12 Nov A DYING TRADE
The idea for Final Footprint® began in 2004. The founder had recently returned from her native England, with a crazy idea to have natural burial sites all over this country, as in England. Final Footprint® would supply the biodegradable caskets. After watching Six Feet Under, Jane Hillhouse decided that it would be possible, let passion win out over common sense, and started the company. Frequently told she was before her time, she pursued her vision; researching, learning about natural burial, and the funeral industry in the United States.
Soon after, when seeing that natural, biodegradable caskets were not available in the United States, Jane connected with Ecoffins, one of the first natural casket manufacturers in England. She became its sole US distributor. Ecoffins is the only Fair Trade Certified casket company, and has seen sales rise from 200 units in 1999 to over 10,000 units in 2011.
Historically, all funerals were green. During the Civil War, the practice of body preservation by embalming, to return dead servicemen home to their families, in reasonable condition, began. This also shifted the practices of the women taking care of their own, in their homes, to nescient funeral industry, run mainly by men. In the last 20 years, this has turned around dramatically, as women are returning to the funeral industry.
Fast forward 150 years. Nature lovers led by Ken West, established a natural burial ground in Northern England in 1993. There are now 260 natural sites and 30 in the planning stages, listed with The Natural Death Centre in England, the premier worldwide green burial organization. Their make-up varies tremendously, all having unique designs that reflect the individual owner’s passions, so lots of homework is required, when making a choice.
The purist cemeteries prefer very little in the way of markings of the grave site. Some permit only a flat indigenous engraved stone, or the planting of an indigenous tree. Many now have gravesites marked by GPS. For many cemeteries, shrouds are sufficient body cover, and burial is at a shallow depth where decomposition can take place aerobically. In England, there is no legal depth requirement. No vaults or embalming are permitted at any of these cemeteries, and if a container is used, it must be made of a natural, bio-degradable material, such as wicker, bamboo or willow. In England, the cost of these sites start at approximately $750 rising up to as high as $10,000 depending of the location and view!
Again, in England, self service funerals are widely available to the public, and frequently utilized. When the funeral plans are complete, you collect the body and take it, to the cemetery or crematorium yourself. For “the really cool and hip”, there are companies that supply specially outfitted, vintage vehicles for this purpose. The major common denominator in all of natural burial, is that all graves are listed on a central registry.
One of the most intriguing and some might say refreshing differences between funerals in England and the United States are the total lack of regulations in England. The only requirement for funeral directors is that they supply a questionnaire form to families they help, which the family completes and returns directly to the Natural Death Centre.
The Natural Death Centre website (http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk/) is very informative about the industry in general, and international death practices, which affect us all. Another major English organization, established by The Natural Death Centre in 1994 is The Association of Natural Burial Grounds. It assists groups in the process of establishing sites, providing guidance and help to its members as a whole. They also established a Code of Practice for members so as to provide the public with long-term security and peace of mind.
Natural burials compete with the cremation, which is growing in leaps and bounds both in England and the United States. Cremation is not the environmental panacea that its proponents would like you to believe. The Final Footprint® staff hand out fact sheets at events, because it’s easier to let people down gently. For instance, the mercury in our teeth, during cremation, is released into the air. The average crematorium releases 25 to 50 pounds of mercury into the air annually. Would you want to live downwind? Europeans have taken steps to alleviate this problem adding additional scrubbers in the crematoriums to capture the mercury, but this is extremely costly. Mercury can’t be seen, smelled or tasted, and cremation returns back to the earth to poison our air, ground and water.
Another issue with cremation is the amount and cost of the fuel which is enormous. An employee at a local crematorium told Jane that he could heat his home for a week with the fuel used for one cremation. It has been said that in England there is a crematorium that heats the neighboring church hall, by funneling the exhaust through a duct system.
Two other, recent, alternative methods of disposal are promession and resomation. In promession, the body is freeze dried and dehydrated. The remains can then be placed into the soil, where they decompose in as little as 12 months. According to the Natural Death Centre, in England, this method is not yet off the drawing board. However Resomation is catching on in some parts of the States, and being banned in others. Minnesota recently installed one in a beautiful LEED certified building. In this process the body is broken down chemically into sterile liquid and bone ash. The sterile liquid is removed via the waste disposal system, and the bone ash is returned to the family in an urn.
Natural burial was reborn in the United States in 1998 at a beautiful site called Ramsey Creek in South Carolina. In New Jersey is another equally beautiful natural burial site called Steelmantown, circa 1700. This site goes back to before the civil war. Currently, there are 42 natural burial grounds in 26 States. Some are hybrids, in which sections of an existing cemetery have been converted to natural burial. Because funerals are regulated on the state level, there are many different burial and funeral rules in the United States. Here again, the constants in natural burial are no embalming, no vaults, and very minimal grave markers. Flat indigenous engraved stone is the preferred grave marker. No pesticides, herbicides or any type of watering mechanism are permitted in these cemeteries. Graves must always be listed, and GPS is frequently used as the location method. Most graves are hand dug, as in England. Whereas in a conventional cemetery there may have up to 800 burials/acre, in a natural cemetery, there are typically no more than 100 burials/acre.
The aim of all natural cemeteries is to keep the land as natural as possible, in keeping with the harmony of the surrounding environment. Another major goal is to preserve the open space for wildlife. Natural burial sites should be used and visited by the public, friends and relatives, just as one visits any park. Relax, slow down, and enjoy the wonderful, natural countryside and environment. There aren’t many chances left.
As the famous naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote:
“Dust unto dust in a desiccated version of the Round River concept.… A rock decays and forms soil. In the soil grows an oak, which bears an acorn, which feeds a squirrel, which feeds an Indian, who ultimately lays him down to his last sleep in the great tomb of man—to grow another oak.”
This post was originally published in the Thought Leader section of the August 2012 edition of American Funeral Director.