Burials and Cemeteries Go Green Environmentally friendly funerals are catching on in some areas of the U.S. as an alternative to traditional burials. So-called "green burials" eschew embalming and fancy caskets in favor of a more biodegradable, natural return to the earth.
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Burials and Cemeteries Go Green

Burials and Cemeteries Go Green

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Ginny Boll, a 78-year-old former nun, said that when she dies, she wants her friends to hold a party to celebrate her life and then to bury her simply. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

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Cheryl Corley, NPR

Ginny Boll, a 78-year-old former nun, said that when she dies, she wants her friends to hold a party to celebrate her life and then to bury her simply.

Cheryl Corley, NPR

Tom Kursell, president of the Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, said he is planning to dedicate a two-and-a-half acre meadow full of native Wisconsin grasses to green burials as early as next spring. Cheryl Corley, NPR hide caption

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Cheryl Corley, NPR

Tom Kursell, president of the Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, said he is planning to dedicate a two-and-a-half acre meadow full of native Wisconsin grasses to green burials as early as next spring.

Cheryl Corley, NPR

What Is a Green Burial?

What exactly makes a funeral green? Read more about some of the environmental, health and legal issues involved.

Ginny Boll loves life. The 78-year-old former nun operates a dog-grooming business in Wisconsin in a small shed near her home on her woodland property. When she dies, Boll says she wants her friends to hold a party to celebrate her life and then to bury her simply.

She's not interested in being embalmed or laid to rest in a fancy casket. Boll wants to return to the earth in a more natural way.

So-called "green burials" are catching on in some areas as an alternative to traditional burial. They are simple, often more affordable and environmentally friendly.

Formaldehyde-based embalming is taboo in green burials, as are concrete burial vaults. Caskets are made of biodegradable material, and sometimes the deceased are wrapped in shrouds alone.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral is $6,500 plus cemetery costs.

A green burial can be significantly less costly — in some locations, it's only a few thousand dollars; the burial of cremated remains is even less.

Going Green

Cremations — which are also inexpensive — are increasing in number. But Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, says that unlike with cremations, green burials present little possibility that mercury or other potentially hazardous emissions will be released.

Sehee says it's up to individuals to decide how green they want their end-of-life process to be, but he believes current funeral practices are reason enough to go green.

"We bury enough embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools, enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and so much reinforced concrete in burial vaults that we could build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit," Sehee said.

It wasn't until the Civil War — when bodies were transported from the battlefield to home — that current funeral practices became popular. So in many ways, green burials are simply a return to traditions of the past. And some religious groups adhere to those practices even today.

The concept of green burials, though, is more popular overseas. In Great Britain, there are 200 green cemeteries. In the United States, there's just a handful in a few states. The first, Ramsey Creek Preserve, opened in South Carolina in 1998.

Even so, there has been enough interest in these alternative burials that some conventional providers are starting to think green. That includes the Forest Home Cemetery, a historic landmark in Milwaukee. Cemetery President Tom Kursell says a two-and-a-half acre meadow full of native Wisconsin grasses will be used for green burials as early as next spring. That's where the process of "ashes to ashes" will take place at a much more rapid place.

Whether it's a conventional cemetery carving out areas for green burials, or burial grounds being created in an effort to preserve open space, Sehee says it's all connected to the same idea: One's final act can have meaning for a family while having less impact on the earth.