Back-to-Nature's Final Journey: 'Green' Burials Gaining Interest

Back-to-Nature's Final Journey: 'Green' Burials Gaining Interest
Vickie Kelley of the Natural State Burial Association says Arkansas consumers are responding to green burial options. (Beth Hall)

Interest in green burials is on the rise, and internments of unembalmed bodies are likely to further disrupt an industry already challenged by the rising popularity of cremations, according to the Natural State Burial Association.

A green burial, or “natural burial” — the term preferred by the statewide nonprofit headquartered in Fayetteville — refers to an unembalmed body going to the grave in a container of personal choice.

Features popular in the natural burial movement are biodegradable containers, shallow graves free of herbicides and pesticides, flat fieldstone markers and magnetic GPS locators. Preserving native wildlife and plants is crucial, too.

Public interest in green funerals has grown, according to a survey of 1,238 adults by the Funeral & Memorial Information Council, a membership organization based in Brookfield, Wisconsin. In 2015, 64 percent of adults ages 40 and up said they would be interested in green funeral options, compared with 43 percent in 2010.

No funeral homes or cemeteries in Arkansas are certified by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit in Ojai, California, that has created standards for green burial procedures in North America.

But every funeral home offers a type of green burial called a direct or “immediate” burial, where the deceased is not embalmed and can be buried in a container the family provides, or in a shroud if the cemetery allows, according to Bobby Thurman, a licensed funeral director and embalmer and president of Nelson Funeral Service in Carroll County.

He is also past president of the Arkansas Funeral Directors Association and past vice chairman of the State Board of Embalmers & Funeral Directors, which has since been dissolved and replaced by the State Board of Embalmers, Funeral Directors, Cemeteries & Burial Services. The new board and the state Department of Health do not have specific guidelines for green burials or green/natural cemeteries.

Thurman and Vickie Kelley, founder and president of Natural State Burial Association, agree that funeral directors must adapt as the demand for traditional funeral services dwindles and demand for cremation and interest in green burials rise.

More than half of Thurman’s clients opt for cremation, Thurman said, and that’s in line with the national trend. Cremation has surpassed burial for the past three years, and the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2018 Cremation & Burial Report predicts that cremation will reach 80 percent by 2035. The NFDA is a member of the Funeral & Memorial Information Council and is also headquartered in Brookfield.

The Natural State Burial Association believes that many people who would otherwise choose cremation would opt for natural burial if they become aware of its lower price and environmental impact. And educating the public, advocating for natural burial options and partnering with the funeral industry are the NSBA’s missions. Its immediate goal is to establish a natural cemetery.

“The funeral industry is finding itself unsustainable as it is currently configured,” Kelley said.

Thurman agrees that funeral homes are struggling financially. One reason, he said, is the rapidly increasing interest in cremation, which has traditionally been much cheaper than burials. Thurman believes cremation is underpriced and burials are overpriced, but the imbalance hasn’t been remedied because directors who adjust their prices fear they will lose business to competitors who don’t follow suit.

“Every funeral home has to figure out what they need to do. How are they going to make those changes? What are they going to do to adapt? If you’re going to stay in business, then you can’t be complacent. You have to be very proactive and get out there and see what the trends are and keep up with stats and reports and adapt,” he said.

Kelley said funeral directors’ responses to the NSBA’s efforts have been mixed. She fears they are unlikely to promote an option that is less profitable than a traditional funeral. Thurman disagreed.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m all for it … I don’t think there’s any cons to it at all. The pro is that we’re here to serve the family, to offer the type of services that they’d want that would represent their loved one’s life and to be able to help them personalize that service in a way that would be helpful to them in getting through the process of learning to live without that person anymore.”

Direct burials are no more profitable than direct cremations funeral homes already offer; there isn’t room for markups in either case, he said. In fact, they cost about the same.

His business charges families $1,270 for a direct burial and $1,600 for a direct cremation. Like a direct burial, direct cremation refers to the person’s body not being embalmed.

Those fees include what a backhoe operator charges the funeral home and a crematorium’s per-use charge. (Most funeral homes don’t own a crematorium, Thurman said.)

Both he and Kelley said green burials offer businesses the opportunity to make and sell biodegradable coffins. Kelley said funeral homes that cater to green burial will attract specific customers: those who are unwilling or unable to pay for unnecessary products and services; who care about preserving green spaces and wilderness; who see conventional cemeteries as unsustainable; who seek a more spiritual experience and are demanding their right to reconnect with the ancient ritual of an earth burial.

“We’re getting so much support,” Kelley said about consumers’ responses to the NSBA’s efforts. “There’s rarely anyone that I speak to, the first thing I get from them is ‘That’s exactly what I want.’ The second thing I get is ‘Is that legal?’”

The answer is yes. It is legal to be buried without being embalmed and in a container of your choice. But there may be restrictions that aren’t legal in nature. For instance, some cemeteries require that a person be buried in a certain type of container, such as a concrete vault.

Having that structure can reduce maintenance costs for cemetery owners who, like funeral directors, have suffered financially from the growing popularity of cremation. A grave with structure won’t sink as much and is easier to mow, Thurman said.

The natural cemetery the Natural State Burial Association hopes to open will require little to no maintenance, and Arkansas is a good place for it, Kelley said.

“In a state known for its beautiful natural land features, we should be compelled to preserve green space and ensure wilderness preservation over the development of conventional cemeteries — an often overlooked long-term planning aspect of population growth across the region,” she said.