Monday, March 14, 2011

Dust to Dust

Ya'll may not know this about me, but I can be a morbid sort of person.  I sometimes think about my own death.  Not in a creepy or suicidal way, but i do recognize that death is an inevitable part of life and i'm okay with that.  I think about how i'd like it to go (i'm a super planner, after all).  I wanna die peacefully in my sleep.  Old, but not so old that my faculties have started to decay.  Pipe dreams, I know.  We don't get to choose our own death.  We do, however, get to have some input on how we are laid to rest, or so I thought.  When a burial request comes to my mind, I make it known to my husband.  I figure he'll be in charge of planning my funeral (did i mention that i wanna pre-decease him?).  I realize that, looking back on what I just wrote, I must sound kind of creepy but this isn't a regular occurrence in my house or anything.  Maybe 4 or 5 times ever.  My two biggest requests are to be buried in a specific cemetery in my hometown where most of my family and friends are buried and to "be treated like compost".  I just wanted to stay chemical-free and be buried in a something that’d decompose; nothing terribly crazy, and still respectful and fairly traditional, but also low-cost and green.  Hanging out at the funeral home last month (mostly an observer of other's grief), I realized that it probably wouldn't be that simple.

I put a call into the cemetery, and they confirmed that they require people to be buried in vaults (Enormous reinforced concrete boxes that prevent the ground from settling) but were otherwise uncooperative in providing info.  I perused the green burial council’s site to see what sort of items and practices they had certified.  Then I e-mailed an acquaintance who is a funeral home director to get some info straight from the horse’s mouth:

Cody B. Magill, F.D. is the Managing Director at Turner Funeral Homes in Ellwood City and New Castle, PA.  He attended Slippery Rock University and the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.  He is an adamant supporter of death education, speaking regularly at high schools, colleges, mortuary schools, and local clubs and organizations.

How often do you find yourself dealing with families or individuals who have environmental concerns with their funeral arrangements? 
While I have never had a family opt for a true “green funeral,” I have had several families express a desire to make a traditional funeral as green as possible, without sacrificing any of the trappings of a traditional funeral, such as a visitation and funeral service.  What is interesting about the green funeral movement is that the public has basically told us “this is what we want,” and we, as an industry, are doing the best we can to react to the public’s demands.  The idea did not originate within the funeral service industry.

The Green Burial Council has given it’s seal of approval to  Enigma-Champion embalming chemicals which, as I understand it, are comprised primarily of essential oils. 
Have you or someone you know ever worked with these?
I have not, nor do I know anyone that has worked with these particular chemicals.  When the concern about formaldehyde contamination of groundwater began to surface several years ago, Champion (the same company) came out with a glutaraldehyde-based fluid called Millenium.  Formaldehyde’s chemical formula is CH2O, in other words, it’s one carbon atom away from water.  When it is introduced into the body during embalming, it reacts with the proteins in our bodies.  The carbon is shed and bonds to two nitrogen atoms in the proteins, thus joining two proteins into one and making them unsuitable food for bacteria and delaying the decomposition process.  So, in theory, if all the formaldehyde reacts with protein, the only thing that remains should be water.  Of course, this is not the case, as it is impossible to ensure all of the formaldehyde reacts with proteins.  In the case of glutaraldehyde, it only bonds every fifth protein, so there is not as much preservation nor is there as much of a natural appearance to the deceased.  Families did not like the way their loved ones looked when embalmed with glutaraldehyde, and eventually glutaraldehyde-based chemicals began to fade away.  I would tend to believe that other non-formaldehyde chemicals may suffer the same fate.

How do they compare to more traditional methods in both function and cost?
Not having used them, I cannot comment on function, but I did look up the price and they are about 20% more than traditional formaldehyde-based embalming fluids.

Are you aware of any other environmentally friendly embalming options?
None come to mind. I will note, however, that embalming is not as detrimental to the environment as some would lead you to believe.  Right now, all body fluids removed from the body (a mixture of blood, water, and formaldehyde) go down the drain, into the public sewers.  In the 80’s, the feds were considering regulating what we could put down the drains and were considering making funeral homes collect all waste into a tank and have it treated as medical waste.  After a government study, it was decided that funeral home waste was diluted enough to be safely disposed of in the public sewage system.

If you choose not to be embalmed, how does that affect funeral arrangements?
Despite persistent rumors and misinformation, embalming is not required by law except in certain special circumstances (i.e., shipment of remains via a common carrier like an airline or a train), however it will limit your funeral arrangements slightly.  Public viewing of an unembalmed body is not possible as it would present a public health hazard.  However, a small, private viewing by the immediate family can always be arranged and should be encouraged to ensure proper identification of remains before they are buried.  This can be accompanied by traditional visiting hours and a funeral service, the only difference being that the body is not present.  The Jewish population has been doing “green funerals” for many years, as the Jewish faith prohibits embalming and considers it desecration of the body.  In the Jewish faith, the unembalmed body is ritualistically washed by a team of men or women (the same sex as the deceased) called the Chevra Kadisha (a Gentile is not permitted to be present during the washing).   The body is then wrapped in a sacred shroud and placed in a special unfinished wood casket that is constructed without the use of any metal fasteners and has holes bored into the bottom to allow the deceased to come in direct contact with the earth.  This entire process must be completed within 24 hours of death to comply with Halacha, or Jewish law.

Are you ever concerned about the cancer risk of working with formaldehyde?
No.  Many regulatory practices are in place to limit the embalmers exposure to formaldehyde vapors.  In fact, all funeral home embalming rooms have undergone formaldehyde vapor monitoring to ensure that employees are safe from dangerous levels of formaldehyde vapors in the air.  Anytime a new employee is hired, or a change is made in the room’s ventilation system, this monitoring must be repeated to ensure the facility is still in compliance.  Aside from regulatory factors, the careful embalmer can further limit his exposure through some common sense practices, such as directing all drainage from the body straight into the drain with some rubber tubing.

My Research has turned up shrouds, cardboard boxes, baskets, unvarnished wood boxes.  In short, no shortage of burial box options and, while you can of course go overboard with anything, they generally seem to be less expensive than their more traditional counterparts.  Would you agree?
I offer an eco-friendly unfinished pine box for $999 while my first metal casket starts at $1399.  As you said, there are more expensive options available, but generally they are less expensive.

Can/do funeral homes assist with home viewings?
There was a time when all viewings took place in the home.  Yes, funeral homes can help with home viewings by providing the necessary equipment (casket stands, flower stands, folding chairs, etc.) and transportation of the deceased to and from the home.  However, even back when home viewings were commonplace, houses were not built to accommodate a casket and it was sometimes necessary to have a carpenter around to remove door frames and picture windows to get the casket into the home, and sometimes even bolster floor joists with supports in the basement to hold the weight of all the mourners gathering upstairs.

Is there a cost difference between traditional and home viewings?
At my funeral home, I do not charge to go to church or the home, but this will differ vastly from funeral home to funeral home.

For those who live in an area without green burial grounds (like western pa, for example) or who still prefer traditional cemeteries, what can be done to accommodate more eco-friendly practices and still meet their requirements?
Another common misconception is that burial vaults are required by law.  This is a cemetery requirement.  Without vaults the casket will eventually degrade and collapse on itself causing a depression in the ground that the caretakers must then go in and backfill.  By requiring a “caveproof container” around the casket, cemeteries avoid backfilling graves.  Let’s return to our Jewish friends for a moment.  Remember the holes drilled in the bottom of the casket so they could be in direct contact with the earth?  They wouldn’t work so well if the casket was placed in a vault.  While Jewish cemeteries do not require a vault, sometimes a Jewish family wishes to be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery.  In this instance, just the base of the vault is lowered over the casket, leaving the bottom completely exposed to the elements while still fulfilling the cemetery’s caveproof container requirement.

Anything else you’d like to add?
While preplanning is helpful in all situations, it is more especially important if you desire a green funeral.  Most funeral homes do not stock eco-friendly caskets or formaldehyde-free embalming fluids and these are not things that are easy to come by at the drop of a hat.  If you are thinking about green burial, set up a time with your funeral director to sit down and talk about it to ensure that your wishes are carried out.

I was really glad for Cody’s input.  It seems our Jewish friends are a bit ahead of the curve and have done some trail blazing in the funeral industry.  I thought it was interesting to hear that the green funeral movement is coming from the people, not the industry.  So many other industries have capitalized on and even taken advantage of people's newfound interest in the environment.  Wherever the drive is coming from, i think its great that more options are becoming available to us, even if in most areas there is still further yet to go.  

As for my own funeral?  As things stand , I'm kind of indifferent to green embalming vs no embalming, so my family can choose to take it or leave it.  I'm quite partial to basket caskets.  Still not fond of even half of a vault, but as I still want to be buried with my family, it's a better option than a whole one.  Oh, and partially off topic: I'm aesthetically partial to zinc obelisks (how very Victorian of me).  Lets hope none of this matters for a good long time though.  


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Katherine StephanisMarch 17, 2011 at 1:59 PM

    Definitely interesting. I'm totally on board with the whole green burial thing. And don't worry, you're not the only morbid one- I've made it very clear to George, multiple times, what my burial preferences are. I've even been pondering the idea of writing a living will just in case, because I am a control freak and want to make sure things are done my way, dagnabit!

    In my case, the first thing is no cremation. Personally I'm not against it, but my church would pretty much disown me; cremation is a big no no for Orthodox. Also, I refuse adamantly to be embalmed. Total waste of money in my opinion. Finally, stick me in a pine box, thank you very much, there is no call for a fancy casket, and for heavens' sake don't put makeup on me or anything. If they must have a viewing, it'll be with me looking natural- meaning dead. (yeah, I'm not really sentimental.)

    Once I'm in the ground though, I don't care about anything else. They can have a massively sentimental memorial service for all I care- at that point it starts being about the mourners and not the mourned, anyhow.

    So yeah....I'll see your morbid, and raise you unsentimental and pushy, haha.

  3. It makes Nick really uncomfy to think about my death, and even moreso to know that I'm thinking about it enough to have a preference...but I hear ya on pushy!

    I dont think you can have much/any viewing if you're unembalmed. It's a public health risk. My biggest worry about being unembalmed would be rushing my family cuz there is such a defined timetable at that point.

  4. Hah, poor George lost the ability to be uncomfortable during conversation ages ago. That's what you get for marrying a wife with zero brain/mouth filter, and less sympathy for conversational discomfort (at least around him, anyhow).

    And I actually like that it's rushed for the burial. That will ensure that it is a simple, core family only affair, which is my preference. I just re-read the part about embalming/viewings, and the small private viewing seems much more my speed anyhow.
    The post-burial ceremonies are up to my family to do whatever would benefit them best, so I figure that will allow them breathing space to take as long as they need after the (simple as possible) burial is out of the way.

    Phew, I'm gonna stop writing novels on your wall now!

  5. Interesting--I didn't know about green burial. I've kind of always felt I didn't want to be cremated. I don't know why, but it doesn't appeal to me.