green burial

Natural Burial and The Law: Are there Legal Matters Regarding Natural Burial?

Every day more and more people ask us great questions regarding sustainability in death care and natural burial. Specifically, many people want to know if there are laws that prohibit some of the choices in death care for a more natural return to the earth. The growing interest in green burials and natural burials is encouraging.

Down to Earth: BD man offers ‘green choice’ for burial

Northwoods Casket made the front page of the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen today (November 14, 2011).  I spent an hour with Assistant Editor, Ken Thomas, last week for a nice chat at Blackwaters Coffee House.

.  Here is the article contributed by Ken Thomas.  

Jonas Zahn is shown with a Northwoods Casket.
When it comes to the end of life, many are getting back to basics.
Part of the latest groundswell in funeral planning is replacing the fancy steel and bronze confection that served as a casket with a simple pine box. A Beaver Dam manufacturer has taken that box one step further, and is making it “green” in every sense of the word. Northwoods Casket Company not only uses materials that would be classified as waste, but promises to plant 100 trees for every casket built.
Read the rest of this article at Beaver Dam Daily Citizen.

Wabi-sabi and the pursuit of perfect

The pursuit of perfection.
Perfection and the pursuit of making things complete, balanced, and everlasting is quite natural.  I often find myself holding back until something is completely finished to my liking (such as publishing this blog).  I like structured outlines and have an innate appreciation for symmetry both visually and conceptually.  To some degree, there are also certain things I wish to remain the same indefinitely (like where the milk goes in the refrigerator or the way I pack my suitcase for a business trip).  This is how we create order in the chaos that is nature and life.

Embrace the imperfect.
Beauty lies in uniqueness and intimacy.
There is another way, another aesthetic, a different manner in thinking to appreciate the very natural way in which things are never finished, are never symmetric, and are forever changing.  Wabi-sabi has given me a new perspective when it comes to measuring the quality of our caskets.  While funeral directors and families value quality craftsmanship, structural integrity, and sustainable production practices, this does not mean we cannot appreciate the imperfections in the natural objects from which Northwoods caskets are made.  These imperfections do not take away from the quality of the product as determined by its usefulness.  We embrace the imperfections, the asymmetry, and the irregularities of the natural materials that give our caskets a natural beauty where each casket possesses a uniqueness and intimacy.

What is wabi-sabi?
Simplicity, economy, modesty, and intimacy.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese world view derived from Buddhist teaching of beauty that comes from the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.  "Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes."[1]   "[Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."[2]  Wabi-sabi has made a foray into Western thinking on art, architecture, home design, gardening, and green living. After listening to a broadcast of Here On Earth last June, The Wabi-Sabi Way, with guest author/editor, Robyn Griggs Lawrence, I recognized wabi-sabi in the feedback from funeral directors and families commenting on our work at the Northwoods Casket Company.

Imperfect adds character.
Color, knots, and holes add unique character.
At the Northwoods Casket Company, we share this view when it comes to manufacturing our simple pine caskets.  While we take great care to manufacturer our products with the highest standard in quality when it comes to craftsmanship and construction, we take pride in our forgiveness of the natural elements from which our green caskets are made.  We do not discard pine boards for non-structural "imperfections" like color, unshapely knots, or knotholes.  We regard these imperfections as character making each casket unique.  For those boards with unnatural blemishes incurred by the trucks and machines handling the wood from forest to our shop, we make use of them in the floorboards exposing the unsightly only on the underside of the casket.  None of these practices impacts the structural integrity of the casket during its useful life. 

Is this dishonest practice?
Every casket exceeds structural requirements.
Actually, we believe quite the opposite.  Each casket is as beautiful and unique as it is functional.  Every casket exceeds the functional requirements for its useful life.  In fact, we believe that discarding the unsightly materials which would increase waste from our production would be dishonest to our claim to be the greenest casket on the planet.  These practices have reduced material waste to less than 2%.

Are we just being cheap?
There is a difference between being cheap at the cost of functional quality of our product and reducing waste.  We actually don't save money with this practice.  Our wabi-sabi approach to reducing material waste comes at the expense of human capital.  Our craftsmen set aside boards with imperfections (i.e. unique character) for specific purposes.   Boards with extraordinary wood grain, knothole patterns, and coloration from blue stain fungus are reserved for use in the lids.   In other industries that manufacture with wood, these extraordinary materials are discarded as waste.  This includes boards with such incredibly beautiful knothole patterns that compromise the structural integrity of the board--but since the lid provides zero structural support in our casket design, the lid is a perfect place for those boards with the most unique character.   While careful selection in materials has significantly reduced waste and carbon impact, we've added to the cost of human capital in our craftsman.  We actually incur additional cost by hand-selecting material for different parts of the final product.

Russ & Josh Koepsell admire beauty in simplicity.
Funeral directors appreciate wabi-sabi.
Feedback from families and funeral directors has been phenomenal. In a culture often absorbed in the pursuit of perfection as defined by the absence of imperfection, more of our families are expressing true appreciation for the little imperfections that add character to each and every one of our caskets.  Imperfect is perfect.

[1] Wabi-Sabi.  Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi
[2] Powell, Richard R. (2004). Wabi Sabi Simple. Adams Media. ISBN 1-59337-178-0.

Funeral Directors Adapting to Demand for "Greener" Funerals

Wisconsin Funeral Directors Learn More About Natural Burial and "Green" Pine Caskets by Northwoods Casket Co.

Wisconsin-based Northwoods Casket Co. showcased its eco-friendly pine casket for green burial last month at the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association annual convention and shared information about natural burial and other “greener” choices consumers increasingly want.

Beaver Dam, WI – When funeral directors from across Wisconsin gathered for their annual convention in Elkhart Lake last month, they discussed the rapidly growing requests for greener burial options and how they can use this trend to boost business at a time when the growing popularity of cremation has meant falling revenues for most traditional funeral homes – in part due to a sharp decline in casket sales. 

Simple Pine Casket with Natural Cotton Liner
Funeral directors attending the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association (WFDA) convention also had the opportunity to see and touch a simple pine casket made by Northwoods Casket of Beaver Dam, Wis. Several requested a floor model of the casket – made from pine from the Northwoods of Wisconsin – so it will be among the choices families have. 

“Families increasingly want to reduce their carbon footprint – even after death – and are making biodegradable, sustainably-produced caskets a more popular request,” says Northwoods Casket founder Jonas Zahn. 

Making greener choices available in traditional funeral homes isn’t just good for the planet – it’s good for the funeral industry.  In the past 20 years, funeral profit margins have been cut nearly in half according to the Federated Funeral Directors of America, an accounting firm for independently owned funeral homes.  Consulting firm Citrin Cooperman has found that 44% of funeral home directors blame the increasing popularity of cremations for shrinking profits.

James Olson
“People don't choose cremation because it's green – cremation isn't green by its nature,” says James Olson, international speaker on natural burial for the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and funeral director with Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, Wis. Olson led a session outlining opportunities in green and natural burial for the Wisconsin Funeral Directors Association in Elkhart Lake, Wis. last month. “People choose cremation because it's the only alternative we give them to a conventional funeral. If green is what they want, and we offer them a natural burial, this will bridge the gap and may give families what they were truly looking for in the first place.”

The biodegradable caskets made by Northwoods Casket help answer the call for a greener burial. The company sells both caskets and casket kits that include everything a do-it-yourselfer needs to make a casket. In accordance with their mission to leave zero impact on the environment from casket building operations, the company could plant a single tree for every casket to offset the carbon impact from electricity and fuel used.  "Carbon-neutral is not good enough,” adds Zahn, “our commitment to plant 100 trees for every casket we build helps our funeral service providers and families rest assured their choice to use a Northwoods Casket will leave a lasting natural legacy.”  A Presidential sponsor of the WFDA convention, Northwoods Casket displayed a simple pine casket and shared information about casket kits, shrouds, natural burial trundles, natural casket liners and pillows.
Northwoods Casket Kit

About Northwoods Casket Co. - Established in 2010 and based in Beaver Dam, Wis., the company’s mission is to provide funeral homes and families with a simple, affordable, wooden casket purposefully designed for quality and a low environmental impact at an affordable cost. The company has committed to plant 100 trees for every casket built. All products are biodegradable and made in accordance to their founding principle to promote sustainable practices for a smarter planet.