'Green' funerals beginning to catch on

Hannah Wit once told her longtime boyfriend what should happen to her body after her death.

No toxic embalming fluid for preservation, she insisted. No fancy metal casket lined in satin. No concrete vault around her grave. No elaborate marker. Wit just wanted to disappear.

"I want to be eaten by the worms," she said.

"You can't do that," Doug Sovern remembers telling Wit.

After she died this year at 42, Sovern, a KCBS radio reporter who lives in Oakland, did some research and was surprised to find he could honor Wit's wish.

He learned he could commission a "green" burial, leaving behind nothing more than biodegradable compost to fuel plant life.

Although they are popular in the United Kingdom and other countries, green burials are just beginning to attract attention in the United States.

For centuries, some cultures have chosen to bury their dead in shrouds or wooden boxes, without first infusing bodies with chemicals. But the green burial movement has taken the practice to a new level. Some cemeteries forbid the use of formaldehyde, concrete, metal or any material that isn't biodegradable.

In these burial grounds, graves are marked only with a plant or a stone natural to the area. Visitors use global positioning equipment to find resting places of their loved ones.

Just five cemeteries in the United States are certified as strictly green by a council that oversees their activities. Others, including the one in Marin County where Wit is buried, have sections set aside for green burials. Most other cemeteries will forgo chemical preservatives or metal caskets if families request it, but require concrete vaults to stabilize the ground where bodies are buried.

Advocates argue that a green approach to burial is environmentally friendly, spiritually uplifting and often less costly than the conventional American way of laying people to rest.

Some conservation groups see green burials as a way to preserve public land that otherwise might be devoured by development.

"Before the 'better dying through chemistry' era was born, this was the way most of humanity cared for its dead," said Joe Sehee, founder and executive director of the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit group leading the charge for biodegradable burials. "It's a way to honor the dead and heal the living in an environmentally responsible manner."

Sehee's group believes metal caskets and reinforced concrete vaults are wasteful and unnecessary, and that formaldehyde used for embalming contributes to underground water pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers formaldehyde toxic to humans and other species, but the agency has no data on its potential for polluting water.

Cremations, Sehee said, send potentially toxic mercury and other chemicals into the air from the burning of dental fillings. The EPA estimates that crematoriums emit about 320 pounds of mercury each year, a tiny share of the tons of the chemical pumped into the atmosphere by other industrial sources.

Conventional funeral directors challenge the notion that their methods are environmentally damaging. Funeral homes and cemeteries are required to abide by environmental laws, they point out. Moreover, they argue, many people want loved ones embalmed so that they are suitable for viewing before bur-ial and wish to honor them with fancy caskets and gravestones.

"I look at our cemetery, and to me it's a peaceful place where people can visit a grave site, bring flowers, have picnics," said Shaun Myers, a Utah funeral director and member of the National Funeral Directors Association's executive board. "To me, it's a thing of beauty, and I don't see any documentation that supports the claim that cemeteries are places of contamination."

Most funeral directors are happy to conduct "direct burials," without embalming or elaborate caskets, if families request them, Myers said.

In Stanislaus County, two funeral directors say they have had no requests for green burials. Mike Eaton of Eaton Family Funeral and Cremation Service in Modesto cited the danger of delayed burial without embalming.

"The idea of no embalming with holistic burial also carries a danger of E. coli for people who come in contact with the body," he said.

Another area funeral director noted that people still would need a burial permit from the county, and he knew of no local cemeteries that would put a body in an unlined vault.

In the Sacramento area, fun-eral homes frequently get requests for burial without embalming, said funeral director Tom Maloney of Lombard & Co. Biodegradable caskets are an option. But most cemeteries require concrete vaults to prevent graves from settling and sinking. Maloney said he doesn't know of any with areas dedi- cated to green burials.

"Ecoburials" have been slow to take off in the United States, Sehee said, in part because they pose an economic threat to fun-eral homes and cemeteries.

Green burials can be cheaper. The average cost of a traditional funeral is about $7,000, not including cemetery fees, which can add thousands of dollars to the bill. Green burials can be done for less than half that amount, advocates say.

"Still, we think funeral homes can make just as much money being more ethical and environmentally sustainable," Sehee said. "The smarter providers realize that this is where the market is going." Sehee's group certifies and oversees activities of the nation's green burial grounds and reviews green services offered by conventional funeral homes and cemeteries.

Meanwhile, the council is working with conservation groups such as the Commonweal Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land to establish natural burial sites on property protected from development.

Modesto Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins contributed to this report.