A wrapped body in Eloise Woods, a Green Burial Park. Photo courtesy of Ellen Macdonald.
A wrapped body in Eloise Woods, a Green Burial Park. Photo courtesy of Ellen Macdonald.

The business of death is changing. This is the first year cremation is anticipated to be more popular than burial in the United States. As American culture becomes more environmentally conscious, we seem to be questioning our treatment of physical remains. Once-traditional, now-alternative practices such as “green burial” are gaining popularity. These changing practices may signal a shift in our reaction to death in general. Is it a frightening event to be avoided, or a natural one to be embraced?

The International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association‘s annual convention, this year in San Antonio April 8-11, hardly avoids the topic — it provides information for those who deal with death when we don’t want to. The “unconventional convention” includes talks on everything from business and marketing to practical techniques, but the lineup of speakers provides valuable insight into our culture’s evolving relationship with the one thing we all have in common: Death.

A multitude of factors may influence preference for the treatment of remains — religious beliefs, cost, and thought for those left behind, to name a few. Of these, cost is perhaps one of the least pleasant, but the most relevant, of considerations. The median price for burial has increased dramatically, from an average of about $3,500 in 1990 up to $8,500 in 2014. Additional costs such as embalming, hearses, tombstones, and crypts can easily multiply that.

This price tag accounts for, in part, the rising popularity of cremation, which costs on average $2,260. In 1960 less than 4% of the U.S. population chose to be cremated; in 1990 about 17%; and now closer to 50% nationally. Texas is a little different, with a 50% burial and 40% cremation rate. It’s unclear what happens to the other 10% – presumably burial on private property, which is legal in most parts of Texas.

Poul Lemasters, who is presenting a talk on the subject, created a hotline to educate both professionals and consumers about cremation. Questions have included who has a right to the remains, where the ashes can be scattered, and whether or not you can travel with them. As for concerns about pollution from cremation, Lemasters said that more pollutants are released by an average household fireplace and more mercury from a broken fluorescent lightbulb than cremation of a single body.

A grave is prepared in Eloise Woods. Photo courtesy of Ellen Macdonald.
A grave is prepared in Eloise Woods. Photo courtesy of Ellen Macdonald.

The risks of cremation are not so much environmental as emotional. “We live in a culture where death is not the greatest thing in the world,” Lemasters said. “We want to make it easier, simpler, and quicker, but it isn’t. It takes time, and that’s good. It allows you to cope.”

He explained that with cremation, customers are sufficiently removed from the process that they often undergo a delayed reaction to the death. Questions or issues surrounding it may not arise until months later, when they are much harder to face and/or resolve.

By contrast, a “green burial,” or burial without embalming chemicals and with biodegradable shrouds or coffins, often directly involves family and friends in the burial process. Death is treated naturally, as a natural occurrence. The process is often significantly less expensive than traditional burial – coffins alone can cost anywhere from $100 to more than $5,000. Concerns about the spread of disease or contamination of the water supply because of body burial are largely unfounded, except in rare cases.  Bodies allowed to decompose naturally have little impact on the surrounding environment.

The first official green burial site was founded in 1996 in South Carolina. Its practices are remarkable only in that for a centuries-old practice, the simplest way to treat remains, was suddenly categorized as an “alternative” burial practice because it avoided modern practices.

Lee Webster, a member of the Green Burial Council, now in its tenth year, will present a talk on “Treehuggers, Babyboomers and…Republicans? Who Wants a Green Funeral and Why.” She feels that green burial re-introduces a necessary human element to death.

“Green burial connects people to death in a way they haven’t done in about a century,” she explained. “Green burial spaces become places for the living, not just the dead. They get back to the way cemeteries used to be, as gathering places for families and friends.”

Ellen Macdonald, owner of Eloise Woods, a green burial park near Austin, said that she’s had an “overwhelmingly positive experience” since opening the park in early 2011. She admitted that while green burial, like all burial methods, has its share of problems — not least of all flooding, draught, wild animals, and neighbors — it allows for a more personal, natural, and simple process.

She explained that the green burial practice is an incredibly flexible one, allowing for any level of involvement on the part of friends and family. While some still choose to hire funeral or transport services, others appreciate the ritual of preparing the body and grave themselves.

Macdonald feels that the advent of the professional undertaker made death into an alienating and frightening event. A more personal, hands-on burial allows people time to adjust and process. “We meet people during what may be one of the worst times of their lives, but hope to give them the peace and comfort of a beautiful place.”

The convention will address these topics and more. After all, death is only natural.

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Gretchen Greer is a freelance writer and photographer, born and raised in San Antonio. She has lived in France and England, and currently divides her time between Texas, London and Burgundy. You can find...