(RNN) - Sooner or later, you’re going to die.
And if you’re interested in America’s hottest burial trend, you should start planning now. Even if you’re not, you should plan ahead, said a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
“The last time I checked, the death rate was 100 percent,” said Jim Olson, who works with Lippert Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, WI.
Green burials, which leave the burial site as natural as possible and limit pollution, now constitute about 2 percent of U.S. funerals, and the numbers are growing steadily. A 2008 survey conducted by a funeral industry publisher said that more than 40 percent of respondents would consider a green funeral, about twice as many as in an AARP survey only two years earlier.
In 2008, there were about a dozen funeral homes in the U.S. offering green funerals, and today, there are hundreds in most of the United States and Canada. The Green Burial Council is a nonprofit that represents more than 300 "approved providers of environmentally sustainable death care" and offers a planning guide, as well as advice and information to those who live in an area where a green funeral provider is not available.
Returning the body to the ground is nothing new, Olson said. People have been doing that for thousands of years.
“The industry has just given it a name,” he said.
Muslims and Jews usually bury the dead before the next sunset. But burials need not occur that quickly if religious strictures don't require it, according to Olson. Refrigeration, dry ice, or non-formaldehyde embalming products slow down decomposition and can allow viewings and give out-of-town loved ones time to travel.
But without prior planning, those whose wish was to protect the environment could end up burning a lot of fuel on the way to their final resting place.
“In Sheboygan, WI, where I am, cemeteries require vaults,” he said. “You have to drive an hour and a half to get to a cemetery that doesn’t. For a truly green experience - no casket or vault - it’s three hours from here.
“If somebody wants a sea-grass casket within a time frame of 24 to 48 hours, I have to have it flown in or driven here on a truck, which negates the effort to minimize the carbon footprint,” Olson said.
Some states require embalming if a body is held more than 24 hours, he said. Others require nothing at all. It’s best to check local laws and the availability of products and services required for the funeral that suits you.
Many states have craftsmen who make simple, wooden caskets from locally sourced woods. Multiple companies offer green caskets that you can ?purchase online?, have them delivered and store until needed. Nature's Caskets in Colorado offers a do-it-yourself kit made of easily assembled, unfinished blue-stained pine. The base model costs about $500, the pre-assembled versions run from a little over $600 to a little more than $800, depending on the style. Shop around.
Another growing trend combines the green element with cremation, which has surged to constitute more than a third of all final dispositions in the U.S. That number is predicted to rise to almost 60 percent in the next 10 to 15 years.
Several companies provide biodegradable urns that allow human ashes to be mixed with potting soil and planted along with the seed of a tree to serve as a memorial. Again, it’s best to check local laws, what kinds of trees grow best in your area, and finding an appropriate place to plant the memorial tree.
Among the first to offer such a product was Bios Urn, which was conceived by Spanish artists Martin Azua and Gerard Moline. The urns were first marketed in the late 1990s and can be purchased from the company’s website for a little over $100 and shipped worldwide. They contain coconut fiber and cellulose along with the ashes.
Spirit Tree, based in Puerto Rico, offers a similar product that uses less of the ashes than the Bios Urn. It has an organic bottom shell that contains a few tablespoons of the remains, which are then covered with a ceramic top that prevents them from blowing away. As the tree grows, it breaks the ceramic encasement. The company promises an eventual “negative carbon footprint,” since trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
Cremation usually produces about three to four pounds of remains, which are called ashes but which are actually crushed bones that are gray in color, about the consistency of sand. The cremation process reduces the remains to carbon, phosphorous and calcium, Olson said.
Cremation is carried out at a temperature of about 1,400 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature and time can be adjusted to determine the amount of remains. It’s possible to completely vaporize the body, Olson said. Not many people choose to do that. A casket is not necessary, but crematories usually require a combustible container and federal law requires the crematory make such containers available, according to funerals.org.
Some crematories will accept the remains from the family, and allow them to arrange for the death certificate and permits to transport the body. Some will only accept remains through funeral homes.
Again, it’s best to check before need, said Olson, who explained the process.
“We pull the remains from the retort,” Olson said, “remove any metal or screws, take the bones and pulverize them. Cremated remains are legally defined as ‘nothing.’ There are no laws, per se, about scattering remains. They are natural, good for rose bushes, will change hydrangeas to different colors.”
But each county and state has different laws, so check.
“Here, we’re located near Lake Michigan, so we scatter a lot of remains there. But it’s not something I’d recommend you do in a city park at noon on a Tuesday, or you might get a ticket for littering.”
A Florida company that makes cast-concrete, specially designed spheres to create artificial reefs in 1998 formed Eternal Reefs, which combines cremated remains with the concrete to create a memorial, complete with a bronze, inscribed plaque. The “reef balls,” which are roughly spherical and contain holes to allow fish and water to pass through, are sunk offshore. In time, natural corals and sea life will accumulate to form a reef.
The cost ranges from about $2,500 to almost $7,000, depending on the size of the reef ball. The larges can accommodate up to four sets of remains for families, partners and even pets. The cost includes placement, dedication, the memorial plaque and even a GPS survey to record the longitude and latitude of the memorial reef.
The idea sprang from an offhand comment by the father-in-law of Don Brawley, the founder of Eternal Reefs, who helped conceive and start the Reef Ball Development group, which has designed and constructed more than 3,500 reefs around the world.
Carlton Glen Palmer, Brawley’s father-in-law, told his family he’d like to have his cremated remains placed in one of the reefs.
“I can think of nothing better than having all that action going on around me after I’m gone. Just make sure the location has lots of red snapper and grouper,” he said, according to eternalreefs.com. Not long after he made the request, he passed away, and Brawley honored Palmer’s last wishes by adding his remains to a reef ball that was placed near Sarasota, FL.
Whatever you choose, involve your family in the discussion and make sure they understand what you have decided. Olson said consultations with local funeral directors are often free, and added that that you don’t have to prepay, which is a common misconception.
A funeral director will know all the options, can offer counsel and answer questions, and make sure your loved ones know what to do.
It’ll make things easier on them at a difficult time.
“Time and again I’ve sat around a table with families, and they say they don’t know what to do,” Olson said. “At that stage of the game is no time to make decisions. If you pre-plan your funeral, all they have to do is show up. Tell me what you want, and I will be there.”
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