Green burial movement advocates alternative to conventional interment

Last modified: Wednesday, November 11, 2015

As green living continues to take a more prominent place in the United States, there is now a growing movement that is focusing on green dying.

“Imagine living your whole life as an environmentally conscious person and at the end of your life, they pump you full of embalming fluid,” said Judith Lorei of Green Burial Massachusetts, and a member of the cemetery commission in Montague who spoke earlier this month at the Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst.

Green Burial Massachusetts is a grassroots organization that educates the public about the value and benefits of green burial. Founded in 2008, the group is a committee of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts and has formed a collaboration with the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust in Athol to find a suitable site for the state’s first green cemetery.

“We are an all-volunteer group,” Lorei said. “Green burial may not be for everyone, but it is important that people know that they have choices.”

In the U.S., with the exception of certain religious traditions, a conventional burial involves the embalming of the deceased and placing the body into a metal or hardwood casket which is buried in a cement vault that lines the grave.

This practice of preserving the dead became popular during the Civil War when families of the Union war dead wanted the bodies of their loved ones brought home from the battlefield, and embalming was the only way to preserve the remains for the long, often hot trip back north.

Today, many environmental advocates say conventional burial is an unsustainable endeavor that uses too many chemicals, land and resources, including an estimated 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid nationally each year, according to the Green Springs Natural Cemetery Preserve at It also estimates that 90,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods, much of it tropical, are used to make caskets every year in the U.S., with another 14,000 tons of steel and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete going into burial vaults.

The green burial movement advocates interment that is easier on the earth. This involves natural burials that are chemical-free with no embalming, use of biodegradable caskets or simple shrouds, and grave sites that do not contain cement vaults.

Unlike conventional burials designed to stave off decomposition, green burials are frequently at a depth of three to four feet to permit access by aerobic bacteria and enhance decomposition.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, in 2014 the national median cost of a conventional adult funeral with viewing, burial and vault was $8,508.

Jay Czelusniak, owner of Czelusniak Funeral Home in Northampton, said the average conventional funeral in western Massachusetts costs less than the national median, at between roughly $5,000 and $7,000.

A green burial may cost thousands of dollars less, depending on how and where it is done. “A lot of it depends on the products, but most do come out to be less expensive,” Czelusniak said.

Czelusniak added that his funeral home is happy to offer formaldehyde-free embalming fluids that he said can adequately preserve the body for up to several weeks, as well as eco-friendly caskets and urns which vary in price and can lower costs to about $3,000.

Cemeteries set rules

Currently, there is no green burial cemetery or preserve that is open to everyone in Massachusetts, though some municipal and private cemeteries do allow for green burials.

The closest all-green cemetery to Massachusetts is Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Limington, Maine.

“We do get a lot of calls from people asking about green burial,” Czelusniak said. “Funeral directors don’t have any problem with green burial, it is just that many cemeteries will not allow it.”

Czelusniak noted that individual cemeteries set the rules and regulations for burial, with most requiring cement vaults.

“The public needs to contact their mayor, DPW and the individual cemeteries to let them know they want to make green burial available,” Czelusniak said. “If they hear from enough people, it will happen.”

But many people are not aware that this is a choice that may be available to them.

“We talk to people all the time that think embalming is a state law and it is not,” Lorei said.

And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never prescribed embalming as a public health measure.

Conservation burial

While a green burial in an existing conventional cemetery is a more eco-friendly final departure, Lorei said that a “conservation burial is really the gold standard for green burial.”

Conservation burial involves being buried on land that has been established as a nature preserve or is designated as permanently protected conservation land.

Bodies are unobtrusively buried in the natural landscapes and, depending on the individual preserve, graves may be marked by native plantings, a rock, a small flat wooden plaque, or have no marker at all. Some graves may contain GPS markers so that people can find their loved one’s final resting place.

Money raised from burial fees go back into the preserve or land trust.

Many see this as a win-win situation.

“To be able to be buried in a beautiful natural place, in a very natural way and to know that you are also contributing to the future preservation of the land, that’s a wonderful thing,” said Alicia Pike Bergman of Minneapolis, who was at the event in Amherst during which Lorei spoke this month. “It makes your last act on this earth a very meaningful one.”

Matthias Nevins, a land conservation specialist for Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, agrees, saying that conservation burial on is an innovative way to leave a lasting legacy for future generations.

Roughly two years ago, Green Burial Massachusetts formed its partnership with Mount Grace.

“We are pretty excited to be working with Green Burial Massachusetts,” Nevins said. “We are currently looking for a property that has significant conservation value for wildlife habitat and recreation. The cemetery would resemble a natural landscape with partially open fields and meadows.”

Nevins said a property has been identified for the project but the sale of the land is still in negotiation.

If things go as planned, this would be the first conservation cemetery in Massachusetts. Mount Grace Land Trust would own the land and Green Burial Massachusetts would run the cemetery operations.

“We are very optimistic about this,” Lorei said. “We see this as a beginning step. Our goal is to eventually have lots of green cemeteries around Massachusetts.”

Willow coffins

Massachusetts may also have the first producer of natural willow coffins in the country.

Mary Lauren Fraser, 21, is a basket weaver who apprenticed with Karen Collins, a traditional weaver and basket coffin maker in Forres, Scotland.

“The UK is about 30 years ahead of us on this,” said Fraser, who lives in Montague where she is establishing her coffin-making business.

“I have been talking to other people in the green burial business and as far as I know, I am the only one in the country who makes these,” Fraser said.

While there is a selection of wicker caskets and coffins available through Mourning Dove Studio in Arlington, they are imported from overseas.

Fraser said it takes about 3½ days to complete a coffin, which uses roughly 20 to 25 pounds of willow that is locally sourced.

She said she is eager to take her work to different fairs and markets to let people know that there is a local green alternative to standard caskets. “I want people to be able to check it out, climb in and get excited about it,” she said.

Film showing

On Nov. 1, Lorei led a discussion following a showing of the film “A Will For the Woods” at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, which was attended by some 30 people. The film chronicles the journey of Ohio psychiatrist Clark Wang who sought a green funeral and burial after being diagnosed with lymphoma.

In attendance was Janet Bergeron, a cemetery trustee in Sunderland.

“There has been a lot of interest in green burial lately, so I wanted to get as much information about it as I can,” Bergeron said. “It had never come up before, but within the last year it really has.”

Lorei said that people choose green burial for many different reasons ranging from simplicity to ecological and spiritual motives.

She also noted that people can work with funeral directors to request that their loved ones not be embalmed or to perhaps arrange for a wake at home.

“There are people who do want to take care of the body of their loved ones at home and be more involved in the ritual and care of that person,” Lorei said. “The point is, people don’t have to take the whole burial package from a funeral home, they can do it sort of a la carte.”

Joan Pillsbury of Gill, is a member of Green Burial Massachusetts and on the board of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Massachusetts.

When Pillsbury’s husband Dennis died, she had a wake at home and her family then drove his body to Cedar Brook Burial Ground in Maine.

“We don’t like to think about death, but more and more people want to have that public conversation,” Lorei said. “We encourage everyone to ask questions and if you are in need of support, we at green burial can work with you.”


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