimalism be the next influence in greener funerals?

At first glance, you might think you've heard about minimalism before. The phrase "Less is More" was the motto of German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886 to 1969).   Regarded as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture, Meis along with post WWI contemporaries including Frank Lloyd Wright, helped define a trend in design and architecture wherein their subjects were reduced to their necessary elements.  Post WWII America experienced a wave of minimalism, especially in the music and art of the 1960s and 1970s, reinforcing the appeal of pared down design elements.  London and New York witnessed another revival of minimalist architecture in the late 1980s where architects and fashion designers collaborated on boutiques to achieve simplicity using white elements, cold lighting, and large spaces with minimum objects and furniture.

There's another revival of minimalism in this new millennium.  As described by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus and their two million followers (theminimalists.com), Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives.  It is a matter of living a more meaningful life with less stuff.  While each one of us embraces minimalism differently, our paths lead to the same place:  a life with more time, more money, and more freedom to live a more meaningful life.

Before we apply minimalist thinking to greener funerals, let us explore more deeply some examples of minimalism and how it might affect our choices.  My journey into minimalism began last summer.  After reading a few articles on Joshua and Ryan's blog, I quickly realized that "the clutter" in my life was a liability.  Not only did these things fail to bring joy into my life, many of these things were actually the cause of anxiety in my life.  The clutter in my life included clothing that hadn't fit in years, unfinished projects, spare parts, leftover building materials, books, papers, furniture, and a plethora of other things I had acquired, inherited, or purchased.  As a family, we began paring down.  More than ten truck loads left our home destined for garage sales, friends & family, and Goodwill where these things went to good use.  Even my 1978 BMW motorcycle, in boxes of parts, near and dear to me more than fifteen years ago and yet untouched for as many years went to a new home freeing up both storage space and my conscience.  It felt great.
More than 10 truck loads of stuff left our home.

Minimalism isn't a matter of living more cheaply or making painful sacrifices.  If fact, let us illustrate with a pair of shoes.  A minimalist might choose to keep just one pair of shoes… instead of 14 pairs like so many of us probably have right now.  One very nice pair of lace-up wingtips made by Allen Edmonds might cost more than $300.  However, these fine shoes will work for almost any occasion casual or formal, will last several years (even if worn daily so long as they are cared for), and be truly comfortable to wear.  For the person who keeps 14 different pairs of shoes, wearing just one very nice carefully selected pair of shoes might bring more joy into his/her life.  We might actually spend less money on shoes overall if we choose a pair of shoes that we will enjoy more thoroughly and for longer.  If we're only buying one pair of shoes, we can afford to pay a premium price for a pair that meets all of our needs.

Minimalist thinking can be applied to all of the choices in our lives.  Are we making choices that add to the joy in our lives?  Or are we making choices that add to the clutter and anxiety in our lives?  To live a more meaningful life, it helps to clear the clutter from our life's path.  That path is different for each and every one of us.  While possessions are the easiest place to start clearing away the clutter, the same thinking can improve the quality of our lives when applied to our health, relationships, the company we keep, in our careers, and yes, even funerals. 

As funeral service professionals let's ask ourselves, are we minimalists?  Are we helping our families make meaningful choices in funeral service?  Do the choices we present our families and the guidance we give them truly bring more meaning into their lives?  Do we propose a feature, aspect, or element of funeral service because that's just what we do?  …or because this element will bring meaning to the family?  While every family embraces the end-of-life sacrament differently, as professionals in funeral service we can lead our families to the same place: a meaningful funeral service.

Could a minimalist funeral be a greener funeral?  That depends on the family, but I'll bet more often than not that a carefully planned and meaningful funeral is greener than the "standard package" funeral.  Like the wingtip shoes, I'll also bet that many families are willing to spend more on carefully selected elements that are truly meaningful.  Many funeral directors tell me about a trend wherein families are choosing to spend less money on a casket and monument, but significantly more money on food and refreshments for a celebration.  Perhaps these families are asking themselves if their choices are bringing more meaning into the funeral service.  If we help our families ask exactly that, we could not only bring more meaning into funeral service, but we might also notice that many of these "meaningful choices" are also greener.
Good choices can bring more meaning into the funeral service.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Green Hearse: Novel Idea or More Greenwashing?

In this column we've discussed almost every aspect of greening the funeral service including the casket, burial shroud, burial vault, cemetery, and the funeral home itself, but the green hearse is a new topic.  What effect might a hybrid, all-electric, or even human-powered bicycle have in making our way of death safer and healthier for all living things that remain?  Let us again keep in mind our five talking points on greening funeral service including biodegradability, sustainability, local-sourcing, toxicity, and carbon lifecycle assessment as we think about the eco-friendly funeral coach.

Last September, Golders Green-based (England) Leverton and Sons funeral home basked in world-wide news coverage for their eco-friendly hearse.  The all-electric Nissan Leaf converted to a funeral car earned the Green Funeral Director of the Year award for the family-owned funeral home.  The coach, which can drive 120 miles on a single electrical charge at a cost of about $5, was declared "star of the show" at the Good Funeral Awards in Bournemouth, England.

Japanese manufacturer, Lequios, first announced plans to build a Prius Hearse early in 2009.  In November of 2012, Lequios made the news again with their Prius Hearse and concept pictures, but the product was still in development.  Connecting Directors blogged the story and it went viral, but as of January, 2014, there's still no sign of the Prius Hearse leading funeral processions on our roadways.

In September of 2011 the U.K. based firm, Brahms Electric Vehicles, announced plans to build a hybrid electric funeral coach.  The prototype hearse, built from a Mercedes-Benz station wagon, adorned none of the typical paneling and hardware features of a hearse.  The company was searching for a partner to aid in outfitting the wagon with features of a hearse.  Opinion pieces on the prototype were less than enthusiastic.  Today, the web site appears defunct with broken links and no images. [3-July-2014 Update: Brahms continues in their mission with a Nissan Leaf platform and offers an electric hearse.]

In Reno, Nevada there's an entirely different approach to the electric hearse taking shape.  A 1973 Cadillac Hearse has been converted by EV enthusiast, William Brinsmead.  After four years and $22,000, the completely rebuilt funeral coach has driven more than 2000 miles.  Top speed is 60mph and the charging range is 60 miles.

The bicycle hearse is another approach to eco-friendly transport of human remains.  Sunset Hills Cemetery and Funeral Home made the news last May with their custom built bicycle hearse.  The sidecar cargo transport has electric assist for the pair of pedaling pallbearers. The whole package including a wicker casket costs $3500.  Director, Wade Lind, shares that five families have opted for the pedal power and there is a waiting list for the service.  There are a few other examples of custom-built bicycle hearses in both the US and the UK that have made the news in the last few years.

The few examples of electric and hybrid electric funeral coaches in the news in the last five years appear to be more media hype than rubber-meets-the-road change in funeral service.  The few proprietors enjoying media coverage appear to have reaped more reward from the media coverage than from the benefits of green funeral coaches.  Human-powered hearses make for a great story, but any funeral service requiring more than a few miles of service would be impractical.  That is, unless the family lined up to take turns pedaling.

What about our talking points?  Biodegradability is not relevant for a re-usable good like a funeral coach.  Electric and hybrid vehicles fall prey to scrutiny in sustainability, toxicity, and carbon life cycle assessment when considering the cradle-to-grave impact of building, using, and disposing a hybrid electric automobile.  Compare a Cadillac Hearse with a Toyota Prius assuming 10,000 miles annually.  The carbon footprint of the Prius would be 10,000 lbs. less than the Cadillac.  That's the same carbon impact as 5 steel caskets or 20 cremations.  This assumes the Prius hearse would get the same mileage as the standard model (which would not be the case), so the carbon savings might be only half our estimate.

Were it practical for wider adoption, the bicycle hearse would take the prize for eco-smart funeral transportation.  It appears the green funeral coach is more greenwashing than real impact.  It would be far better in all of our five talking points on greening the funeral service to move more families to locally-made natural burial caskets in lieu of steel.   We could also have a far greater impact by talking to families about the carbon impact and toxicity of cremation so those who value the environment might opt for a green[er] burial instead.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Could shrouded burials be the next trend in green funerals?

If we look at the last 10,000 years of human history the casketed cemetery burial is a rather contemporary practice.  Nearly every religion in both Western and Eastern worlds including Christianity, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhism, and Jewish--which together account for about 70% of the world population--have various death rituals that involve burial shrouds.  For the last several thousand years of human history, the majority of death rituals included some type of burial shroud.  Yet today the shrouded burial is almost unheard of in the Western World.  Very few people--less than 1%--have witnessed or otherwise participated in a shrouded funeral followed by either burial or cremation.

The world population surpassed 7 billion near the end of 2011.  There are more people living on the earth than ever before--and that also means there are more people dying than ever before.  More than 50 million people will die this year and most of them will not be entombed in steel or wooden caskets in concrete burial vaults as Westerners today would call a traditional burial.  Most of the deaths on this planet of ours will follow a cultural or religious death ritual that involves a burial shroud.

Only recently has the green and natural burial movement brought the burial shroud into conversations on death care in the Western world.  And at that, there appears to be more talk about burial shrouds than actual shrouded funerals.  Very few Westerners are planning shrouded funerals.  A quick survey of google search trends for "burial shroud" shows zero searches prior to 2010 and trace interest since 2011.  Searches for "natural burial shroud" or "green burial shroud" turn up zero searches.

In 2005 the acclaimed HBO series, Six Feet Under, enacted a shrouded burial for one of the lead characters.  The burial shroud used in the final episode was a secular creation by Esmerelda Kent.  An artist and environmentalist inspired by her practice in Buddhism, Esmerelda starting making green burial shrouds in 2004 and founded Kinkaraco.  Hand-made in California from biodegradable natural fibers like organic cotton, linen, and silk, Kinkaraco provides burial shrouds to funeral homes throughout the United States.

Could shrouds be the next trend for green and natural burial?  The Green Burial Council is an advocate of burial shrouds as are the many conservation cemeteries opening up around the U.S.  Kevin Corrado, natural burial facilitator at the Natural Path Sanctuary in Verona, Wisconsin expresses "that our preference is biodegradable fabric shrouds, but we do allow caskets and other containers."  Several funeral homes in close proximity to natural burial sites are adding green funeral packages but typically include a green casket made from biodegradable materials including wood, willow, and seagrass.  Those that offer a shroud are finding that very few families opt for a natural burial shroud when a green casket is available.
Organic Cotton Burial Shroud with Wooden Trundle by the Northwoods Casket Co.

There are a handful of online retailers who sell green burial shrouds to the public or via wholesale to funeral homes.  In addition to Kinkaraco, also founded in 2004 there is the Natural Burial Company founded by former organic grocer, Cynthia Beal, based in Eugene, Oregon.  Tennessee-based, Forlora offers burial shrouds made from dupioni silk or cotton inspired by the Baha'i faith but also offers secular shrouds since 2010.  Another online retailer, Village Memorial, offers a selection cotton burial shrouds.  Retail prices for burial shrouds tend to range from $250 for cotton and up to $500 or more for silk and intricate hand-made designs.

What families are opting for a natural burial shroud?  Dwight Cushman, founder of Village Memorial, has observed that families opting for a burial shroud are doing so out of a need to be more hands-on in the funeral ritual.  In the last few years there has been a transition by many shroud makers to move from their culturally or religiously inspired roots to make shrouds that are secular and more creatively expressive.  Artisans are adding their own personal touches utilizing reclaimed printed fabrics, natural dyes, scented oils, flower petals, and a variety of other creations.  Those opting for shrouds seek an alternative to the conventional funeral.

In the great scheme of things, Westerners make big changes quickly.  In 1950, 70% of caskets buried in the United States were made of wood.  By the late 1960s, steel replaced wood with 60% of the market.  Similarly, cremation trended from less than 4% in the 1960s to more than 40% by 2010.  Contemporary burial shrouds just might have the right blend of environmental consciousness, artistic expression, hands-on involvement, historic relevance, affordability, and a loose connection to a variety of religions faiths to appeal to the very diverse population that makes up the Western World today in order to become the next great shift in funeral practices in the United States.