Green Funerals are for the Living

A Simple Pine Box by the Northwoods Casket Co.
Dead people don't have choices.  They're dead.  Living people understand that dead people don't have feelings, don't care about money, have no interest in being comfortable, and do not care about the weather.  These are concerns for living people.  And yet, when living people make funeral decisions for the deceased many of these elements come to the forefront in the decision making process.

As death care professionals, we've seen it all.  While there are those moments we witness something we've never seen before, we are intimately familiar with the grieving family and their difficulty in making funeral choices.  Is this the casket Mom would have wanted?  Are these flowers too much, or not enough?  What will the rest of the family and her friends think?  Yeah, Dad wanted a cheap pine box, but is this too cheap? Will Grandma be comfortable?  We just cannot stand the thought of Grandpa's casket being submerged in water--maybe we better get the sealed concrete burial vault with a 5-year warranty.

When it comes to making smart choices in death care, we've noticed that living people make decisions very differently for themselves than they do for the deceased.  At the Northwoods Casket Co. we can attest that our funeral home partners sell very few Simple Pine Boxes to a family in an at-need funeral situation; yet in the same time our partners have sold more than 200 Simple Pine Boxes to living people making choices for their own funerals.  What does this mean?

Our industry is on the verge of change.  The decade beginning 2010 is one of significant social, economical, and political change.  The population itself is changing--aging baby-boomers are reaching their final stages of life, GenX-ers are becoming late parents or early grandparents, and a new generation raised on social media is entering the working class.  The "green" marketing fad is maturing into a movement built on an imperative for Environmental Sustainability.  Attitudes toward the environment, the economy, and entitlements are changing.  Today, there are volumes of information (and mis-information) available through multiple channels of media for the voter, consumer, or otherwise individual searching for an answer or the confidence to make an informed choice.

In death care, we see casketed burials shrinking by 2% annually despite a growing death rate giving way to cremation--the only alternative to a casketed cemetery burial in the last several decades.  At the same time, we see exponential growth in openings of new green cemeteries, and new "green" areas of existing municipal and private cemeteries.  In its third year of offering natural burial, River View Cemetery shares that nearly one-quarter of all burials at their cemetery in Portland, Oregon were natural burials in 2012.  There are more local casket builders today than there have been since the First World War.

Living people make choices, and the living people are choosing local and sustainable alternatives to Big Business.  This is as true in food with the rapidly growing population of local community supported agriculture producers (CSAs) as well as with the trend toward local breweries and distilleries (the ATF has awarded more distillery licenses in the last 5 years than in all the years since prohibition).  These are just two examples of many trends toward local, sustainable, and environmentally friendly practices that transcend ethnic, class, and geographic divides in our population.

Here's the rub for us death care professionals.  There's a growing trend in death care not unlike those in the food and beverage industry.  There have been more green funerals in the last 5 years than in the previous two decades.  There are hundreds of funeral homes, churches, and volunteer groups organizing in America to offer assistance with green funerals.  At the Northwoods Casket Co. we answer more than a dozen callers each week asking for help with local ordinances and state laws, casket & vault requirements, and the many other questions best answered by a licensed funeral director.  We refer every caller to their local funeral director.

As death care professionals, the opportunity is ours to embrace changing attitudes and reestablish ourselves as local partners committed to both environmental sustainability and helping our families make informed choices in death care.  We already recognize that funerals, like choices, are for the living.  The death care industry may shrink [in dollars] in the coming decade despite the long over-anticipated 25% growth in the death rate by baby-boomers, but as with all change those of us who embrace change will persevere.