Environmental Attitudes

Do environmental attitudes in death care affect end-of-life choices?

A guest on Wisconsin Public Radio recently caught my attention talking about attitudes and the environment.  Thomas Heberlein, a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has spent the last 40 years studying the affects of attitudes on people's actions when it comes to environmental issues.  Inspired by the talk, I checked out Heberlein's book "Navigating Environmental Attitudes" with consideration for people's choices in death care regarding environmental issues.  The premise of navigating attitudes compares marketing and messaging regarding environmental attitudes to rafting a river.  We don't set out on a river rafting trip with tons of dynamite so that we can move boulders and alter the riverscape.  Like boulders among the rapids, attitudes are difficult to move and it is far easier (and less expensive) to understand and navigate attitudes than it is to alter them. 

Heberlein goes into great academic detail on the characteristics of attitude and how to measure attitudes of a population.  Interestingly, while attitudes are a real and observable influence in behavior, an attitude cannot be held, it has no mass, color, temperature, or other characteristics we generally associate with scientific measurement.  Generally speaking, however, an attitude can be observed when an individual likes/dislikes an object or agrees/disagrees with an idea.  When observing attitudes, there is always an object.  That object can be an idea (environmental conservation), movement (racial equality), or a physical thing (bees).

Like environmental attitudes, death care attitudes can be observed as having both cognitive as well as emotional characteristics.  The cognitive aspect of public attitude can be influenced with information (facts or purported facts) logic, and reason.   The emotional aspect of public attitude is influenced by individual experience and is harder to change.  Public attitudes can also be modeled both horizontally and vertically.  The horizontal dimension represents the number of cognitive supporting elements of an attitude.  The wider the horizontal axis (i.e. more supporting elements) the more stable the attitude is.  The vertical dimension represents the emotional experience and core values from which the cognitive assessment is derived.  Supporting elements of attitude deeply rooted in an individual's core values and personal experience are difficult to change.  Let us use this model to observe environmental attitudes and cremation.

[I preface this model with the disclaimer that these are not my personal opinions (or my personal attitude) but observations from reading countless articles on the topic and in speaking with 100s of death care professionals and families.]  To illustrate on the horizontal axis, let's review four elements of public attitude (there are others) for choosing cremation as an alternative to a cemetery burial.  Cremation is less expensive.  Cremation does not occupy valuable land space.  Cremation does not require embalming, casket, or a cemetery monument.  Cremation was the choice of someone close to me [spouse, parent, grand-parent, etc.].  Each of these four elements is supported by an individual's values and experience.

In this example, we observe that this individual values money and has information or experience leading to the conclusion that cremation is less costly than a cemetery burial.  This person values environmental conservation and land use.  From the statement about embalming we might observe that this person has an emotional experience regarding embalming and also wishes to avoid unnecessary spending on a casket and monument.  Lastly, the emotional connection to other members of family is a key factor in attitude.  People find comfort following their family when it comes to making end-of-life choices.

We can assess that this individual's attitude, based on four cognitive elements each deeply rooted in both information (cognitive) and experience (emotion), is fairly stable.  Moving just one of these elements (i.e. if cremation was suddenly more expensive) is not likely to change this individual's attitude.  On the other hand, people's attitudes generally shift and change over time.  This can be observed with maturity as values change over the course of a lifetime.  In this example, an individual may discover a conservation cemetery that actually preserves land for environmental conservation and learn that a direct burial can be achieved without use of embalming, casket, or monument.  This might be enough new information to change one individual's attitude toward cremation.  Yet another individual, even with 3 of the 4 horizontal elements of attitude removed, may have a deeply rooted value (i.e. being cremated and interred next to a spouse) that upholds the individual's attitude toward cremation as an end-of-life choice. 

It might seem as though navigating attitudes in death care is a hopeless exercise that will have us running in circles.  We must recognize that two individuals with seemingly similar life experiences based on the same information and core values can have opposing attitudes on the same subject.  Take for example attitudes on a contemporary environmental topic such as proposed legislation banning chemicals found to kill bees.  Take notice that two individuals sitting in a barber shop in your local community can read the same newspaper article, share similar core values, and even vote the same politically, but have opposing attitudes on bees.  We see the same in death care on a number of detailed subjects including embalming, metal vs. wood caskets, how comfortable a casket interior looks & feels, land use and cemeteries, etc.

I try to bring each of these columns to a close with a call to action.  I offer this shallow glimpse into the well-established science of sociology and environmental attitudes to help us better understand our families' choices in end-of-life care.  First, we must recognize that attitudes change slowly.  During pre-planning we have time to ask questions to better understand the core values of an individual planning a funeral and offer new information and alternatives that may lead an individual to better decisions--decisions more in line with their core values.  But even after offering what might be entirely new information, it takes time for the cognitive process to influence a change in attitude.  This might happen over a few days, months, or even years but it certainly won't happen during that one hour session. 

Second, by listening to our families and observing their core values, we not only put ourselves in a better position to provide a valued service, we build trust with our families.  Human psychology (and sales training) tell us that good listening and comprehension skills achieve a mutual understanding of an individual's values and lead to trust in lasting personal relationships.  People very much like to be understood.  As for offering information, transparency is key.  Separate your personal attitudes from factual information.  It is helpful to offer a recommendation based on your own attitude, but be forthcoming that your recommendation is based on your own personal experience and core values.  For example, "I value the environment as did my Mother, so when we buried her we decided to..." is an honest statement that discloses both your values and your own experience.  Offering factual information comes more naturally, "The nearest conservation cemetery is 200 miles away.  The plot and mileage expense would amount to about $xxxx.  However, this rural cemetery just 6 miles outside of the city allows direct burial in a simple wooden casket without a burial vault and would save the time, expense, and environmental impact of the mileage."  Even at the difficult time of need, offering both the richness of your experience and depth of your knowledge can help a family feel better about their choices--and build ever-lasting trust in personal relationships.  This is was separates the practitioners from the professionals.