Creating Greener Funerals
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
The modern funeral industry is based on an unsustainable model which uses toxic chemicals and buries tons of wood, steel and reinforced concrete in cemeteries. But change is coming for those concerned about the environment in the form of biodegradable urns and caskets and new processes for cremation.
TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. Death gives rise to some of our strongest emotions, and it's an event that's filled with religious and mythic meaning. But death also raises some very practical questions. What do you do with the body? There are laws and customs that provide some answers. A new custom, environmentalism, has raised some new questions that also demand answers. From a standpoint of the use of land, burial has become very problematic, but cremation has its environmental issues as well. One person who has given these new questions a lot of thought is Darren Crouch, and Darren will be in San Diego next week for the meeting of the California Funeral Directors Association. And Darren is founder of aGreenerFuneral.org and he’s co-founder of Passages International. He joins me by phone, and, Darren, thank you very much.
DARREN CROUCH (Founder, a-Greener-Funeral.org): Hi. How are you this morning, Tom?
FUDGE: I’m doing well. I hope you’re doing well as well, and thanks very much for joining us. And, listeners, give us a call if you’d like to join the conversation. Tell us if you’ve thought about having a green funeral. Also, tell us a story about something you’ve seen that has made you think about burial or cremation in a different way. We’re going to be talking the subject for the rest of the hour. If you have a question or comment, the number is 888-895-5727, 888-895-KPBS. Well, Darren, let’s start by telling listeners why this subject is important. Why do you believe our funerals should be greener, more environmentally sustainable.
CROUCH: Well, I think over the last 100 years the typical American funeral has become less and less sustainable. You know, there are statistics out there that quote the amount of lumber that we use, the amount of steel that we use, the amount of toxic chemicals that are used in funerals, in modern American funerals, and it’s pretty staggering. We use almost 30 million board feet of hardwoods every year. We use over 100,000 tons of steel, which is enough to build the Golden Gate Bridge every year. We use almost 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in cemeteries, which is about enough to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit. So…
FUDGE: What – Let – Tell me something, where does the steel come in? I mean, I can imagine the board feet of wood when you think about all those wood caskets but why is there a need for so much steel?
CROUCH: Well, a lot of American caskets are actually made of steel. They’re metal caskets. I mean, you get caskets made out of steel, bronze, copper. So a lot of steel and semi-precious metals are used in the creation of metal caskets. You know, metal caskets came into being basically as another form of preservation. The idea was to, you know, you embalm the body which preserves the body. You then put that embalmed body in a sealed metal casket, which goes in a concrete vault at the grave…
FUDGE: And more about the – I have a few questions about the concrete vault but first let me ask you a couple of questions about the other way of going, which is cremation. It saves land and perhaps the water table because no – none of those embalming fluids get into the groundwater. But are there any environmental issues with cremation?
CROUCH: You know, it depends who you talk to. I know in Europe, for example, many municipalities and cities and countries are requiring that crematory manufacturers and crematory operators install what they call scubbers which are basically filters that will remove toxic emissions. I don’t know if you’re aware but dental amalgam, for example, contains mercury and when that – when the body is cremated with dental amalgam, often mercury can be emitted into the environment.
FUDGE: And cremation requires bodies to be burned for quite a while at a very high heat.
CROUCH: Correct, yeah. Obviously there’s energy consumed to raise the temperature enough to cremate the body itself, so there are issues with that but also if you look to Europe, it tends to be a little bit more advanced on this area, particularly northern Europe, for example. There are crematories owned by municipalities that will actually harness that energy used during the cremation process and use it to melt ice and snow on sidewalks, heat public pools, those types of things. So in a way…
FUDGE: Oh, that’s very practical.
CROUCH: There are ways to, you know, recycle or harness that energy so as not just waste it.
FUDGE: And, as a matter of fact, there are some – well, when – if you cremate a lost relative, you assume that you will be able to get the ashes of that person for putting in an urn or throwing out over the ocean or something like that but apparently communal cremation is something that also does exist in the world.
CROUCH: You know, I’m not familiar with that.
FUDGE: Well, let me tell you what I mean by that, communal cremation. I mean, being cremated – cremating more than one body at a time.
CROUCH: I’m not familiar with that either. I know that’s done with pets. I’m not sure if it’s done anywhere that I’m aware of with humans.
FUDGE: Okay, well, I think I read that – read that someplace. In California, are there any laws that stipulate what burial or cremation must include? For instance, let’s talk about embalming.
FUDGE: Is that necessary? Is that required by law in California?
CROUCH: I’m not – I’m certainly not an expert on the specific laws of California. What I will generally tell you is that as I know it, cremation (sic) is generally not required in any state as the norm. I think there may be instances, particularly if you’re moving a body from one state to another or if you’re going on an airline, for example, there may be some requirements in a small number of circumstances where embalming might be required. But in general, it’s not required.
FUDGE: And Darren Crouch is founder of aGreenerFuneral.org and he’s co-founder of Passages International. He’s going to be attending the California Funeral Directors Association next week. They’re meeting next week in San Diego. Right now we’re talking about green funerals and if you have a question about making your passage into eternity as environmentally correct as you can, give us a call at 888-895-5727, that’s 888-895-KPBS. Let’s take a call from Alan in Encanto. Allen, go ahead, you’re on the air.
ALAN (Caller, Encanto): Hi.
ALAN: I was fortunate enough to witness what they call a sky burial when I visited Tibet. And the process is one of making slashes in the corpse and then allowing vultures to eat the body, eat the soft tissue, and then they come in later with a hammer and smash up the bones and mix it with barley flour and feed that then to the birds, leaving nothing left of the carcass at all. And…
FUDGE: Alan, you’re making – you’re making that up, right?
FUDGE: No? You’re not making that up. That is actually…
ALAN: I’m not making it up.
FUDGE: That’s a custom where, did you say in Thailand?
ALAN: In Tibet. It’s – well…
FUDGE: In Tibet?
ALAN: Yeah, it’s one of the elements. So there’s the fire element, there’s the earth element, which is burial and cremation, and then there’s also water element where you put it in the – you just throw it in a lake. Or the sky element, which you feed it to vultures. And I always thought that was an elegant and wonderful way of processing dead bodies, and that’s what my preferred method for my body but…
FUDGE: All right, well, Alan, thanks very much for calling. Darren, have you ever heard about anything like that?
CROUCH: I have heard about it. You know, I’ve certainly not witnessed it. I think Alan has been pretty privileged to actually witness and see that. But I have definitely heard of it and I think it is definitely something that does take place in Tibet.
FUDGE: Getting back to our customary burial process, you say that typically embalming is not required by state or federal law and so I guess that’s one thing that people can do to have a greener funeral, frankly, is just not embalm the body.
CROUCH: Absolutely. You know, there are certainly other alternatives. You know, the use of dry ice. I mean, basically the body has been embalmed to preserve it for long enough to have traditional services, which i.e. would be for family and friends to pay respects to the deceased over…
CROUCH: …you know, three or four, five days, depending on the circumstances. But there are greener embalming fluids coming onto the market that do not have – are not based on formaldehyde type chemicals, which are, you know, highly toxic. There are also ways to use dry ice and just basic refrigeration that will preserve the body long enough to have, you know, a traditional, dignified funeral service.
FUDGE: Let’s talk a little bit about that concrete vault that typically is involved with burial in the United States. Now why is that necessary?
CROUCH: Well, I guess there are a couple of reasons. Number one, I think, and this may not be the most important but this is one of the reasons, is that, you know, we’re – we’ve been putting bodies in, you know, relatively expensive ornate caskets over the last several decades and one of the reasons a concrete vault is used is to prevent that casket from getting damaged or crushed because, obviously, if you’re burying a casket four, five, six feet under the earth, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of weight on that casket and the vault will prevent the casket from getting crushed. The other reason is more of an operational reason from the cemetery’s perspective where, you know, if you have – if you don’t use a vault, then the grave can tend to collapse under the weight of the earth above the casket and you end up with a very undulated, unsmooth surface. I mean, if you go to a cemetery – traditional cemeteries these days, they’re often very park like, you know, well manicured, mown lawns, and you would not have that effect if you did not have a vault because you’d have to mound the grave so that as it subsided, it would become level.
FUDGE: And this is what they did back in the old days, in the old American west. If you’ve watched movies, you’ve seen them bury somebody and they put a mound of earth above the burial and that’s because as the body decays, the earth sinks.
FUDGE: And you want to keep it level by putting that mound there. Let’s go to John in La Jolla. John, go ahead. You’re on These Days.
JOHN (Caller, La Jolla): Hi. You know, it’s not just the materials and processes that are not good for the environment, it’s also the amount of money that goes into a funeral. I mean, I think the caskets are a thousand or something like that and the flowers, and with that money you could probably preserve an acre of rain forest for 30 years. I mean, it just seems – or even if you wanted to, you could probably save a dozen lives or – in a third world country or educate a dozen people in a third world country. It just seems like a waste of money. I’d rather have at my funeral, either cremate me or put me in a burlap sack for burial and bring very minimal flowers and maybe play a guitar or something and then take the money that we would’ve put into my funeral and put it to good use for people that are actually living.
FUDGE: Okay, thanks very much, John. Darren, can you be buried in a burlap sack?
CROUCH: As far as I know, you probably could be. I mean, I think it would depend where. I mean, I think there are going to be cemeteries are going to have some internal requirements that may – may not permit that, i.e. the use of a vault, for example. But there are certainly more and more cemeteries that are either opening up to allow for a more natural type of burial like that. And I think there are many, many traditional cemeteries that are looking to incorporate unused land that they have now and create green or natural burial sections within their traditional cemeteries. So, I mean, you know, shrouds are something that human bodies have been buried in for centuries and they’re still on the market today.
FUDGE: I suppose this may be one of the reasons for the trend toward green funerals is because they’re less expensive.
CROUCH: Well, I think they can be less expensive but they can also be as expensive or more expensive. And I think it just depends on the deceased, the family of the deceased, and how they wish to honor the dead. I mean, a traditional funeral or a cremation can also be very inexpensive and it just depends, you know, what the consumer wants to do.
FUDGE: And we’ll get further into that question and that issue when we return after a break. I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days. My guest is Darren Crouch, and we’re talking about green funerals. And when we return, we’ll talk a little bit more about the trend of green burial or cremation and where it started and where it is today. So give us a call if you have a comment or question at 888-895-KPBS.
FUDGE: I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Darren Crouch, founder of aGreenerFuneral.org and a co-founder of Passages International. He joins us by phone from Albuquerque and he’s going to be in San Diego next week to attend the California Funeral Directors Association meeting. If you have a question or comment, we’re talking about green funerals, environmentally friendly funerals, if you have a question or comment, call us at 1-888-895-KPBS. Darren, tell me how you got involved in the funeral business and how did you get involved in trying to create green funerals and in green burials and cremations.
CROUCH: Well, I grew up in southern Africa in the seventies and eighties and it was an interesting time there and I became very aware of environmental issues, conservation both water, power and, you know, endangered species, those types of things. And I always knew I wanted to get into that somehow and when I moved to the states in the early nineties, I met my wife and her family actually owns several funeral homes. And several members of her family and myself were brainstorming about ways that we could introduce some greener funeral alternatives that could be marketed to consumers looking for more unique, more natural and more environmentally friendly funeral products.
FUDGE: Well, look, let’s talk a little bit about those funeral products. Give me an example or two of green funeral products.
CROUCH: Well, I think most people, when you talk about green funerals, think of sort of the burial of an unembalmed body in a natural casket or a burlap sack, for example.
CROUCH: But there are many shades of green and we have many, many different types of products that are greener or more natural or more environmentally friendly than traditional urns and caskets. If we look at the tradition, on the urn side you’re looking at, you know, marble, bronze, wood urns, and on the casket side you’re looking at metal and wood caskets. And our company, Passages International, manufactures and produces several different kinds of products and we make products that are made from recycled paper, we make products that are made from solid blocks of salt that will dissolve in four hours in water, we make urns from cornstarch, we make urns from sustainably produced paper that we make without cutting trees down to manufacture the paper.
FUDGE: Now do you have a product called the Earth Urn?
CROUCH: We do.
FUDGE: And what’s that made out of?
CROUCH: We have a whole series of Earth Urns and they’re made from this sustainably produced paper and it’s basically what they call saa paper, which is a paper made—and it has been made for centuries—from the bark of the mulberry tree which can be harvested without cutting the tree down. So the tree continues to grow. It’s like picking an apple or an orange. And we take this bark and we essentially make it into paper. We add floral material like flower petals to it. So it’s a very beautiful textural paper that is very sustainably produced, environmentally friendly, and since it doesn’t have any plastic or metal components, will biodegrade naturally over time when it’s buried or placed in the elements.
FUDGE: And the gelatin urn, I think you were referring to this before, the urn that dissolves. Why – how would that be used?
CROUCH: We actually have several urns that dissolve. The sand and gelatin is one that I have not mentioned but we do offer a sand and gelatin urn which is similar to an unfired clay so if that were placed in water, for example, that would biodegrade completely within three days. If you buried it in the ground, it would biodegrade in about three months. And it’s obviously a different product from the salt urn. The salt urn is almost like a giant sugar cube in terms of the time that it takes to biodegrade. We actually make it from a solid block of salt and when you put it in the water, that dissolves in four hours. And the reason we created those products is because statistics tell us that a large proportion of consumers that intend to scatter remains want to do it in or over water.
FUDGE: Right, so if you live in San Diego and you wanted to take a boat out into San Diego Bay, you could take one of these urns with the ashes of the deceased in there and put it in the water and then within three hours the ashes would just be spread in San Diego Bay.
CROUCH: And I think, you know, one of the reasons we created these urns also is because traditional scattering, i.e., you know, throwing the ashes to the wind, you know, if I can use that analogy, can tend to be somewhat messy because you never know what the wind’s going to do.
FUDGE: Well, it might – Yeah, the ashes might come back at you.
CROUCH: Exactly. Whereas a lot of these products allow you to put the remains into the urn, put the whole urn in the water, and the urn will dissolve naturally. And so it’s a very dignified way to do a scattering.
FUDGE: My guest is Darren Crouch, founder of aGreenerFuneral.org and co-founder of Passages International. Let’s go to Rebecca in Hillcrest. Rebecca, go ahead.
REBECCA (Caller, Hillcrest): Hi. I’m just enjoying your show and one thing that stood out to me was that Jewish people have been having environmentally correct burial practices for the last several millennia in terms of the concept of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There are no viewings of the body but the body is never left alone. It – The burial must take place the day after the person dies and except when it happens on the Sabbath, and in which case after the Sabbath. The caskets are all wood. It’s all tongue and goove or pegged, and very, very beautiful caskets. And I think that the—I’m not an expert on it—but I think that the deceased is wearing a shroud within the casket. But, you know, the funerals are beautiful, they’re very traditional. Even though there’s no open casket or viewing of the body, there is just a closed casket kind of ceremony or service, and very environmentally friendly, no embalming.
FUDGE: Okay. And so the philosophy is, I guess, the Biblical philosophy would be from dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return.
FUDGE: And if you accept that, I guess you accept the idea of an environmentally friendly funeral.
REBECCA: Yeah, and it’s – but yet it’s very traditional, the caskets are very beautiful and just all, you know, very, very beautiful wood and – but no casket liners, no embalming, nothing artificial.
FUDGE: Hmm, okay. Well, thanks very much, Rebecca. Thanks very much for calling. If you, the listener, want to call us, the number is 888-895-KPBS. And getting back to our guest, Darren Crouch, Darren, tell us, this new industry of green funerals, and it sounds like it is a new industry, perhaps a cottage industry at this point, but it is a trend. Where did it begin? Give us a little history.
CROUCH: Well, I think, you know, obviously, as your last caller mentioned, you know, green funerals have been taking place for a thousand years in different cultures and different parts of the world. And, you know, 150 to 200 years ago, around the time of the Civil War, before the Civil War here in the U.S., you know, green funerals were also the norm. Embalming in its current form today came about during the Civil War to basically allow, you know, soldiers killed on the battlefield in the south to be returned via train to their families for burial in the north. So that’s sort of the history of traditional embalming. As it pertains to green funerals, I think the recent resurgence of green funerals really started in the U.K. and back in the mid-1990s it was relatively new in the U.K. There were probably 10 or 12 natural, or woodland burial grounds they call them over there, and today you’re probably looking at 250 natural burial grounds in the U.K. And, of course, U.K.’s a very, very small landmass.
CROUCH: You can imagine, you know…
FUDGE: A shortage of cemetery space.
CROUCH: Exactly. So, you know, here in the U.S. today, we’re probably where the U.K. was 10 years ago. We probably have, you know, between 10 and 30 green cemeteries, I think. More and more are opening every month and more and more traditional cemeteries, as I mentioned, are incorporating green sections into their offerings. But I think, you know, green funerals basically stem from the greening of every other industry, whether it’s automotive, you know, clothing lines. Everything…
CROUCH: …is going green and, you know, our belief as a manufacturer of green funeral products is that consumers, just like they do in every other part of their lives, are demanding greener alternatives when it comes to their funerals.
FUDGE: Basically until now we’re been talking about a couple of methods of disposing of the body after a person dies and one is burial and one is cremation. Now I have read – forgive me if this is not something you know something about but I’ve read about a process in – that is used in Sweden in which the body is dehydrated or freeze-dried. Is…
CROUCH: Yes, I’ve heard of that.
FUDGE: Is that something you can tell us about?
CROUCH: You know, I can elaborate a little bit on that but I think you have the basics of it pretty nailed down. I mean, basically it’s cryogenic freezing of the body, which, you know, removes all the liquid from the body and all you’re left with is dry, brittle bone, which is then gently vibrated which brings it down to sort of a material similar to cremated remains, ashes actually.
FUDGE: Okay, so it’s an alternative to cremation.
CROUCH: It is an alternative to cremation. It involves no heating. It’s more of a cooling process.
FUDGE: All right, and environmentally friendly?
CROUCH: Definitely environmentally friendly, yeah.
FUDGE: Let’s go to Dan in – Well, Dan is in Los Angeles. Dan, go ahead, you’re on the show.
DAN (Caller, Los Angeles): Hi there.
DAN: I’m really fascinated with this. I’m curious. How would I find a funeral home in my area that does a green burial? I mean, do I just pick up the phone and start calling around? Is there a way to find out who I could call?
FUDGE: Thanks very much, and, Darren, what do you know about that?
CROUCH: Well, I mean, this is one of the reasons that we created aGreenerFuneral.org and aGreenerFuneral.org is a website, it’s a not-for-profit educational website that is designed to educate consumers about their choices when it comes to greening their funerals. And on aGreenerFuneral.org, we also have a database of funeral home providers that will offer green products and services to consumers that are looking for greener, more natural forms of end of life rituals.
FUDGE: Right, but it sounds like Dan might actually just have to pick up the phone and call funerals (sic) to see if they offer green funerals.
CROUCH: Well, I think…
FUDGE: Do they advertise this service?
CROUCH: You know, I think you’re going to find some funeral homes that may advertise but I think the quickest way to do it would be to go to aGreenerFuneral.org and look by state and city and you’ll be able to find funeral homes that we know immediately are offering green products and services.
FUDGE: All right, well, Dan, thank you very much for calling. I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Darren Crouch, founder of aGreenerFuneral.org and co-founder of Passages International. Darren, I think you were talking about the movement in Britain and you – there are certain burial sites which you described as, well, that are green burial sites. What did you call them?
CROUCH: Woodland burial sites.
FUDGE: Woodland burial sites. Do we have any of those in California?
CROUCH: I’m not sure if you do. I don’t remember…
FUDGE: Do you have any of them in New Mexico?
CROUCH: We have a green cemetery in New Mexico and they are – they’re dotted around the country as well. I’m – There are several states that have them and basically, you know, woodland cemetery’d be, you know, the burial in a sort of a natural area. And a lot of families want to plant a tree. And so that’s – if it’s not actually a burial in a wooded area at the moment, it will be a wooded area in the future. So it kind of goes back to one of your previous callers which was about, you know, conserving land.
FUDGE: What can you tell us, if anything, about trends in San Diego? This part of the country?
CROUCH: Well, I know San Diego has a pretty high cremation rate and I know that being close to the ocean or on the ocean, a large number of consumers want to scatter the cremated remains, in particular, at sea.
FUDGE: Now I know you’ve addressed this but what has been the reaction of the funeral industry to this new way of doing things? It sounds like they’re receptive because they know it’s something that consumers want.
CROUCH: Yes, I think, you know, more and more funeral directors are embracing it because they realize that there’s a large number of consumers and it’s a growing number of consumers that are interested in greener funeral alternatives. I mean, AARP did a survey, I think, in 2007 and found that 21% of over-fifties, Americans over 50, would be interested in an eco-friendly end of life ritual. So at the moment, you know, the numbers are relatively small but they’re growing very rapidly.
FUDGE: Well, Darren Crouch, thank you very much for joining us.
CROUCH: Thank you very much and I hope that your listeners will get a chance to visit aGreenerFuneral.org and learn a little bit more about their options and alternatives when it comes to greening their funeral.
FUDGE: Darren Crouch joined us by phone from New Mexico. He’s founder of aGreenerFuneral.org and next week he’s going to be in San Diego at the California Funeral Directors Association meeting. So, anyway, if you go to that meeting, you might meet him. Coming up in the next hour of These Days you’ll hear from two San Diego brewers. They’ll talk about the growth of San Diego as a beer town and what it takes to make a craft beer of impeccable taste, so stay tuned for that. If you’d like to hear this segment again or make a comment about something you’ve heard on These Days, go to KPBS.org/thesedays. I’m Tom Fudge, and stay tuned as These Days continues.
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