Sustainability in Death Care: From Trend to Movement

Trends come and go without consequence.  Movements come and stay until they are no longer needed because the world has changed entirely.  Movements happen when a group of people work hard toward a change.  A movement with a humble beginning credited to the 1998 opening of Ramsey Creek Preserve in rural South Carolina has blossomed into a momentous change in modern burial practices.  One example includes the expansion of natural burial service offerings by one of the industry's largest cemetery and funeral service providers, StoneMor Partners, L.P. (STON).

Mark Harris, author of the 2007 award-winning book, Grave Matters, opined on his blog last month at how quickly America’s cemeteries have changed.  While there were very few modern green cemeteries in America prior to 1998, today there are hundreds of existing and new cemeteries embracing sustainable burial practices to varying degrees of “going green” from merely allowing families to forgo concrete burial vaults to prohibiting vaults, monuments, and embalming entirely.

Several national market surveys by leading research groups in the last three years have reported that most people would consider a natural burial.  In some regard, almost everyone values the environment when making choices in how they live from choosing what car they will drive to deciding what food they will eat.  When asked specifically, most people extend their environmental values in making end-of-life choices.  Making end-of-life choices consistent with one’s values is a matter of being informed when it comes to the environmental impact of cremation, embalming, caskets, vaults, and other choices in death care.

The natural burial movement has brought death care discussions to the dinner table.  When people ask good questions and share their values with one another, real change happens.  The independent film, “A Will for the Woods,” is the first feature-length documentary on the green burial movement.  The film has stirred attention and conversation around the world through a comprehensive campaign including a Kickstarter project, social media buzz, film festivals, and local screenings.  This movie is garnering the attention of Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers alike adding to the momentum of the green burial movement.

Many in the death care industry in the early 2000s contended that “green burial” would be a short-lived trend.  Some early adopters of greener funerals were subject to accusations of greenwashing from their contemporaries.  Today, we are witnessing a new era of Big Business on the Green bandwagon.  We are living in a time when a Mountain View, California Walmart store hosted the President of the United States for a press event highlighting the White House’s renewed push for solar energy.  Conservation, recycling, carbon emissions, toxicity, pollution, energy use, renewable energy… these are all part of big business initiatives to some degree in every trade or industry.  Death care is no exception.

I’m sort of done with Green.  It isn’t enough to declare one’s individual or company intentions as “good for the environment.”  The sustainability movement has made such declarations pointless and irrelevant.  Every company—even big companies—from Apple to Walmart are going green.  Even the nation’s largest trash removal company, Waste Management, has built an entire marketing campaign on going green.  I say that if we aim to convince somebody that they should consider our product or service because it is greener, we must be prepared to talk about exactly how we will contribute to creating a safer and healthier environment right now in the present and in the future.  We need to provide specific and measurable benefits of our products and services, or our families won’t pay attention.  While it is true that “being green” isn't easy, it is no longer a differentiator either.  Sorry, Kermit.
It's not easy being green.