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Emily Hartley, Forum Communications Co., Published September 14 2010

Eco-friendly funerals make their way to Midwest

Living green may mean looking to the future, but dying green has its roots in the past.

The idea of green, or natural, burials is gaining steam on the West Coast, and some local funeral homes believe it will catch on in the Midwest, too.

The concept takes cues from the simple burials of a century ago, as well as traditional Muslim and Orthodox Jewish burials. A true “natural burial” involves no embalming, burial vault or granite monument marking one’s grave and is often on a piece of land that’s set aside for conservation.

Only about a dozen states offer completely natural burial grounds (the closest is Wisconsin), but options still exist to make local services more eco-friendly, said Craig Olson, a funeral director at West Funeral Home in West Fargo.

“The way we would look at it, it’s more of a shade of green, where you pick and choose parts of what a green burial involves,” he said.

Services can be held outdoors to cut down electricity use, and companies now offer registry books made of recycled material. Caskets can also be made completely of wicker or wood, and quarried granite grave markers can be replaced with natural stones.

Olson, a member of a National Funeral Directors Association work group that began discussing green funerals last year, said only 1 or 2 percent of his clients ask for green funerals, largely because families already have an idea of what they want when they begin planning services and they’re unaware of the option.

“It’s very new and uncommon,” Olson said. “Occasionally, people will want to select a wood casket instead of a metal one because that is going to break down over time, but that’s not for everyone.”

Still, the baby boomer generation and younger people are expressing more interest, said Doug Houseman, the owner of Chapel Hill Funeral Home in Sioux Falls, S.D. Chapel Hill has done one fully green burial in the past three years, but it has pre-planned six to eight more.

Nationally, in a 2007 survey by AARP, 21 percent of respondents said they were interested or very interested in a more environmentally friendly burial.

A large obstacle for green burials is the burial vault, a sturdy outer container generally made of concrete or metal that holds the casket and helps with ground support. Most cemeteries, including all but the Islamic and Orthodox Jewish cemeteries in Fargo-Moorhead, require a vault.

In Sioux Falls, Houseman plans green burials at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, a hybrid cemetery, meaning it offers vault-free burials mixed in with traditional ones.

Vaultless burials “have been a stickler for most of the cemeteries because as time goes on, the body and the casket that it’s in is going to collapse, and that means the dirt on top eventually will sink,” said Terry Fraker, who works at Mount Pleasant.

Cemeteries will sometimes charge extra for the upkeep associated with sinking, but on the funeral home’s side, Houseman said the cost of a green service at Chapel Hill is about half that of a traditional one.

Fraker and Jim Boulger of Boulger Funeral Homes in Fargo both think green burials will catch on much like cremation, which, despite its scarcity 20 years ago, accounted for 35 percent of final dispositions in the U.S. in 2007.

These days, there’s a greener option available for cremation as well. It’s called alkaline hydrolysis, or resomation, and uses alkali, water and high temperatures to reduce the body to liquid and ash. Unlike cremation, the process releases no air pollution and is highly energy efficient.

It’s nearly brand new for humans in the U.S. and is used at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“I think 20 years from now, it’ll kind of be the main choice, as opposed to cremation,” said Steve Wright, owner of Wright Funeral Home in Moorhead.

As for green burials, Wright said the simplicity of the concept might draw people more than environmental concerns, and the “green” terminology is basically a new way of marketing an old practice.

Houseman agrees.

“Green burial isn’t technically anything new,” he said. “It’s just reverting back to the way things were done at the turn of the century.”

Local green funeral options