Going Green

“Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)”, 2013-11-24

Green burial options at Forest Rest include a biodegradable wicker-and-seagrass coffin and a linen burial shroud. Or the decedent can simply leave the living in the same condition in which the living were joined – naked as a jaybird.

Family members can ask that the grave be dug by hand, an alternative that avoids firing up fossil fuel-burning excavation equipment. And the family can help backfill the grave.

Forest Rest Natural Cemetery’s five wooded acres in Franklin County adjoin the conventional Mountain View Memorial Park off Grassy Hill Road. To date, surveying has established about 300 saleable burial spaces in Forest Rest, which opened last year. Ten have been sold. No one has been buried there yet.

For aging baby boomers who practice the principles of green living, a natural burial offers a chance for eco-friendly dying. And it provides an opportunity to embrace one last and ultimate act of recycling, according to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization based in California.

The phrase “green living” refers to lifestyle and business choices that reduce the effects and costs of living, working and operating in a world of dwindling resources, rising energy costs and environmental perils.

Joe Sehee co-founded the Green Burial Council in 2005.

“I think Americans are finding less and less value in practices and products like embalming, concrete burial vaults and elaborate caskets, which explains why people have been drawn to green burial as well as to cremation,” Sehee wrote in an email.

Don Wilson is president of Roanoke-based Evergreen Memorial Trust, which manages Evergreen Burial Park, Mountain View Memorial Park, Forest Rest Natural Cemetery, Mountain View Cemetery in Vinton and the Green Hill Mausoleum in Buena Vista.

He said Evergreen Memorial Trust decided to develop Forest Rest after fielding inquiries about the availability regionally of natural burials.

“We realized that baby boomers want to do things differently than their parents and grandparents did,” Wilson said.

The same generation that launched Earth Day has begun considering how to leave life in an environmentally friendly way, he said.

Back to the earth

Like other natural cemeteries, Forest Rest forbids the use of burial vaults and chemical embalming. Its options for identifying grave spaces include tombstone-shaped markers made of cedar or inscribed native stone.

In conventional cemeteries, burial vaults help prevent the ground from settling as a casket and the body inside it decay. At Forest Rest, the dirt removed during excavation is piled in a mound atop the grave to help keep the space level as decay proceeds.

Lewis and Julia Woodford of Roanoke County, both in their late 70s, purchased two grave spaces at Forest Rest this spring. The Woodfords said they began looking several years ago for a natural burial cemetery and a friend told them about Forest Rest.

“We were looking for an alternative that was simple, ecologically sound and without fanfare,” Julia Woodford said.

Each will be buried in a simple, biodegradable casket.

“The idea is to go back to the earth,” she said.

Lewis Woodford said the couple long ago adopted practices now described as “green” that are tied to frugality, reuse, recycling and conservation.

“We’re doing things today that we did 50 years ago,” he said.

The Woodfords said their child, a grown daughter, supports their choice.

The National Funeral Directors Association offers members information about green funerals and predicts: “Eventually, you may be asked to explain or to offer ‘green’ funeral choices for some of the families in the communities you serve.”

The association suggests that “green funeral choices are expected to grow in popularity in the U.S.” And it advises that if a family wants to preserve a body for viewing, the alternatives to formaldehyde embalming include refrigeration and dry ice.

Sammy Oakey is president of family owned Oakey’s Funeral Service and Crematory, which traces its local roots to 1866. He said few people have inquired to date about green funerals and burials and that, aside from offering some green caskets, Oakey’s has not yet established pricing for what might be a green funeral.

“I think a lot of people don’t know about it yet,” Oakey said.

Oakey’s sells an eco-friendly wicker-and-seagrass casket for $2,095. Caskets available through Oakey’s range in price from $630 to $9,512.

Kenneth Kyger of Kyger Funeral Homes and Crematory in Harrisonburg and Elkton is president of the Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird, about 5 miles east of Harrisonburg.

Duck Run, licensed in 2012, occupies part of a former dairy farm. Kyger said that about 600 grave spaces have been laid out. Duck Run, like Forest Rest, has sold some spaces. Kyger declined to say how many. No one has been buried to date.

“We have scattered cremains out there and we have buried cremains out there but we haven’t buried a natural body yet,” Kyger said.

He said cremation took a while to become accepted as an alternative to conventional burial. He believes green burial will follow suit.

“It’s a new concept,” Kyger said – but based, he said, on the ancient concept of in-ground burial of bodies in biodegradable coffins and garments.

“It’s actually come full circle,” he said.

Interest in green burial practices is increasing and people from out of state have inquired about Duck Run, Kyger said.

“Natural burial offers a very peaceful way to go,” he said.

Cost savings vary

Green burials are typically cheaper than conventional burials that feature concrete vaults, fancy caskets, chemical embalming and more.

“Compared to conventional burial, there are some obvious cost savings from green burial but it will never be as inexpensive as ‘direct cremation’ (cremation without a funeral),” Sehee said.

Oakey said the cost of a conventional funeral package available through Oakey’s can range from about $5,035 to about $16,000. Direct cremation at Oakey’s ranges from about $1,990 to about $5,023.

Cremation can be more environmentally friendly than a conventional burial but is not without impacts. Cremation burns nonrenewable fossil fuels, releases carbon dioxide and can also emit mercury when the person being cremated has dental amalgam fillings, according to the Green Burial Council.

The council has established a set of standards for natural burial and a certification program for cemeteries that meet those standards.

Sehee confirmed that the Duck Run Natural Cemetery was the first council-certified cemetery in Virginia.

Wilson said Forest Rest has completed the environmental impact statement required for Green Burial Council certification and is working to finalize a related plan for integrated pest management.

Ed Leonard, chief sustainability officer for the Holy Cross Abbey near Berryville, said he works to develop sustainable businesses that can help support the abbey and its Trappist monks.

The abbey developed the Cool Spring Natural Cemetery in 2012 on about 70 acres of the monastery’s 1,200 acres. Leonard said about 50 spaces have sold and the cemetery has buried 15 people to date. The spaces overlook the Shenandoah River and Blue Ridge Mountains, he said.

A “Blue Ridge Meadow” grave site at Cool Spring sells for $5,750, a price that does not include digging and backfilling the grave. He said the beauty of the site, the confidence buyers have in the monastery’s ongoing stewardship of the property and the spiritual ambiance of the location seem to appeal to buyers.

The Forest Rest grave spaces sell for $1,500 if the cemetery selects the client’s space and $2,000 if the space is chosen by the client. Pricing does not include digging and backfilling the grave, which adds $1,500 if machine dug or $2,000 if hand dug.

A burial space at Duck Run sells for $2,500. Opening and closing the grave adds $750.

Evergreen Memorial Trust has advertised Forest Rest in the Blue Ridge Edition of “Natural Awakenings” magazine. The ad describes Forest Rest as “a new natural cemetery for those wishing to leave a smaller and greener footprint when they pass.” Forest Rest has a website and a Facebook page, Wilson said, and most recently occupied a booth at the Green Living & Energy Expo at the Roanoke Civic Center.

Lewis Woodford said natural burial makes sense on a fundamental level.

“We come from the earth. We are of the earth. And we will go back to the earth,” he said.