Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Greening Funeral Service with the Three R's

Reducing, reusing, and recycling have been touted by civic, private, and environmental organizations world-wide for the better part of three decades as a simple reminder that, over time, it is the choices we make every day can make a big difference in the environment.  Could there be opportunities to reduce, reuse, or even recycle in funeral service?  My first thoughts on this topic were along the lines of, "not so much" when it comes to funeral service products.  While it is certainly a good idea to apply the three R's in the funeral home office, break room, catering services, and restrooms, these are not the items we're all thinking about right now, are they?  I made a few calls in the last several months and I am, quite honestly, surprised and thoroughly fascinated at what I learned from some of you.

I'd never considered, not for one moment, the idea of recycling or reusing a casket or burial vault.  That is, not until I had the opportunity last October to speak with Charles "Buddy" Stiffler, 3rd generation funeral director at Stiffler Funeral & Cremation Service in Madison, Wisconsin. Buddy tells me of three baby-boomer couples in the last two years who have made prearrangements to share both casket and burial vault.  The couples were all acquaintances and conceived the idea together and then each couple made their own arrangements to share their burial plot, casket, and vaults with their spouse.  Two people, one cemetery plot, one casket, one vault, and one monument.  That is reducing, reusing, and recycling in funeral service!

I asked the obvious questions, of course.  Certainly the couples cannot coordinate the timing of their deaths.  "We exhume graves a couple times a year, but for investigative or relocation purposes," Buddy shares with me.  "It's not a stretch of the imagination to return the casket to our facility where we will carefully place the husband and wife together in perpetuity."  The second funeral service, of course, is a closed casket.  In fact, the casket won't be present as the condition of it is not predictable despite the decision by each couple to use a 16 gauge stainless steel casket in a sealed concrete vault.

Warming up to the idea, I wrote a few letters looking for more examples of the three R's in funeral service.  Could this be a new idea?  Maybe a trend?  After all, the thought of husband and wife sharing a final resting place together sounds nice.  Co-mingling human remans is not a new idea.  For many centuries in Europe, underground crypts and catacombs have served as the shared final resting places for human remains, "Shall we say unto the bones of our fathers, Arise, and go into another land?"  (For a fascinating story, look up the CNN documentary on the 200 miles of catacombs under Paris that serve as the final resting place for more than 6 million people.)

Next I heard from Theodore "Tidy" M. Balmer, a licensed funeral director in North Carolina.  Tidy shares that he's conducted one such service for a family that chose to reuse both casket and burial vault for an elderly gentleman who passed just two weeks after his wife was buried.  "I'd never considered opening a casket before, but we made it work for the family," said Tidy.  "They were rather petite individuals so there was plenty of room in the standard-sized casket for the couple to lay comfortably."  

"Oversized caskets are generally available as a suitable burial container for our growing [sic] population," says Cass Ketmacher at  Walters Casket Company in Indiana "but I didn't imagine fulfilling a request for an oversized casket suitable for two people!"  That's exactly what happened one day last summer when a Chicago widow buried her husband in an oversized casket. She didn't need the larger casket for him--he was an average size.  She made advanced arrangements for her own internment to share both casket and burial vault with her husband.

I also heard from several of crematory operators that, while not common, a number of families reuse the same urn for cremated remains for two members of the same family to co-mingle in one urn.  Samuel "Smokey" Chambers, assistant crematory operator at a crematorium in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, tells me over a cup of coffee, "If this trend gains momentum, there'll be a whole new market for larger oversized urns."  He continues with a smile, "I can imagine trading in your old urn for a larger one when the time arises and selling perfectly usable pre-occupied urns for a few dollars less than the new ones."  After a few more sips of coffee, we chuckled at the possibilities including an urn detailing service that could guarantee the previous occupant had thoroughly vacated the urn.

Examples of the three R's in funeral service is a timely topic for the first of April.  I trust you are warming up to new ideas as our long-awaited Spring brings milder temperatures.  If you have any examples of reducing, reusing, or recycling in funeral service, please comment here.