Green Cemetery Trends In America

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

Green Cemetery Trends in America
What's really happening with America's green cemeteries?

Since 2009 the death care industry in America has been witness to a flurry of activity on green burial.  National news stories follow a formula often leading with a cliche regarding death, burial, and getting back to nature followed by an explanation of green (or natural) burial.  These news articles typically quote Joe Sehee from the Green Burial Council or James Olson from the NFDA and then cite statistics on the volumes of hardwoods, steel, and concrete buried each year in America's cemeteries.  Many of these articles include a quote from Grave Matters, by Mark Harris.  Every news story uses statistics to demonstrate growing public interest in green burial including the 2007 AARP pole indicating 21% of respondents were curious about or considering green burial and the 2008 Kates-Boylston survey finding 43% of respondents would consider a green burial.

A quick analysis of Google search trends on keywords like "green cemetery" shows significant growth in searches since 2009.  With almost no searches prior to 2008, we see growing interest in the United Kingdom in 2009 and 2010.  However, the United States search trend shows almost no search activity until 2011 and then significant upswing to nearly 10 times average search volume in 2011.  

Over the last three years I have observed that approximately one-third of all news stories on green cemeteries and green burial are special interest pieces by national news outlets. The majority of news stories on green burial originate from local TV and newspaper media announcing the planning of, or opening of, a green cemetery or a recent green burial at a local cemetery.  Many dozens of existing municipal, religious, and private cemeteries have opened new sections of property dedicated to varying "shades of green" burial services.  There is also the rapidly growing number of new cemeteries entirely committed to green burial.

The Green Burial Council (GBC) describes three tiers of green to include burial grounds that are Hybrid, Natural, or Conservation.  A fourth, and perhaps lightest shade of green may include the Traditional cemetery without strict vault or casket requirements.  One example is the municipal cemetery in my hometown of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.  John Neumann, caretaker, explains the city has no strict requirements on the use of a burial vault or containers so a green burial would be accepted.  The GBC uses many criteria to certify a green cemetery including the cemetery's policies on burial vaults, caskets or shrouds, embalming, use of chemicals in lawn care, grave opening/closing techniques, and land status.  Land status must guarantee adherence to green practices through deed restriction, conservation easement, or other irrevocable legally binding agreement in perpetuity.  Conservation burial grounds are those that can demonstrate a legally binding responsibility for perpetual stewardship of the land.  There are only a few green cemeteries in the U.S. that have achieved the highest rating of a conservation burial ground as defined by the GBC.

There isn't a lot of data on the adoption of green burial in America.  I can, however, share several anecdotes and observations from green cemeteries that help tell the story of adoption of green burial in America.  The Friends South Western Burial Ground established in 1861 borders West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  This cemetery, home to roughly 4000 grave sites, is the final resting place for Quakers (and others) seeking a simple "environmentally aware" burial.  Graham Garner, warden/manager of the 17 acre site tells us that while they have not actively promoted green burials, they have had five such burial requests already--a significant number because sometimes a year will go by with no burials.  Two families used simple caskets made from particle board, and three used cloth burial shrouds.  Graham explains they do not have vault or casket requirements, but they do have some restrictions on headstones.

A very new burial ground by contrast is the Natural Path Sanctuary that opened June, 2011 in Verona, Wisconsin.  Kevin Corrado, coordinator for the sanctuary, explains that while they prefer shrouded burials they will accept caskets made from "unfinished non-precious woods" and free of non-biodegradable materials.  Conventional practices including burial vaults, embalming, and grave markers are not allowed  All graves in the wooded sanctuary are dug and closed by hand.  There have been four burials since August of last year including one infant and one placement of cremated remains.  Earlier last month a family dug a grave for a family member who is terminally ill.

In March, the Catholic Sentinel reported that Mount Calvary in Portland, Oregon is the second Catholic cemetery in the nation to offer a dedicated area of the cemetery for green burial.  Tim Corbett, superintendent of Catholic cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Portland, explains that he first started hearing about green burial five years ago.  He views this movement as a way for people to leave a natural legacy adding that if everyone opted for a green burial, he'd have 500 acres of endowed forest.

I've spoken with more than a dozen green cemeteries that have opened since 2008 and have had more green burials in the last year than in the three years prior to 2011.  The Green Burial Council (greenburialcouncil.org) and the Centre for Natural Burial (http://naturalburial.coop/) each list about 30 green burial sites in the U.S.  If we include all of the family-owned, municipal, and church operated cemeteries that allow green burial options there may already be more than 200 cemeteries in the U.S. where people can opt for a greener burial.  Trend or fad, I'm optimistic that awareness on green burial is growing, more options are becoming available, and that our industry is changing for the better when it comes to protecting our natural habitat.