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

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Burials and Cemeteries Go Green

Burials and Cemeteries Go Green

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NPR's Cheryl Corley has this report.

CHERYL CORLEY: Let's begin this story about death and burials by first meeting someone who celebrates life. Regina Boll, or Ginny, as she likes to be called, is 78. She lives in Kewaskum, Wisconsin, a small town near Milwaukee and runs a dog-grooming business.


CORLEY: Boll's two dogs accompany her as she crunches through the snow, walking a few yards from her front door to a nearby shed that houses her business. She's been a dog groomer for 25 years.

REGINA: I didn't clean up after the morning drive. You go in there. Go on, go on. So it's a kind of a mess.

CORLEY: Boll is a former nun and the last of her immediate family. Her home and the spruced-up business shed sit on five acres of wooded property. Boll says she loves nature and when she dies, she will become part of it.

BOLL: Death is - its part of life, and it's a natural part of life. And I think it'll be a lot healthier for us if we dealt with it that way.

CORLEY: And what do you want to have happened with your physical self?

BOLL: It's going to be my friend's work who are going to plant me, and I'd like to have it as easy as possible for them to plant me.

CORLEY: To plant you?


CORLEY: Boll says she is still figuring out what planting for her actually means. But she has heard about green burials and knows it does not involve any formaldehyde-based embalming. There's no concrete burial vault. No fancy mahogany casket.

BOLL: I think a shroud or a very simple pine casket is fine, something that will just return to the earth.

CORLEY: Sehee says he knows cremations are becoming increasingly popular, but there is little possibility of mercury or other potentially hazardous emissions being released with green burials, and he cites plenty of reasons to go green.

JOE SEHEE: Each year in this country, we bury enough embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. We bury more metal than what was used 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.

CORLEY: Sehee recently took that message to what might be considered unfriendly territory, a convention of independent funeral home directors living in Chicago. John White(ph) and his family operates several funeral homes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

JOHN WHITE: I don't know if I don't understand it or I just don't buy it. Don't get me wrong. I want to save the planet just as much as the next guy.

CORLEY: But White says while embalming is not a legal requirement, it's a widespread practice that is good. He's skeptical about claims that steps like refrigeration or keeping a body on dry ice for viewing will be as effective.

WHITE: When somebody calls me for a death call on Monday and may have people flying in from Florida that aren't going to be in until Thursday, that body is not going look as good if we don't embalm the body.

CORLEY: And White argues that burial vaults keep cemetery grounds level as heavy equipment is used on the land. He also worries that green burial sites would look unkempt, but Joe Sehee has a ready response.

SEHEE: We're not trying to create golf courses. We're trying to create natural environments.

CORLEY: There has been a spread of green cemeteries in Great Britain where there are now 200. In the United States, there's just a handful. The first opened in South Carolina about a decade ago. Even so, there's been enough interest in these alternative burials that some conventional providers are starting to think green.

TOM KURSELL: A lot of the founders of Milwaukee are here.

CORLEY: Tom Kursell, the president of Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, is driving along the landmark cemetery's winding roads.

KURSELL: So we went by the corner that is called the Beer Barons Corner (unintelligible) is there. Pets are there.

CORLEY: There are huge monuments and gravestones here, plus plenty of undeveloped land. In all, 200 acres of rolling hills, woodlands and open fields. The ground is snow covered, but Kursell drives to one section, two and a half acres set aside for green burials.


KURSELL: This could have been a grass field where we could just be walking.

CORLEY: Underneath the snow is a metal. Land cleared of boulders and home now to native Wisconsin grasses surrounded by trees.

KURSELL: We will create a walkway that will go into the section and so we have access for (unintelligible) families to, you know, walk through the pass and get into the meadow. And from there, it's pretty much just wild grass is growing.

CORLEY: Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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