The Conversational Undertaker

Finding the meaning of "green" in green funeral inquiries

I've heard this story many times in the last few years as relayed to me by funeral directors.  A couple arrives to make funeral arrangements for an elderly family member in the final days of life or immediately after death.  Early in the conversation, a member of the family says something like, "Dad wants one of those Green Funerals... you know, like we heard on Public Radio."

As professionals in the death care industry, hearing a family ask about a Green Funeral is a good conversation starter.  In the whirlwind of news, sensational articles, books, television shows and Hollywood productions in the last several years, many people are interested enough to ask about a Green Funeral.  However, not every family knows fully what "green" can mean regarding a funeral.  The family's request could be motivated by any of several factors and warrants further conversation to understand the family's wishes.  The better we understand the reason for the family wanting to know more about green funeral options, the better we can serve them.

Often times the key motivator for inquiring about a green funeral is cost.  Many funeral directors have shared with me the family's directive, "Dad just wanted a simple pine box.  Simple and plain, nothing fancy."  Directives like this are sometimes a bit hostile and motivated by Mitford's writings on American funerals.   We've learned that after presenting an inexpensive "simple pine box" like our Phillips Simple Pine Casket, many families shy away from this option unless the deceased had made explicit arrangements beforehand with the funeral home or a family member.  In this early stage of grief, many families are not prepared to make as bold a statement as might be perceived by the family and community with just a plain pine box.  For this family, we can show a more conventional-looking wooden casket like our Pine Panel Casket that appeals to the family that is both price-conscious and eco-conscious.  Additionally, we can address their concerns for cost in other ways--planning a funeral to meet a budget is not new to the death care industry.  The lesson learned here is that there are a few families who will ask for a Green Funeral when they mean to be more informed about ways to manage cost.

For some families the foremost concern when inquiring about a green funeral is the environment.  Unlike the cost-conscious, this family is primarily concerned with minimizing the impact on the environment.  Until recently, the only perceived alternative to a conventional funeral has been cremation.  We now have alternatives to cremation that convert many families to a full service green funeral that may be much more appealing to the eco-conscious.  A good indicator that a family has already done their homework on green funerals is their openness and willingness to discuss detailed matters such as the cemetery, burial vaults, biodegradable
Handcrafted Pine Casket by Northwoods Casket Co.
caskets, and embalming alternatives.  Cost is typically not an issue when it comes to paying a premium for a burial site in a natural burial cemetery, a hand-crafted wooden casket, and the added cost for refrigerated storage and/or dry ice in lieu of embalming.  For the family most interested in avoiding environmental impact, it may be appealing to complement the funeral services with a memorial tree-planting or a donation to an organization that will plant trees as an off-set for the impact of the funeral.

For other families, the main concern when considering a green funeral is more personal.  A family that is well-informed about natural burial may seek a funeral that inters the remains of the deceased in a manner that does not prohibit decomposition and allows the body to return to the earth.  For some, this is a spiritual matter and they want to be in direct contact with the soil in order to return to the earth more naturally.  Depending on the cemetery requirements, there may be options to fore-go the concrete vault altogether or use a grave liner.  The family may ask about biodegradable caskets that do not contain precious metals or chemical finishes.  For these families it is important to recognize that "biodegradable" and "low environmental impact" are not the same.  (Recall from a previous installment of this column that a biodegradable natural burial casket shipped from Indonesia via ocean cargo and air-freighted across the US would have more than twice the environmental impact when measured with carbon life cycle analysis than a steel casket assembled in the US.)

We all have much to learn as the death care industry changes.  The more families are willing to get involved, make advanced arrangements, and ask questions about death care, the more opportunity we have as death care professionals to make a lasting impression.  For many of us, it is that lasting impression, and the loyalty earned with it, that keeps us engaged in our profession.  When we are prepared to talk about Green Funerals with those families that inquire about them, we can better serve their interests, varied as they may be.