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Funerals undergoing an eco-friendly makeover

The green burial business has gotten bigger — there are close to 300 funeral homes in 40 states offering green services in 2011 — and noticeably more eccentric.
Image: Jeff Edwards
Jeff Edwards stands next to an alkaline hydrolysis device that uses lye and heat to dissolve a body as an alternative to burial or cremation. Proponents say it’s more environmentally friendly than traditional cremation, but skeptics question the safety and social implications of sending someone’s remains down the drain.Edwards Funeral Home
/ Source: Business Week

Jeff Edwards, owner of Edwards Funeral Service in Columbus, Ohio, wants to make one thing clear: He isn’t flushing your grandmother down the toilet.

That, he says, is the biggest misconception about alkaline hydrolysis, a green alternative to cremation that involves liquefying human remains with potassium hydroxide and 300-degree heat. The environmental benefits of hydrolysis are hard to argue with: The process results in only a fraction of the carbon emissions of a traditional cremation.

But when Edwards began offering the service last January — he says he’s the first funeral home in the U.S. to do so — the media “distorted the facts,” alleging that the liquid created by hydrolysis (only the bone residue is saved for an urn) gets flushed. “I mean, for all intents and purposes, the liquid remains are released back into the water treatment facility,” Edwards concedes. “So yeah, that does mean they go down the drain. But it doesn’t mean somebody is standing behind a machine with a great big … commode, and you’re flushing grandma down the drain.”

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After Edwards used hydrolysis on just 19 bodies, the Health Dept. of Ohio intervened, announcing in March that it would no longer accept death certificates from or issue burial transit permits to any funeral home using hydrolysis, essentially making the procedure illegal in Ohio. Edwards sued the state, and he’ll have his day in court in February, which he’s confident he’ll win. Alkaline hydrolysis is already legal in seven states, he says, and the numbers are expected to rise. “The funeral business is changing,” he says. “Green is the future. It’s better for the world, and families are demanding it.”

Cemeteries and funeral homes across the country have been offering eco-friendly death care, from biodegradable caskets to formaldehyde-free body preparation, for much of the past decade. But in recent years the green burial business has gotten bigger — there are close to 300 funeral homes in 40 states offering green services in 2011, as opposed to roughly a dozen in 2008 — and noticeably more eccentric.

Just a few years ago a green funeral might have meant a pine or wicker coffin made without toxic materials. Today it could mean burying the dearly departed in an acorn-shaped urn made of recycled paper, erecting a tombstone with a solar-powered Serenity Panel that plays the deceased’s favorite songs and videos, or casting out to sea a “reef ball” made of cement mixed with cremated ashes — your loved one’s and others’.

“The funeral industry hasn’t had a new idea since the 1870s,” says Joe Sehee, the executive director of the New Mexico-based Green Burial Council. “We’re still burying people like they buried Abraham Lincoln.” While he admits that green burials are a small part of the $12 billion funeral industry — exact numbers have yet to be documented — he believes they’re poised to become a dominant force. “This is not a fringe market,” he says. “There is an end-of-life revolution at hand.”

For it to succeed, the eco-friendly funeral movement has to convince not only the public that green burials are best, but also the funeral industry.

Thus far, the public has been more receptive. In a 2008 survey conducted by funeral industry publishers Kates-Boylston Publications, 43 percent of respondents said they would consider a green burial. That’s a big increase from a similar survey done in 2007 by AARP, in which 21 percent of those polled were curious about green burials. One explanation for this rise in interest could be the price tag.

According to the National Funeral Directors Assn., the average cost of a funeral is around $6,560 — and that doesn’t include a cemetery plot, tombstone, and miscellaneous items such as flowers and hearses. “Going green can be half to two-thirds the price [of a conventional burial],” says Sehee. And there are numerous ways to cut corners and save money. At the Honey Creek Woodland Cemetery, a green grave site in Conyers, Ga., future customers can save $500 if they’re willing to dig their own graves (or if the bereaved are willing to do it for them).

But the savings isn’t always the selling point. “When I ask [clients] why they’ve come to us, the answer always comes back: They don’t like cemeteries,” says Jack Lowe, president and founder of EcoEternity, an East Coast green memorial service offering forests instead of graveyards and existing trees instead of tombstones. “Cemeteries remind them of death. These forests are beautiful, and they remind [the families] of life. It’s only when we’re writing up all the contracts that they go, ‘Hey, these costs are really great!’ ”

Also, green funerals are just more fun. Nature’s Caskets in Longmont, Colo., offers a do-it-yourself, biodegradable pine coffin kit for the industrious preplanner. And for an extra $100, your coffin can come with shelves, so you can use it as a bookcase while you wait for the end. “It’s a fun idea,” says Luc Nadeau, who launched Nature’s Caskets in 2009. “It’s like facing your mortality every day. And it looks quite nice.”

For those looking for something more outrageous — say, a casket decorated like a casino slot machine or a bottle of Smirnoff vodka — there’s Creative Coffins, operating from the British island of Guernsey. According to the company’s website, “each coffin is constructed from 60 percent recycled paper plus wood pulp sourced from sustainable forests.” June Ozanne, the director of sales at Creative Coffins, says the business has been steadily increasing since the company sold its first coffin in 2008, despite being in a industry that “won’t be receiving repeat business from our customers.” Although some designs are of questionable taste — the casket adorned with the Grand Theft Auto video game logo, for instance — Ozanne believes Creative Coffins’ products bring a fresh perspective to a grim rite of passage.

The old guard of the funeral industry remains the biggest hurdle for green burials. Some undertakers are wary of eco-friendly funerals for aesthetic reasons — “People don’t die pretty,” says Timothy Collison, of Dodge Co., a manufacturer of embalming products in Grand Rapids, Mich. — but more often, detractors cite health concerns.

In 2008 a proposed green burial site in eastern Macon, Ga., called Summerland Natural Cemetery was blocked when the county board of commissioners voted on a new ordinance that banned green cemeteries. It read, in part, “All human remains shall be buried in a leak-proof casket or vault to protect against contamination of groundwater, wells and aquifers.” Most experts agree that these fears are unfounded.

Jeff Edwards says his legal battle over alkaline hydrolysis isn’t really with the Ohio government. “The Department of Health buckled to the intimidation or threats of some of my local competitors in the funeral business,” he says. “This isn’t about the value of hydrolysis. This is about the fact that I was the only one doing it, and some of my competitors had an issue with that. Because if their families start wanting this, then they’ll lose that business to me.” (Representatives of the Ohio Health Dept. declined to comment as the case is still in litigation.)

The Green Burial Council’s Sehee believes dying baby boomers, with their interest in environmentalism and individualism, will push eco-friendly burials into the mainstream. He predicts the generation will spur nothing less than a “paradigm shift” in the industry. “We’re just glad to have a head start,” he says. “It gives us the chance to work out wrinkles.”