Viewing the Film Dying Green and the Reflections of an Audience

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a community event entitled, Exploring Green Burial - Becoming The Tree, at the Goodman Community Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The 2012 documentary film, Dying Green, was the centerpiece of the evening presented by Walking Each Other Home, a Madison group dedicated to empowering families in caring for their own after death. The 27-minute film details the twenty-years-and-running story of Dr. Billy Campbell, his conservation cemetery at Ramsey Creek Preserve, and his vision to use natural burials as a means to conserve land. Rather than comment on the film, I’d like to share my observations of the audience and their reaction to the topic of natural burials.

Initially, the number of people that showed up to see a film on death and funerals impressed me. There were more than 200 people in attendance crowding the room. The film was followed by a panel of guest speakers including Kevin Corrado and Shedd Farley from Natural Path Sanctuary in Verona, Wisconsin joined by Selena Fox and Sharon Stuart representing Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wisconsin. By a show of hands more than 80% of the audience was aged 60 or older. [Insert your favorite comment about baby-boomers here.]

I was surprised, at least initially, that there were no funeral directors present or invited to the panel.  While the presentation was hosted by a group of individuals intent on becoming a resource for families interested in “home funerals” I was disappointed there wasn’t a licensed funeral director in attendance to field many of the questions. The audience asked the same questions many of us in funeral service have entertained concerning the laws and regulations regarding burial vaults, caskets, and embalming. To the credit of the cemeterians on the panel, they were careful not to elaborate on matters of the law concerning the disposition of human remains in Wisconsin.

What impressed me most were the comments from the audience exposing their motivations and genuine intentions in planning natural burials. I’ve read many of these statistics and observations before, but experiencing these tones firsthand in a room full of people eager to  talk about their own death was new to me. Neither religion nor family tradition was relevant in making end-of-life choices in this audience. And while cost was of interest, paying less than a typical funeral was not a concern.  This audience wasn’t necessarily looking for ways to save money.  They were, however, looking for ways to save the environment. In fact, there was no hesitation from the audience at the $3000 cost of a burial at the Natural Path Sanctuary. In fact, some even applauded the notion that a $2500 donation to the sanctuary would be used for land conservation practices at the preserve.

For more than 45 minutes the audience quizzed the panel of cemeterians with an underlying tone, aside from concern for the environment, in their queries. “Can I transport my mother’s dead body from hospice to the cemetery in my own car?” asked one member of the audience while another quipped, “Why can’t my family do my funeral?” to which the panel answered, “Yes.” Many in the audience were surprised to learn that, in Wisconsin like many states, a member of immediate family may act as the funeral director without the services of a licensed professional.

This audience, like baby boomers across the land, want alternatives. Above all else, they want an end-of-life plan that is smart for the planet. They will opt for sustainability over tradition and may very well be willing to spend a few extra dollars to have it their way. They want alternatives to embalming. They want to be laid out at home for visitation. And the general sentiment is they can’t have it their way at a funeral home. They are frustrated that funeral service isn’t offering such alternatives.

Now we might find solace in thinking this was just one event, in one small Midwestern town, with an audience of 200 anti-estabishment folks. Let’s have a look at some real data. See the enclosed figure for the trend in people researching “home funeral” since 2004 when Google started collecting this data.  This chart is a comparative analysis showing not the total number of searches, but the comparison of searches for different topics. I added a controversial term, “obamacare” to set the bar.  The highest point in the chart sets the bar at 100—for Obamacare this was October of 2013 when open enrollment began.  This bar represents the research by more than 10 million people considering enrollment.

 Figure 1 - Interest in home funerals has grown more than 4X in the last decade.

Figure 1 - Interest in home funerals has grown more than 4X in the last decade.

Notice that search interest in the terms cremation, natural burial, and green burial are minuscule in comparison to “home funerals” and Obamacare. Not only is “home funeral” researched 50 times more frequently than cremation, but with a stunning upward trend in the last ten years. People researching home funerals has increased more than four times in the last decade and is far greater than those researching cremation. Regarding green/natural burial, there is no comparison to measure—these terms measure 0 on the whole chart in comparison to home funerals. (One last observation… all the spikes on the trend line for home funeral occur in January.)

I love big data. My career with IBM has taught me a lot about data. I can explore and analyze this chart of Google search trends. The real wake-up call for me was being in a room of 200 people making their cases for planning a home funeral. Not because they want to take the director out of their funerals, but because they want alternatives. Their key motivator for wanting alternatives?  The environment. Not religion. Not tradition. Not even personalization. The environment.