How Green Is Your Funeral?

Low-cost, do-it-yourself, eco-conscious burial options.

No one gets out of here alive. But you don't necessarily have to go first class. There's the cardboard-box cremation rather than the buried metal casket, of course. But there's also the lower-cost "green" nontoxic burial in a woodlands or the wake-style do-it-yourself funeral that includes storing your loved one in a dark, cool space in the home. Then there's the eco-pod casket that fits in the back of your hatchback, or interment in the backyard—like you never really left.

If you opt for the latter in Washington, however, a home burial on the cheap means doing it on the sly, and not getting caught. Under state law, you risk jail time by burying human remains anywhere except inside a cemetery or a building dedicated for religious purposes. To bury on private property, a portion of the land has to be dedicated as a cemetery. If such a designation is approved by the state Cemetery Board, and all necessary local zoning, business, and land-use permits are obtained, there's still a matter of $25,000. That's the cost of an endowment care trust fund that has to be established in perpetuity. "I'm not aware of any such designations, but I don't think it would do much for the resale value of a home," says Brad Carlson, chair of the state Cemetery Board and a funeral home and cemetery operator in Vancouver. "The law is there because we can't have people being buried randomly around the state."

The most popular exit is also one of the least-expensive, cremation, followed perhaps by a waterside scattering or an afterlife in the jet stream. (Actually, "cremains," as they're called, are more gravel-like than ashy, and, once tossed into Elliott Bay, will largely sink like a rock). Cremains can be less-expensively buried in a small plot, placed in an aboveground columbarium, or be freely scattered heavenward after a stay on the mantel. Cremation has a kinder effect on the land than burials (what, exactly, are the long-range environmental effects of all the underground metal, concrete, and chemicals?), and since 1977 in Washington, it has been legal to scatter cremains in your yard.

One cremation business, the Neptune Society of Washington, says almost 50 percent of the state's dead are cremated rather than buried today; others put it at 60 percent, the nation's third highest rate behind Hawaii and Nevada. The society charges $1,350 for its lowest-priced package which includes transportation, cremation, urn, and, if desired, scattering ashes at sea. (Prepayment is required—terms at $499 down and $25 a month "per person," the society says).

Another group, the People's Memorial Association (PMA), offers direct cremation in a disposable container for as little as $600. PMA says the average cost of cremation in King County is $1,533, ranging up to $2,885, mostly at funeral homes. A typical funeral package, says PMA, costs $3,898 in King County, to a high of $6,290. Some cremationists are also offering novel ways for friends and relatives to say goodbye. "Crematories are putting in viewing rooms," says Cemetery Board chair Brad Carlson. "The families can watch the deceased being put into the container and then placed in the crematory. Some places are even allowing families the chance to push the button that starts the cremation."

Alternatives such as green or natural burials, popular in Europe and spreading slowly into the United States, run about half the cost of standard burials. They exclude the use of embalming fluids, metal caskets, and concrete vaults, replaced by an inexpensive biodegradable casket holding a biodegradable body. Wood is traditional, of course. But a green funeral offers such options as wicker or bamboo caskets, or going native: lowered into earth in a burial shroud. The grave is marked by rocks and wild flowers, or, in the case of the Fernwood Cemetery north of San Francisco, can be located with a global positioning system. A new burial-container option is the funeral pod, with a shell made of recycled newspapers. Called the Ecopod, it costs $5,000 and can be easily transported to the grave site. There's also the Cocoon, a saucer-shaped coffin made of jute, a fibrous plant. It weighs in at $3,500.

One of the first of now a handful of green U.S. cemeteries is the 32-acre Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, which includes open fields, trails, and woodlands. Graves are shallower than at standard cemeteries and the grounds are open to public hiking and communing with loved ones and nature. According to Mother Earth News, there are budding efforts in Washington and a half dozen other states to someday create woodland cemeteries, done in part to preserve open space.

There's also growing interest in do-it-yourself home funerals, especially popular in California, done in a natural state with inexpensive, even homemade, coffins—like the old days. (This being the Internet era, you can order your container from, among others, cardboardcasket.com, which offers a low-end model for $49.95; they'll FedEx it.) Bodies are washed and prepped by relatives, and kept cool as folks say their goodbyes, preferably within three days or less. A death certificate and possibly other paperwork is required depending on how the remains are transported and disposed. Carlson, the state official and funeral director, says that while nontraditional funerals and burials can affect his business, he's all for whatever lightens your load in a time of need. "If people want to follow a concept other than traditional church or funeral home services—do a celebration of life–type service in a home or hall somewhere —I think that's fine," he says. "Trends and traditions do change, and the industry needs to change along with that."

 
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