Green Day - What are People Saying About Sustainability in Death Care?

We were invited to the Isthmus Green Day in Madison, Wisconsin last month to exhibit our sustainable and environmentally friendly caskets.  The Isthmus Green Day is a one-day "sustainability celebration" and expo organized by the Isthmus Newspaper.    What would people think?  Would people be interested in talking about death care at a sustainable living celebration?  What types of questions would we be asked?  We didn't know what to expect but made arrangements for a double-booth to fit four different casket models and four staff.  To our surprise, our caskets were the talk of the show and for more than eight hours starting at 9:00AM that Saturday, the four of us barely had a moment to catch our breath.  An estimated 3000 people attended the expo and we handed out more than 750 brochures.  Here's what people are saying (and asking) about sustainability in death care.
Exhibiting at Green Day, April 2013

Let's talk about cremation.  It isn't often I find myself in a setting where people are openly and genuinely interested in talking about the merits of cremation from an environmental conservation point of view.  After my third conversation, I kept tally marks on a card in my pocket.  By the end of the day just more than 20 individuals or couples had thanked me for speaking with them and affirmed they would be changing their plans from cremation to some type of green or natural burial.  Three key topics emerged in our conversations when comparing cremation and burial in order of interest (1) carbon impact, (2) toxicity and pollution, and (3) land use.  On carbon impact, some people were not at all surprised after considering for a moment the carbon impact of a cremation--a fossil-fueled fire reaching 1800 degrees F for 2-3 hours--ranges from 300 to 600 lbs of CO2.  Compared to the carbon footprint of a conventional steel casket at roughly 2000 lbs of CO2, cremation is a better choice.  However, compared to a sustainable "green" casket at 50 to 150 lbs. of CO2, the environmentally friendly casket is clearly a better choice.  While carbon impact was of significance to most of our audience, some were most moved by thoughts of toxic pollution.  Depending on the study you trust, cremation accounts for 10% to 30% of global Mercury contamination of our environment.  People who care about pollution very quickly agreed to reconsider a natural burial.  A select few individuals were primarily considering land use in their funeral plans based on previous awareness of new conservation cemeteries opening up on the area including Natural Path Sanctuary in Verona, WI.

Let's talk about caskets.  We had four caskets illustrating a range of materials, pricing, and finishes.  To our surprise, the simple, rectangular and boxy "Simple Pine Box" stole the show!  Our experience with Green Day attendees is consistent with our funeral home partners.  While living people choose a simple pine box for themselves, they will not choose the same simple pine box for a loved one who did not previously express their wishes for a simple casket.  There was some curious interest in our Orthodox caskets that contain no metal nails, screws, or hinges, but most attendees had no issue being buried with a handful of fasteners and some metal hinges.  We learned that toxicity and our choices in wood finishes were very important for this audience.  Caskets with finishes free of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) were preferred over those with even low VOCs.  As for interiors, our audience expressed interest in biodegradable natural fiber interiors.  People genuinely recognized that while they could easily imagine selecting a very simple interior for themselves, many recalled a recent funeral experience where they would have had difficulty making the same decision for a loved one.

Let's talk about funeral homes.  There was no confusion whatsoever when people asked about price and we explained prices were set by funeral homes and that we distributed our caskets through funeral homes exclusively.  It was not a leap to recognize us as a casket manufacturer and not a casket retailer--not unlike the Toyota exhibit 15 feet from ours.  We offered ballpark price ranges that funeral homes might charge and that satisfied their questions when comparing the different models.  We shared contact information and literature for our funeral home partners in the Madison area.  We also found it encouraging the number of people who had already made or were making their funeral arrangements in advance.  It seems clear to me that for individuals who care about the environment, they do not want to leave their funeral choices up to their survivors--advance planning was a priority.  Several individuals commented how they wished their funeral director had more information on sustainability, environmental impact, and toxicity of their choices including cremation, embalming, concrete vaults, and casket options.

Overall, I would say our participation in Green Day was a success and full of pleasant surprises.  People are genuinely interested in talking about sustainability in death care at an event like this.  I would encourage others vendors in the death care industry to seize the opportunity to participate in local "sustainable living" events.  People were more interested than even I would have expected before attending Isthmus Green Day.