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Eco-Friendly Funerals And Death In America Today

New trends in eco-friendly funerals and burials—how they reflect how we’re dealing with death.

*With Guest Host Jessica Yellin.

In this September of 2013 photo released by the University of Michigan Health System, families lay flowers on a casket containing donors’ cremated remains at the University of Michigan Medical School’s annual memorial service in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP)

In this September of 2013 photo released by the University of Michigan Health System, families lay flowers on a casket containing donors’ cremated remains at the University of Michigan Medical School’s annual memorial service in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP)

The latest trend in burials gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “bite the dust.”  Eco-friendly, personalized funerals. The perfect way to end a low-impact environmentally friendly life. Some are replacing a casket with a burial shroud. Opting to place a family member’s cremated remains on the ocean floor. Or going high-tech, putting computer chips in your burial blot. Modernizing the burial ritual – it’s increasingly popular… reflecting the values of an aging baby boomer generation. This hour On Point: new ways to say goodbye to eco-conscious, tech savvy loved ones.


Amy Cunningham, funeral director at Greenwood Heights Funeral and Cremation Services in Brooklyn, New York. Blogger at “The Inspired Funeral.”

Gary Laderman, professor and chairperson of the religion department at Emory University. Author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America.”

Esmerelda Kent, owner and founder of Kinkaraco Green Burying Products.

From The Reading List

New York Times: The Rise of Back-to-the-Basics Funerals –  “As New York City’s boomers shift from wooden toys to wooden boxes, Ms. Cunningham is hoping to ease their transition. A former writer for women’s magazines who now works for Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services, in Brooklyn, she pointed to a chart projected behind her showing that almost 50 percent more Americans would die in 2050 than in 2020.”

Associated Press: Funeral and Casket Outlets are Heading to the Mall — “We eat there, buy our clothes there and some people suspect teenagers may actually live there. So perhaps it was just a matter of time until funeral homes began moving into the local shopping mall. Over the past two years, Forest Lawn has been quietly putting movable kiosks in several of the malls that dot Southern California’s suburbs.”

CNBC: The Hot Trend in Funeral Business? Cremation, of Course — “Every year in America, 2.5 million people die. In 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, 42 percent were cremated, according to the funeral directors association. That’s double the rate of just 15 years ago. In some states, largely in the West, the cremation rate tops 70 percent. In Washington, it’s 72 percent; in Nevada, almost 74 percent. (The lowest rate of cremation, in case you need a great pick-up line, is Mississippi’s, at 15.7 percent.) ”

Check Out WBUR’s CommonHealth Coverage Of “DIY Death” And At-Home Funerals

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  • BOBinRSI

    The cemetery next to the where I grew up was a wonderful childhood playground but I never quite got the rituals that went on there – cooped up in a box, dark suits, perpetual lawn care – all things I hate. As a civil engineer I am requesting cremation and my ashes flushed down the toilet – my final journey to the sea shall be familiar and comforting.

    • Maureen Roy

      You could just go directly to sea and have your ashes scattered over the rocks at high tide – a bit more romantic than touring the plumbing system.

  • Maureen Roy

    My favorite Ted Talk ever! http://www.ted.com/talks/jae_rhim_lee

    • Maureen Roy

      More details since link not showing visual: Here’s a powerful provocation from artist Jae Rhim Lee. Can we commit our bodies to a cleaner, greener Earth, even after death? Naturally — using a special burial suit seeded with pollution-gobbling mushrooms. Yes, this just might be the strangest TEDTalk you’ll ever see …

  • Coastghost

    Seriously: how can cremation NOT be thought to contribute directly to global air pollution and anthropogenic climate change?

    • Charles

      It probably is, but placing the bodies of our dead on the pyre is one of humanity’s oldest traditions, so I move that we grandfather it in.

      • jefe68

        Add the Viking funeral to that, sent out to sea a blaze.

    • jefe68

      Depends on how much is being released into the atmosphere. A good well maintained crematorium should have minimal emissions.

      • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

        It will always emit the same amount of carbon as is put in. The question is where the carbon comes from.

        • jefe68

          Not if the chimney has a filter on it.
          They burn garbage in Denmark with almost zero emissions. Not on topic, but I’ve always wondered why we are not building these types of plants in this country.

          • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

            It is very hard to do carbon capture and sequestration – nobody does it for cremations, I don’t think.

            It is the carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels that is the problem.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      If fossil fuel is used, then yes it will add to climate change.

    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      It definitely does! I talked about that with Amy earlier, I hope we get to it in the hour.

  • Emily4HL

    I was pleased that my very Catholic grandmother was able to chose cremation, then her urn was buried. Because if God is going to raise you from the dead, and heal you, I think he can take care of giving you a new body.

  • AC

    it’s just a carcass. it has nothing of me – i told my hubby to just put me out w/the trash and save the $$$$…
    ridiculous the amount of money!
    altho some cemetaries are lovely parks….still, i’d rather visit while i ‘can’.

  • Emily4HL

    After watching the Mythbusters buried alive episode, in which the heavy-duty casket starts buckling under the dirt, I see no point in trying to preserve a body in box–its futile and not going to work.

    I did enjoy creating a time capsule of sorts with the objects we buried with my grandfather, but its not as much fun when you never intend to open the time capsule. We could have created a time capsule to honor him and opened it later if it wasn’t in his casket.

  • nj_v2

    Cremation seems unnecessarily violent to me. Just wrap me in a cotton blanket, bury me a couple of feet down—maybe with some metal screening to keep the rodents or the neighborhood dog from digging up parts—and plant a tree over me, preferably an oak.

    Soil microbes would eventually return the body’s minerals to the ecosystem in the way that most biomass gets recycled.

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Right, and burning a lot of fossil fuel just to “neaten” things up seems wrong headed to me.

  • Tim Rohe

    I want to be cut up and fed to zoo animals to give them a taste for human flesh, but my family refuses to comply.

  • DeJay79

    I’ve always know I wanted to be cremated (well since I’ve ever thought about my own death) But how that happens is still undecided for me.

    1. Not sure how green it is but I have always loved the funeral pyre and think that would be great
    2. Similarly the floating funeral pyre lit by a flaming arrow would be very nice
    3. And the most modern would be for my cremated remains to be placed inside a large mortar firework and used during my wake, to literally go out with a bang!

  • nj_v2

    Biodegradable burial shrouds? Everyone has to make a living, but why not just a cotton bed sheet? Keep it simple, i say. Maybe something in a nice plaid.

    • J__o__h__n

      Dead men don’t wear plaid.

    • Shroudwoman

      Have you ever tried to wrap , carry and lower a corpse in a bedsheet? Not Easy and really messy! We make shrouds for people working in busy funeral homes and families at home to be able to manage through the process.
      ( Photos courtesy of KINKARACO and MOLES GREEN ACRES CEMETERY, Bellingham WA.
      All rights reserved 2014)

  • http://www.greenspiritarts.com Greenspirits Arts

    My Dad was a very outgoing person who was a nature/adventure photographer in his very active life and had friends all over the world. When he was cremated I put some of his ashes in the old-fashioned aluminum film cans and had them available at his memorial service. His dear friends could then take him on one more “adventure” and thus he had his ashes spread by people he loved in all his favorite places all over the world. It brought smiles to everyone, my Dad too, I’m sure.
    He also loved space exploration and we had some of his ashes spread in the stratosphere by way of high altitude weather balloon by a team of students from Spaceweather.com. They run high altitude experiments including ash releases. It was great because they film the release so we can share that with family all over the world. Cremation is a great alternative for the friends and family because they can be involved in their own fare-well ceremonies.

  • J__o__h__n

    What is the largest size Tupperware?

    • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

      Plastic coffin would be the worst possible choice.

  • disqus_oR3Y7Oa1SG

    In this day and age of high-tech and super-wealth, I’m wondering if there’s any move towards burial in space? Seems like we are going to end up there eventually so I’m presuming that some folks would want to get a jump on that.

    • Maureen Roy

      Oh, “some folks” already have…. http://www.celestis.com/

      • http://www.gradingspaces.com Mk1st

        Ai! I better start saving.

  • Dan

    Add this to your recommended reading list. http://www.maryroach.net/stiff.html

  • J__o__h__n
  • http://frjody.com Jody Howard

    Very interesting discussion. I’m an Episcopal Priest and I’ve encountered the changing expectations of society (and the different desires of different generations) first hand at funerals and weddings.

    I still don’t allow eulogies during the funeral in the Church, for practical as well as liturgical reasons (the majority of people I talk to are actually relieved to be able to grieve without the pressure of speaking in front of a crowd in a formal setting). I have encouraged them *before* the liturgy begins or at a reception afterward. I like the second option the most because it allows an opportunity for other friends or family who feel so moved to share something that they may not be inclined to in the formal service.

    While the guests are certainly right that clergy no longer have the sort of automatic deferral that they may have once had in the culture at large, it is important to note that people make choices to belong to particular religious communities or not, and to be buried or married from a church or other religious building or not. I have particular constraints placed upon me by my religious tradition when I’m doing a specific type of service, and when that service is taking place in the church. Those constraints are loosened or nonexistent outside the church proper.

    So, when a family desires a service that does not fit with those constraints, I talk with them about the possibility that they might want a memorial service in another location, where greater flexibility is possible. I tell them I’d be honored to officiate the service, and honor their wishes (again, with some constraints) in this other locale. I’ve had very few take me up on this at funerals. The only exceptions being those funerals I officiate for people in the community that were unattached to any church, where I officiate the funerals at the funeral home or at a family member’s house.

    In re: to green burial, I am grateful for this trend. I myself want to be buried in a simple wooden casket (such as those from Trappist Caskets http://www.trappistcaskets.com/ ) preferably sans vault.

    On another note: When my grandpa was buried in the cemetery of his little country Baptist Church, all the male family members stayed behind and filled the grave in, which has been the practice at this church for over a hundred years. It was quite cathartic.

    Now, as an Episcopal Priest, I share with folks that the ideal in our tradition is that the family fill in the grave–this is perhaps the hardest tradition for some families and for funeral directors to understand/make possible. But I see among younger people an appreciation for the practice, so perhaps this will become more common again.

    • JS

      Well said.

  • HonestDebate1

    I am a local history buff and have researched the land I own and surrounding area back hundreds of years. I found many graves of the prominent family but only so far back. Eventually I tracked down the family cemetery through old deeds and wills. From there I learned the cemetery was flooded when they impounded the Catawba river in 1935. I found the house where the cemetery was closest to and talked to the owners. 60 years ago their parents were building a sea wall and saw a headstone under the water near the shore. They were collected and have been sitting behind a shed ever since. It was very cool detective work and fascinating as I felt like I knew these people. The patriarch was Daniel Wittenberg who built a mill and became the county’s first postmaster in 1834. We ride horses on the old mail route which was a surrey route. I figured that out with a map commissioned by the US government in 1840.

    No point really.

    • jefe68

      Fascinating. As I’m into this kind of stuff it’s always good to see other folks take on it.

    • Shroudwoman

      but truly fascinating and meaningful!

  • jefe68

    I’m not sure if this was brought up, but in the Jewish tradition and I think the Muslim as well, the body is buried without any embalming in a linen or cotton shroud. We bury our deceased in plain pine boxes. The idea is you return to the earth from which you came.

    • Shroudwoman

      The whole point of GREEN BURIAL is up until lately ONLY Jews and Muslims could bury this way and ENVIRONMENTALISTS could not! This is secular GREEN BURIAL for environmental purpose.

  • Michele Briere

    Have you seen the video on YouTube of Israel (forgot last name) the Hawaiian man who sang the Somewhere Over the Rainbow mix? Beautiful traditional Hawaiian funeral at sea. I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered in a forest or planted with a seedling tree. No ceremony, non-religious.

  • Shroudwoman

    Boy can they! The funeral industry has been mystifying Death and over charging customers for about 100 years which is why we are trying to take it back and make it green and sustainable to save resources and give psychological spiritual basis to healing grief in families.
    They assume your ignorance so go to : funeral consumers alliance(funerals.org), the green burial council (www.greenburialcouncil.org) and Kinkaraco(www.kinkaraco.com and we can direct you to ethical funeral homes. Example:In San Francisco , CA. at Pacific Interment (where Jessica Mitford, author of “American Way of Death” was cremated) DIRECT CREMATION is currently $850.00 .
    (We believe direct cremation without any ceremony at all is just sad and cynical and not very healing BUT it’s a choice people should have. )

  • Shroudwoman

    That’s fabulous!

  • Shroudwoman

    Keep in touch! “LIKE” us on FACEBOOK and find out everything that’s going on the GREEN FUNERAL WORLD! https://www.facebook.com/KinkaracoShrouds

  • Shroudwoman

    Neanderthals actually had Flower Burials ! In the caves in Northern Iraq in Shanidar they discovered hundreds of different kinds of flower pollens with the bones of the deceased. Aboriginals of Australia and Native North Americans both had platform burials:

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