ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Now, to worries about the effect of chemicals and other pollutants on the health of the earth. When faced with the death of loved ones, Americans are increasingly seeking a more environmentally friendly option, more environmentally friendly in anyway than thick caskets and embalming fluids.
Green burials, as they're called, are simple and often more affordable. Though not as prolific as cremations, the idea of returning to the earth naturally is catching on in some areas and the funeral industry is beginning to pay attention.
NPR's Cheryl Corley has this report.
CHERYL CORLEY: Let's begin this story about death and burials by first meeting someone who celebrates life. Regina Boll, or Ginny, as she likes to be called, is 78. She lives in Kewaskum, Wisconsin, a small town near Milwaukee and runs a dog-grooming business.
(Soundbite of dog barking)
CORLEY: Boll's two dogs accompany her as she crunches through the snow, walking a few yards from her front door to a nearby shed that houses her business. She's been a dog groomer for 25 years.
Ms. REGINA "GINNY" BOLL (Dog Groomer): I didn't clean up after the morning drive. You go in there. Go on, go on. So it's a kind of a mess.
CORLEY: Boll is a former nun and the last of her immediate family. Her home and the spruced-up business shed sit on five acres of wooded property. Boll says she loves nature and when she dies, she will become part of it.
Ms. BOLL: Death is - its part of life, and it's a natural part of life. And I think it'll be a lot healthier for us if we dealt with it that way.
CORLEY: And what do you want to have happened with your physical self?
Ms. BOLL: It's going to be my friend's work who are going to plant me, and I'd like to have it as easy as possible for them to plant me.
CORLEY: To plant you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORLEY: Boll says she is still figuring out what planting for her actually means. But she has heard about green burials and knows it does not involve any formaldehyde-based embalming. There's no concrete burial vault. No fancy mahogany casket.
Ms. BOLL: I think a shroud or a very simple pine casket is fine, something that will just return to the earth.
CORLEY: The typical no-frills funeral costs about $6,500. A green burial can cost much less, in some areas, maybe only a few thousand dollars.
Joe Sehee is executive director of the Green Burial Council, a group devoted to using these types of burials as a way to keep natural areas from becoming development sites.
Sehee says he knows cremations are becoming increasingly popular, but there is little possibility of mercury or other potentially hazardous emissions being released with green burials, and he cites plenty of reasons to go green.
Mr. JOE SEHEE (Executive Director, Green Burial Council): Each year in this country, we bury enough embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. We bury more metal than what was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge and so much reinforced concrete in burial vaults that we could build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.
CORLEY: Sehee recently took that message to what might be considered unfriendly territory, a convention of independent funeral home directors living in Chicago. John White(ph) and his family operates several funeral homes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Mr. JOHN WHITE (Businessman, Minneapolis-St. Paul): I don't know if I don't understand it or I just don't buy it. Don't get me wrong. I want to save the planet just as much as the next guy.
CORLEY: But White says while embalming is not a legal requirement, it's a widespread practice that is good. He's skeptical about claims that steps like refrigeration or keeping a body on dry ice for viewing will be as effective.
Mr. WHITE: When somebody calls me for a death call on Monday and may have people flying in from Florida that aren't going to be in until Thursday, that body is not going look as good if we don't embalm the body.
CORLEY: And White argues that burial vaults keep cemetery grounds level as heavy equipment is used on the land. He also worries that green burial sites would look unkempt, but Joe Sehee has a ready response.
Mr. SEHEE: We're not trying to create golf courses. We're trying to create natural environments.
CORLEY: So instead of row after row of headstones, there might be grave markers on stones that are natural to the area or nameplates on surrounding trees. It wasn't until the Civil War when bodies were transported from the battlefield to home that current funeral practices became popular. In many ways, green burials are simply a return to traditions of the past. And some religious groups adhere to those practices even today.
There has been a spread of green cemeteries in Great Britain where there are now 200. In the United States, there's just a handful. The first opened in South Carolina about a decade ago. Even so, there's been enough interest in these alternative burials that some conventional providers are starting to think green.
Mr. TOM KURSELL (President, Forest Home Cemetery): A lot of the founders of Milwaukee are here.
CORLEY: Tom Kursell, the president of Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, is driving along the landmark cemetery's winding roads.
Mr. KURSELL: So we went by the corner that is called the Beer Barons Corner (unintelligible) is there. Pets are there.
CORLEY: There are huge monuments and gravestones here, plus plenty of undeveloped land. In all, 200 acres of rolling hills, woodlands and open fields. The ground is snow covered, but Kursell drives to one section, two and a half acres set aside for green burials.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Mr. KURSELL: This could have been a grass field where we could just be walking.
CORLEY: Underneath the snow is a metal. Land cleared of boulders and home now to native Wisconsin grasses surrounded by trees.
Mr. KURSELL: We will create a walkway that will go into the section and so we have access for (unintelligible) families to, you know, walk through the pass and get into the meadow. And from there, it's pretty much just wild grass is growing.
CORLEY: And it's also where the process of ashes to ashes will take place at a much more rapid pace. Kursell says he's received several inquiries but believes there will be generational shifts and opinions about death and burial that will determine whether green burials will take hold.
But whether it's a conventional cemetery, carving out areas for green burials or burial grounds being created in an effort to preserve open space, Joe Sehee says it's all connected to the same idea that one's final act can have meaning for a family while having less impact on the earth.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Environmentally friendly funerals are catching on in some areas of the U.S. as an alternative to traditional burials. So-called "green burials" eschew embalming and fancy caskets in favor of a more biodegradable, natural return to the earth.
Burials and Cemeteries Go Green
Cheryl Corley, NPR
Ginny Boll, a 78-year-old former nun, said that when she dies, she wants her friends to hold a party to celebrate her life and then to bury her simply.
Cheryl Corley, NPR
Ginny Boll loves life. The 78-year-old former nun operates a dog-grooming business in Wisconsin in a small shed near her home on her woodland property. When she dies, Boll says she wants her friends to hold a party to celebrate her life and then to bury her simply.
She's not interested in being embalmed or laid to rest in a fancy casket. Boll wants to return to the earth in a more natural way.
So-called "green burials" are catching on in some areas as an alternative to traditional burial. They are simple, often more affordable and environmentally friendly.
Formaldehyde-based embalming is taboo in green burials, as are concrete burial vaults. Caskets are made of biodegradable material, and sometimes the deceased are wrapped in shrouds alone.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral is $6,500 plus cemetery costs.
A green burial can be significantly less costly — in some locations, it's only a few thousand dollars; the burial of cremated remains is even less.
Cremations — which are also inexpensive — are increasing in number. But Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, says that unlike with cremations, green burials present little possibility that mercury or other potentially hazardous emissions will be released.
Sehee says it's up to individuals to decide how green they want their end-of-life process to be, but he believes current funeral practices are reason enough to go green.
"We bury enough embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools, enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and so much reinforced concrete in burial vaults that we could build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit," Sehee said.
It wasn't until the Civil War — when bodies were transported from the battlefield to home — that current funeral practices became popular. So in many ways, green burials are simply a return to traditions of the past. And some religious groups adhere to those practices even today.
The concept of green burials, though, is more popular overseas. In Great Britain, there are 200 green cemeteries. In the United States, there's just a handful in a few states. The first, Ramsey Creek Preserve, opened in South Carolina in 1998.
Even so, there has been enough interest in these alternative burials that some conventional providers are starting to think green. That includes the Forest Home Cemetery, a historic landmark in Milwaukee. Cemetery President Tom Kursell says a two-and-a-half acre meadow full of native Wisconsin grasses will be used for green burials as early as next spring. That's where the process of "ashes to ashes" will take place at a much more rapid place.
Whether it's a conventional cemetery carving out areas for green burials, or burial grounds being created in an effort to preserve open space, Sehee says it's all connected to the same idea: One's final act can have meaning for a family while having less impact on the earth.