Death Goes Green
Going Green, to the End: Being buried without vaults and in biodegradable caskets may not be widespread now, but the practice could gain ground as baby boomers and younger generations age
As funerals go, it couldn’t have been more simple — nor more simply beautiful.
In October 2009, Bereth Phoebe Ingram’s small body, unembalmed and wrapped in a muslin shroud, was lowered into the ground at Wyandotte’s Mount Carmel Cemetery. There was no casket, no vault. Father Charles Morris blessed her remains and the surrounding ground with holy water from the River Jordan and recited prayers. A small gathering of family members spread shovelsful of dirt over the body while tossing flowers over the corpse. The woman’s final wishes — “I want to be buried like Jesus, in a shroud,” she had told her daughter Jeanne — were fulfilled. But the mourners were pleasantly astonished by what would be the crowning glory to a poignant memorial for the 84-year-old.
“All of a sudden, there was a hawk with a 3-foot wingspan that circled the grave, then it flew up to the heavens,” Morris recalls. “It was quite touching.”
It was the cemetery’s first “green burial,” one that employs biodegradable caskets (or none at all, depending on the deceased’s wishes), no formaldehyde-based embalming solutions (plant-based solutions are permissible if there is to be a viewing, but some opt for no embalming at all), and biodegradable shrouds and casket liners.
It’s the ultimate in “going green,” and though it seems like a 21st-century idea to coincide with a more environmentally conscious world — the 42nd Earth Day falls on April 22 — its practice goes back thousands of years. Some cultures and religions have always eschewed embalming, such as Jews and Muslims. But the practice of preserving a corpse, as we know it, didn’t become common in this country until the Civil War. (See article on page 30.)
“It could not have been nicer,” Jeanne Ingram, of St. Clair Shores, says of her mother’s funeral. “I think the healing process started sooner because it was less prolonged; there wasn’t a big procession and all.
“I had some beautiful muslin material I bought in Damascus, with silver and gold filigree that I used as the shroud,” she says. Ingram and a friend sewed it to fit the corpse, adding leather straps so the body could be lowered into the ground.
Two years after burying her mother, Ingram’s brother, Mark, died. “He had cerebral palsy all his life, and he said, ‘I want to be buried just like Mom,’ ” Ingram says. Because he, too, was wrapped simply in a shroud without a casket, his body was able to be placed atop his mother’s at Mount Carmel.
Ingram arranged the initial funeral though Ecorse-based Simple Funerals (simplefuneralsinmichigan.com), which also has counseling centers in Bloomfield Hills and St. Clair Shores. She then was directed to Morris, who at the time was with St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Wyandotte and an administrator at Mount Carmel. The “green priest” was already well known for his environmentally friendly deeds at his parish, including installing a wind turbine, solar panels on the roof of the rectory, solar collectors on the rectory garage to provide hot water, programmable thermostats, low-flush toilets, and even an organic garden.
Morris has since been transferred to St. Christopher parish on Detroit’s west side, where he’s gradually adding some of the same ecologically prudent measures. He also founded the nonprofit Michigan Interfaith Power and Light organization, whose goal, he says, is “to involve communities of faith to promote energy education and efficiency.”
Additionally, Morris teaches classes in sustainability at Madonna University in Livonia and was the recipient last year of a Michigan Green Leader award from the Detroit Free Press.
He feels green funerals are simply part of the cycle of life.
“It’s a complete recycling — cradle to cradle,” he says. “We’re not going to use our bodies anymore, and those parts and nutrients can be recycled back into the Earth. It’s part of the web of life.”
The Bible is rife with references to bodily regeneration, most famously in Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Morris’ mantra — “We are a part of creation, not apart from it” — motivated him to persuade Mount Carmel to dedicate a section of its land to green burials. Such cemeteries are called “hybrids,” by the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Green Burial Council (GBC), a nonprofit that advocates environmentally sustainable deathcare. In Michigan, there are three hybrid cemeteries: Mount Carmel in Wyandotte, All Saints in Waterford, and Ridgeview Memorial Gardens in Grandville, outside Grand Rapids. GBC Executive Director Joe Sehee, a Harper Woods native, says a fourth burial site, part of Upland Hills Farm in Addison Township in north Oakland County, will likely open this year. Instead of being a hybrid, Upland Hills will be dedicated solely to green burials, called a “conservation burial ground” by the group. “It would be a stand-alone, 40 acres, within that 260-acre farm,” Sehee says.
The organization (greenburialcouncil.com) also provides third-party oversight to ensure that cemeteries, funeral homes, and providers (makers of caskets, shrouds, and plant-based embalming fluid) abide by their ecological claims.
“We’re a trust provider,” Sehee says. “We do what we can to make sure that environmental aims are defined and protected. There are some allegedly green cemeteries that use burial vaults and try to get away with it. There are some funeral homes peddling non-formaldehyde embalming fluid, but it still contains toxins.
“We vouch for people who meet our standards and want our seal, but we’ve also decertified some cemeteries, funeral homes, and product manufacturers,” he says. Morris is on GBC’s advisory board.
Although they expend fewer resources and energy than conventional burials, cremations aren’t considered entirely green because the process emits fossil fuels, Sehee adds. Mercury emissions are also a concern if the deceased had those dental fillings.
While only a handful of green burials have taken place in Michigan, the state has an unusually high number of green providers, Sehee says. “We have about 250 [GBC-certified] funeral homes in the U.S. and Canada, and about 40 are in Michigan [which tallies to 16 percent], although I really can’t account for it. I just know there’s a lot of interest in Michigan.” But that doesn’t mean that Michiganians are planning green burials in droves yet.
“It’s still a really new concept, and I don’t think a lot of people are aware of all their options,” says Brooke N. Latorre, a funeral director with Gramer Funeral Homes, with locations in Clawson and Shelby Township. Though the Gramer homes have offered green burials for two years, they have yet to perform one.
“Unless someone asks, we’re not pushing it,” she says. “When we meet with families, a majority of them already know whether they want a traditional burial or cremation.”
Linda Burd Berman, funeral director and owner of GBC-certified R.J. Nixon Funeral Home in Wyandotte, says there’s been some interest expressed about green options, but so far, people are still opting for the traditional route.
“We’ve had a few inquiries, but we haven’t actually done a green burial yet, because in those inquiries, a death hasn’t occurred yet,” she says. “It’s too new and early to say whether it will become a trend.”
But Berman says her business is prepared with options if it does.
“We have an area in our showroom with burial shrouds that are like a canvas wrap. We also have wicker baskets that the body can be placed into, as well as a wood casket without metal or screws that’s made by a local carpenter.”
Latorre says that Gramer, which is also GBC certified, is in the process of revamping their selection rooms, and a section will be designated for green-burial choices. “So, maybe those people who don’t know anything about them will choose that option,” she says.
Latorre also thinks that offering those options makes good business sense.
“Ours is a changing industry, so we want to make sure we’re part of what may be the latest thing. As people get older and become more interested in green burials, we’ll be prepared for it,” she says.
Those “people” could well be baby boomers, who were brought up in a more ecologically aware time than their parents or grandparents. Last year, those born in the first year of the baby boom, 1946, turned 65.
Sehee believes this group will soon gravitate to the idea of more ecologically sensitive interments.
Typically, the cost of a green burial is cheaper than a traditional one, though plant-based embalming fluids cost more than those with formaldehyde, Berman says, and wood from sustainably harvested forests for caskets can run higher than materials used in one shipped from China, Sehee says.
But he adds that cost rarely is the motivating force behind deciding to “go green.”
“People can save money on things they don’t need, like a burial vault, a marker, or even a casket,” he says. “But if a consumer wants the cheapest way of disposing of a body, it’s not green burial, it’s direct cremation. But cost is not the big driver for deciding on a green burial. They want an end-of-life ritual that’s consistent with their core values.”