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Death Goes Green

Mourners surround a gravesite at Greensprings Natural Cemetery in New York. No chemicals, no steel caskets - a green burial. (Photo courtesy Greensprings Natural Cemetery)

When Debbie Vassallo died last fall at 37, her family held a viewing in a Brooklyn, N.Y., funeral home that was sandwiched between a row of brownstones, a deli and an overcrowded parking lot.

A sea of somber-faced mourners gathered in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by heavy carpeting and dark oak furnishings. Some wore denim and sneakers, some wore suits. Some of the women wore short, tight dresses revealing too much décolletage. Anything they could find in black — the color of sorrow.

In an open, polished steel coffin on center stage lay the body that Vassallo had left behind. Her face was expressionless. The embalming process had tinted her skin an unnatural reddish brown that melded her features. Her body was there, but Vassallo was gone.

In 2008 there were 2.5 million deaths in the U.S., according to the National Funeral Directors Association. More than 70% underwent a traditional funeral service, with casketing and a ceremony before interment. To many, that meant an open-casket viewing preceded by embalming. Just like Vassallo’s.

But a growing number of people are embracing a less traditional funeral. No ceremonious goodbyes, no steel caskets, no embalming — a green burial.

AARP, a nonprofit organization that aids and informs the 50-plus population, reported that 21% of respondents in a 2007 study were interested in a more environmentally friendly alternative to the traditional funeral with embalming. In 2008, Kates-Boylston Publications, the company behind funeral trade magazines like American Cemetery, produced a similar study that said 43% of Americans over 50 considered a green burial.

“Traditional burial is about impeding decay. Green burial is about giving into it,” says Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, an advocacy group that educates and sets standards on green alternatives for the funeral industry. Over the next decade, the council hopes to secure 1 million acres for green or natural burial sites with the help of land trusts and conservancy organizations that donate former farmland and natural preserves.

Traditional burials rely on the embalming process to preserve the deceased. Natural-burial activists discourage embalming because of the potential toxification risks for funeral workers. In November of last year, the National Cancer Institute published a study that found morticians who used formaldehyde-based chemicals, common to the embalming process and certain caskets, were more likely to develop cancer.

There have been no conclusive studies that link funeral toxins to natural environmental hazards. But advocates of natural burials are sometimes concerned that the toxins will leak into the ground and watersheds.

“The glue in formaldehyde plywood caskets is the equivalent of 300 garbage bags in the ground,” says Sehee. But he admits that he does not know for sure that a casket in the ground will cause environmental damage.

Some traditional funeral workers flip the coin. Funeral directors have to worry about the location of new green cemeteries so products of decomposition don’t leach into drinking water, says Steve Walton, a funeral director based in Ohio. Walton recalls that the predecessors at his funeral home died of cancer, but, he says, “I think that was more from smoking than prep room.”

In his predecessors’ days, embalming fluids were 60% formaldehyde-based. But federal regulations now mandate 25% or less formaldehyde. Several companies also offer alternatives to the chemical, like organic embalming fluids.

Both consumers and funeral providers are confused about the potential risks involved with embalming versus not embalming, and most people do not know the law.

In the U.S., not one state has a blanket law that requires embalming. The practice is enforced in special circumstances on a state-by-state basis. States like New Jersey and Alaska mandate embalming when bodies are being transported across state borders.

Many funeral homes require embalming if there is an open-casket viewing. But it is a preference, not law. For sanitary reasons, an unembalmed body should be buried within 24 to 48 hours, and traditional services with a viewing can take three to four days.

Embalming can be traced back to ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and the Incas, who believed that preserving the body through mummification would help the soul return to the body after death. Western cultures adapted an embalming practice more for the sake of preserving a body for travel.

During the Civil War, embalming came into its own in America. The body of a deceased soldier could be waiting days or even weeks for transportation. When the body finally made it home for the funeral, physical features were already decomposed.

Chemical companies that developed the embalming fluids were also the first to start mortuary schools. Pierce Chemicals Royal Bond, one of the major suppliers since the 1930s, still runs mortuary colleges. The Dodge Co., producers of embalming fluids since 1893, offers regular embalming clinics and seminars.

Chemical companies are churning out funeral workers steeped in the traditional belief that embalming is the only alternative. But, according to Sehee, this is primarily a North American practice.

“Only 3% of the world embalms its deceased,” he says, explaining that we don’t have to embalm. “We can do whatever we want when it comes to honoring the dead.”

Natural- and traditional-burial practitioners agree that where you spend your days after death is ultimately a matter of personal preference.

Walton says his rural town is a traditional area, and with the nearest green cemetery three hours away, “it will be a long time before we see anyone around here do green burials.”

“My parents are comforted by a golf course aesthetic,” admits Sehee in reference to traditional cemeteries. “What I think is pretty, a prairie, probably looks like weeds to them.”

Natural cemeteries look vastly different from the manicured lawns and rows of marble slabs that make up most cemeteries in the U.S. Mary Woodsen, board director of Greensprings Natural Cemetery in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, paints a picture of a prairie landscape. Former cornfields have been turned into a 100-acre meadowland replete with wildflowers and surrounded by forest.

Jennifer Quinn, steward of the natural cemetery preserve Foxfield in Ohio, describes a place where people come in hiking boots and jeans. Mourners bring their dogs.

When Robert T. Nanninga died on Valentine’s Day of last year, he was buried in Fernwood Forever, a natural burial ground in Northern California. His instructions were simple: “I want to be buried in the ground, not in a box, without chemicals, under an oak tree.”

His partner, Keith Schillington, held two memorial services before the burial. The first was in their home in San Diego, where more than 400 people from the community showed up to sing songs, read poetry and host a “4:20 burn,” a ritual among pot smokers. The second was an open-mic night in their coffeehouse in Encinitas.

There was no viewing. Schillington preferred his memories of Nanninga to be “of him whilst he was still warm to the touch.”

Nanninga, 45, was buried among several oak trees. His body was shrouded in an American flag from a Dead Kennedys concert 20 years ago. He was buried with a selection of local organic produce.

Today, California poppies grow on Nanninga’s grave. An oak sapling stands 6 inches tall nearby. A few shells and small rocks mark the spot. Schillington plans to engrave a large desert rock to place on the site. It will be inscribed with words chosen by Nanninga himself: “One Less Monkey Jumping on the Bed.”

February 12, 2010