Are Eco-Friendly Funerals More Cost-Effective?

by Lynn B. Johnson on April 1, 2010

green-funeralThe only two sure things in life are death and taxes. We all know that April 15th is looming, so I thought I’d look at the other side of my opening truism. We’re all going to die, sure, but how can we encourage our survivors to make our own post-life existence as eco-friendly and “green” as possible? Will greener choices save money? And, let’s be real: what is the “ick” factor?

The only thing I knew about green funerals was what I saw on the last-season episode of “Six Feet Under.” One of the men who ran a family funeral home died, and his brother pushed the family to follow a greener, more eco-conscious funeral plan. The scene was awkward and a little more hands-on than appealed to me.

Joe Sehee, the founder and executive director of the Green Burial Council, consulted on that episode of the HBO drama. ”As awkward as it was, people still remember that scene. It spoke to people,” Sehee said.

The Green Burial Council, which recently celebrated five years in existence, provides information to consumers and funeral-industry workers about eco-conscious options for body preparation and burial. Sehee felt strongly about the issue — so strongly, in fact, that he sold his house to fund the Green Burial Council — and created the Council to spread the word.

“I felt strongly that there were environmental benefits: not just reducing carbon emissions and toxification, but to use burials a new means for protecting natural areas,” Sehee said.

One benefit of eco-friendly funerals is indeed the cost savings.

“The consumer is provided cost savings: no money spent on a vault, less money spent on caskets, no money spent on embalming. But, the cemeteries might be more expensive. All told, consumers might spend half to two-thirds of conventional price,” of a traditional funeral, which typically runs $12,000 to $15,000, Sehee said.

“But,” he added, “the people reading Wallet Blog might spend $1500 on a direct cremation without a funeral, because that provides value.”

I contacted a GBC private cemetery to get some more facts and figures. Ellen Brumder of Our Lady of the Rosary Cemetery in Texas was happy to point me in the direction of the Austin Memorial Burial & Information Society (AMBIS),  which publishes a yearly price survey of funeral homes local to the Austin area. Additionally, Brumder’s cemetery posts its pricing on its Web site — a level of transparency not often found in the funeral-home industry.

Our Lady of the Rosary is a private cemetery, inspired by cemeteries the Brumders have visited over the past 35 years in Austria. Brumder’s cemetery not only showcases the natural beauty of the land, but also works with 12 artists to create monuments, including Brumder’s artist husband. They found support in a somewhat surprising place.

“My husband and I got excited about the idea of starting a private, open-to-all cemetery. Our Bishop said he loved the idea; it was very counter-culture, especially among Catholic private cemeteries.”

The Brumders have not received support from their local funeral-home neighbors, however.

“The funeral-home industry has their way of doing things, and they’re the slowest moving industry for change. We were just considered weird amateurs when we went for the zeroscaping — we were the first zeroscaped, no-pesticide, no-fertilizer, leave-native-plants-intact cemetery in the nation — and promoting the green aspects. We rarely get a referral from a funeral home because we’re cutting in to their business,” Brumder said.

Our Lady of the Rosary Cemetery accepts embalmed and non-embalmed bodies. “Some of the big funeral homes, I’m sure they allude that embalming isn’t a requirement, but they make it seem like its’ the normal way,” Brumder said.

While added services and products can improve the profits of a funeral-home business, chemicals from embalming can also have a terrible effect on employees: Researchers in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the U.S. National Cancer Institute recently found that “long-term exposure to formaldehyde used for embalming increases funeral industry workers’ risk of death from myeloid leukemia.”

When I asked Sehee to share the top three ways to minimize the environmental effect of one’s post-death existence, while saving some coin at the same time, he gave me four:

1) Finding a way to arrange for sanitation, preservation, restoration of a body that doesn’t have to involve toxic chemicals. Refrigeration, dry ice, and non-toxic products are healthier for funeral-home workers and also for the environment. (Figures I looked at priced embalming anywhere between $450-$1395.)

2) Avoiding a casket that’s not going to degrade, and one that won’t leach chemicals into the ground. A shroud or box that will return to earth quickly will also conserve manufacturing energy. A Trappist casket starts at $1,000 — much more wallet friendly than an 18 gauge metal casket, which according to this year’s AMBIS survey could set you back as much as $2895. Even less expensive is the choice of a burial shroud, which, according to Brumder, is how the Trappists bury their own.

3) Avoiding burial vaults. “We put 1.6 million tons of concrete in the ground yearly in burial vaults alone,” Sehee said.

4) Picking a cemetery that furthers a legitimate conservation service, one where part of the proceeds will protect adjacent lands. “For that to happen, consumers need to speak up,” Sehee said. “It’s making a difference.”

If you are interested in learning more about green options prior to your demise, speak to your preferred funeral home. Sehee insists that the consumers are the ones who are bringing the funeral homes around to change. Speak with your wallet to affect change in a typically conservative and slow-moving industry.


Anita Peterson
It's "xeriscape" as in "dry," not "zeroscape."
March 19 at 14:59 pm
But imagine you in a casket with worms in you! Wouldnt you prefer part of you to be in the living room of a loved family member. Well i would. When ever they wanted show respect for the day the one has passed they could just go to the living room instead of driving and putting even more carbon in the air.
December 9 at 14:14 pm
i love a eco friendly home !!!!
December 9 at 14:11 pm
Native Woodland
I've just watched Nate's funeral on 6ft Under - though it was chaotic, completely disorganised and crazily full of meaning, it was completely uncharacteristic of any of the natural burials that we facilitate at our five natural burial grounds here in the UK. We are there to help, to guide, to backfill the grave and to reassure the family that we will take care of things after they have left - no one was there for the Fisher family. That is not a message we'd like people to receive.
April 5 at 13:15 pm
Lynn B. Johnson
Thanks for your comment, Native. I agree that the Six Feet Under episode about natural burial was crazy and chaotic, but it was also very much in line with the context of that show (and particularly during that final season, what with Nate's untimely death and David's PTSD). It was also not surprising to me that the Fishers wouldn't call in another funeral home to help them during their time of need. Stubborn people, those Fishers.
April 6 at 20:35 pm
This is a very interesting article to say the least, but I enjoyed reading something different... :)
April 3 at 20:56 pm
Simply Pine
There is a lot of less expensive options for a box if people are interested in building their own. Check on line for plans. These can be done with salvaged materials and water based glues. This will remove some of the ick factor

Brent from Simple Pine Boxes
April 1 at 20:30 pm

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