Natural ending: As interest in ‘green burial’ grows, funeral industry, lawmakers consider regulation

Mary Alice Brisbee, information director of the  Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont, wants to make it easier for Vermonters to be buried burial without caskets and gravestones, if they so wish. Here, she tends flowers at her mother's grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Duxbury, where she doesn't want be buried. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Mary Alice Bisbee, a member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont, wants to make it easier for Vermonters to be buried burial without caskets and gravestones, if they so wish. Here, she tends flowers at her mother’s grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Duxbury, where she doesn’t want to be buried. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

An increasing number of Vermonters want to make their final decision a green one. And with more than 40 “green burial” sites popping up around the country in recent years, the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont wants to make green burial an option for consumers.

A bill regulating green burial died in the 2013 legislative session.

Government officials and representatives of the Green Burial Council are not sure if such legislation is needed. As of now, burial without vaults or caskets is already legal on private property and in certain cemeteries. No other state has passed a bill regulating green burial.

“We don’t believe that legislation is necessary,” says Joe Sehee, program officer at the Green Burial Council, the national organization that has been advising on regulations for green burial sites since 2005. “We believe that we need regulations to make sure promises by the natural burial sites are being kept up.”

The definition of green burial is broad and individual to the customer, says Jonathan Boucher, funeral director at Guare & Sons, a funeral home in Montpelier. For some, it could mean a burial without embalmment; for others it could mean burial without a casket, he said.

The Green Burial Council defines green burial as ”A way of caring for the dead that does not require the use of energy and resource intensive and often toxic products and practices associated with conventional funeral service such as concrete burial vaults, metal caskets and embalming,” Sehee said.

The standards set up by the organization also ensure that the concept furthers legitimate environmental aims such as the protection of worker health, reduction of carbon emissions, conservation of natural resources and preservation and restoration of habitat, he said.

A bill to regulate green burial in Vermont was presented to the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs by Reps. Mike Yantachka, D-Charlotte, and James McCullough, R-Williston, during the 2013 session, but it was not picked up by the committee.

“We don’t have any plans about that bill right now,” said Rep. Helen Head, D-South Burlington, chair of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.

“Dying Green”

The film “Dying Green” will be screened at the Senior Activity Center in Montpelier at 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 23.

“Dying Green” tells the story of a natural reserve in South Carolina, where bodies are being buried without caskets and embalmment. Metal from hip replacements or other surgery is collected for recycling. The burials are made in a natural reserve, and, in some cases, without formal gravestones.

Head said the committee did not have time to dig into the details of the bill last session.

McCullough, the co-presenter of the bill, said it will not be on his priority list next session (work in the Lake Shoreland Protection Commission will come first, he said).

He introduced the bill last session for two reasons. First, he believes in the ecological aspects of green burial and that it makes sense that humans “who stem from soil should return to soil.” Second, he had a friend who died of cancer because of contact with toxic embalmment chemicals during his work as a mortician. On his deathbed, the friend asked McCullough if he could “do something about this.”

The bill that was proposed last session didn’t include wording about the markings of the graves, which is one of the reasons why Patrick Healy, superintendent of the Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier, testified against it on the day it was introduced.

”This group of people wanted a ‘natural burial’ definition put under the cemetery statutes,” he said. ”But they appeared not to want to follow the other regulations for a cemetery, such as a recorded plot plan at the local town clerk’s office.”

Head said that if the bill resurfaces it would need more research.

“My understanding is that they (graves) do require marking, and if that would not be required with the bill then the committee would have to learn more about how it would affect cemeteries and municipal regulations,” she said.

Giving people more information about green burial as an affordable option to conventional funerals is important, said Mary Alice Bisbee, a  member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont.

“We’re not ahead of the nation on this,” she said.

There are more than 40 natural reserves designated for green burial, said Shee. But Vermont has none, said Bisbee. These 40 follow the Green Burial Council’s guidelines; there are about 20 more burial grounds that have not yet been “accepted” by the council.

Green Mount Cemetery doesn’t offer green burials for caskets, but they do bury cremated remains in a wooded section of the cemetery, with markers, Healy said.

He is worried that unmarked graves in natural reserves could become a legal issue. If a court order required a grave to be dug up, how would one know its location if it is not marked, he asked.

Bisbee doesn’t think marking will be a problem. There are GPS and other systems to mark the graves’ locations, she said.

“There are probably dead bodies buried everywhere that we don’t know about,” Bisbee said.

Some funeral homes in Vermont have started to look into doing green burials without state legislation. The Westerlund Funeral Home in Brattleboro has seen a growing interest in green funerals in the past couple of years.

“We get weekly inquiries about green burials,” said Beth Perkins, the funeral home’s director and manager.

The company handles about 125 to 150 burials a year and meets with customers to make sure that they get the type of funeral they wish for. A couple of people have already signed up for green burials, she said. Perkins said regulations mostly regard cemeteries, as they need to follow the rules set out by the state’s funeral board and the municipality.

Perkins has spoken to people at Meeting House Hill, a cemetery in Brattleboro, about setting aside land for green burials. The area would be part of the current cemetery, and there would be grass and flowers. A natural walkway that can be marked is being considered. Exactly how that might work is not clear yet, but GPS might be an option, Perkins said.

Sehee, of the Green Burial Council, is skeptical about the need for legislation. His organization has weighed in on potential legislation in other states, but has not been contacted by the Vermont Legislature.

He said other entities have found it unnecessary to go beyond the verifiable standards set forth by the council. The standards are used by 350 of what he calls “approved providers,” in 42 states and in six Canadian provinces.

Sehee is concerned might happen if the Legislature gets it wrong is that consumer alliance groups just found a “cheap way” to get rid of bodies and that natural burial grounds won’t hold the promise that they have given family members. That is to make sure that the natural reserve will stay as it is for many years, and not be sold or developed into something else.

The council’s program of compliance involves established land trusts that serve as “eyes on the ground,” and sets forth and continues to evolve standards with input from experts in fields such as sustainable landscape design, restoration ecology, conservation management and consumer affairs, Sehee said.

At Guare & Sons Funeral Home, Boucher is not worried that the latest trend might steal business. Seven out of 10 deaths are already cremations and the company has seen a steady decline in the use of embalming fluid, he said.

The latest burial data from the Vermont Department of Health from 2009 paints a similar picture. In 2009, 2,992 bodies were cremated and 1,441 were buried in Vermont.

As they have adopted to cremations, Boucher says he will adapt to any changes.

“We’re willing to work with the customer to give them whatever they want,” he said.

Correction: This story was corrected at 9:05 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013. Mary Alice Bisbee is a member of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont, not its information officer. The Vermont alliance has taken no position on H.83; the story originally said the group supported the legislation. The film “Dying Green” is not sponsored by that alliance.

Comments

  1. Bob Orleck :

    Here are some quotes from this article:

    “Dying Green” tells the story of a natural reserve in South Carolina, where bodies are being buried without caskets and embalmment. Metal from hip replacements or other surgery is collected for recycling. The burials are made in a natural reserve, and, in some cases, without formal gravestones.”

    “An increasing number of Vermonters want to make their final decision a green one. And with more than 40 “green burial” sites popping up around the country in recent years, the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont is following up on the trend with a campaign to get a bill regulating green burial passed during the 2014 legislative session.”

    “We’re not ahead of the nation on this,”

    “McCullough, the co-presenter of the bill, said it will not be on his priority list next session (work in the Lake Shoreland Protection Commission will come first, he said).”
    “Head said that if the bill resurfaces it would need more research.”

    “Head said the committee did not have time to dig into the details of the bill last session.”

    Comment:

    I’m sorry but I laughed a little (not much) when I read this article. At first I looked at the calendar to see if it was April fool’s day or that some skit from “Saturday Night Live” accidentally got printed. Imagine being hit with the idea of bodies “buried without caskets and embalming”, and the “metal from their hip replacement … collected for recycling.” Does the gold and silver from their teeth filling go into the deceased’s estate or back into the land to set up another potential “gold rush” at these green sites years from now. That would be a good way to get more relatives to visit burial sites even if it is with a gold pan.

    Maybe some of this came from a Jay Leno monologue. Like “sites popping up around the country in recent years”, a dig at little Vermont’s trying to be the first in outrageous things; “We’re not ahead of the nation on this.” I guess you could say we are behind.” Behind is a good word when you think about our leaders who pursue these ignominious firsts and can be referred to as “horses behinds”.

    Surely it had to have been humor intended to say “the Lake Shoreland Protection Commission work has priority over green dying legislation.” But “… if the bill ‘resurfaces’ it will need more research” because the committee “did not have time to ‘dig’ into the details of the bill last session.”

    Well maybe I am just a “deadhead” because for some they might “die” laughing at this article, but for me it was not really that funny. Funnier was my humorous Mom. She was buried traditionally I might add in a casket with a stone marker, at a beautiful site that allows us to visit and place fresh, beautiful flowers (she always loved her flowers) and remember her wonderful life. She would joke that when she died, just “pickle her bones and put them on the mantle and when you get hungry, take a bite.”

    As for me, I don’t mind being cremated, but do me a favor, don’t pass a law that would prevent a big piece of genuine job producing Vermont granite from being put over my body that says “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” that will for time to come, remind people if they choose to visit or just happen to walk past that Bob was here, had a purpose in life and that he accomplished it before he passed over to the other side.

    Simple cut flowers at my grave marker please!

    • Kathy Nelson :

      Mr. Orleck, If your mother was alive today I doubt that she would find your thoughtless comments on this issue very humorous. There are far too many rules, laws and regulations that put a tremendous burden on a family to lay a loved one to rest. Even burial on your own property can be subjected to one regulation or another. I find nothing wrong, silly or laughable about people wanting their remains naturally returned to the earth. No chemicals, no casket, no inverted septic tank called a burial vault and no unnecessary frills.
      I have seen way too much of how the funeral industry rips people off and how they benefit from the absurd rules of local and state human burial rules, and the wretchedly thoughtless rules of so-called approved cemeteries that are designed to keep vault makers and grave marker businesses well paid.
      A protected wilderness burial ground, where a person’s family can pay a small fee for a loved one to be naturally buried is not an unreasonable or foolish expectation. What’s wrong with knowing that my burial fee went to pay to keep an area in a beautiful, natural state?
      I hope there will soon be several natural burial sites in VT soon.

      • Bob Orleck :

        Kathy Nelson quote: “Mr. Orleck, If your mother was alive today I doubt that she would find your thoughtless comments on this issue very humorous.”

        Kathy, you didn’t know my Mom, a wonderful non-politically correct person who had fun with life. My first reaction was that you should keep your stuffy, self-righteous opinions of others to yourself and stick to the issue of green burial that you wanted to talk about. If my mother was here to say something she would probably tell you, Kathy, lighten up. I got to wondering why on these comment lines so many are afraid to express any sense of humor. I have heard it said that people who lack a sense of humor are like a wagon which is jolted by ever rock on the road, no matter how small it is. Such a person must have a rough time traveling the road of life.

        It does not matter much to me what you your opinion is on burial but you must think it does since you continued to opine about it on your reply to my post. Now that you have, I will give you mine.

        It is a nice experience to walk through an old grave yard and read the beautiful and sometimes humorous inscriptions that loved ones have seen fit to post on a piece of granite in memory. If you spend some time and without any preconceived thoughts, walk through a rural cemetery and view the memorial markers and reflect on several of the lives, it can be a rewarding and peaceful time. Even though you most likely will not know that person, because you are there, are reading their name and what is written on the stone, it gives tribute to a fellow human. Nothing wrong with that!

        In our little New England town I came upon a very unusual stone of a man described as a former slave. The inscriptions told of his wonderful life and his accomplishments after being freed. What a wonderful memorial to this man and his human struggle for what were his God given rights. Once in the past he was seen only as a possession, now is memorialized as a man.

        My wife worked at a local school that was close to a cemetery and told me of a small stone engraved with just one word, “Baby”. She regularly noticed that young children from the school would take little bouquets of wild flowers they would find and put them on the baby’s marker. It was meaningful to these little ones to pay tribute to this unknown baby. We could learn a lot from these innocent, non-programmed, children. We can keep in touch with history from these markers as well. Justin Morgan of Morgan horse fame is buried in the same cemetery as “Baby”.

        If you have witnessed as I have a burial at Arlington National Cemetery and viewed the absolutely beautiful row after row of white, perfectly placed stones, that memorialize those men and women who gave their lives for your right to say what you wish, as cynical as it might be, you could not deny how wonderful this place was and how deserving they were to have this little piece of ground with a marker to remember them and what they did.

        I was recently at Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego to prepare for a Navy memorial service for men from a particular ship who had passed away and reunion for those still with us . I saw a man at there spending time at the stone memorial wall containing cremains of his wife, lovingly caressing and washing that stone with holy water he had gotten from his church. I could not resist talking to him and when I did I invited him to our events but while he said that he deeply appreciated the thought he declined, telling me that this was his life now. He said he loved his wife so dearly and it was important that he could come here twice a week to talk to and remember her. I looked at the stone and saw lip stick prints on it. I asked him about that and he said they were his daughter’s and he was not too happy that she had marked the stone this way with her kiss. I expressed to him that the marks were beautiful because they showed her remembering love for her mother and to me they were symbols of that love. He smiled and expressed a blessing to me. So in remembering the dead in these ways we also honor their lives and give purpose to some who are left behind.

        Just this morning my wife and I walked into the woods close to our house. A week earlier I had come across a small memorial stone close to a logging road marked with engraving that could barely be read identifying two children who had died at a young age in the 1800’s and who were buried on the property. While it was sad to realize that these youngsters were not able to experience a full life, the stone allowed me and my wife to think about them, memorialize them and place a small flower on their grave. If they can look down from heaven I bet they smiled at the pretty daisies, black eyed susans and corn flowers and especially with how carefully we placed them on and around their stones.

        So go ahead and solve all the problems that come from greedy people doing bad things to make money on even the burial of the dead and correct those problems if you will, but do not minimize the desire so many of us left behind have to remember and show that remembrance in physical ways. If someone wants to erect a monument why belittle them and criticize the profit a marker business might make helping them do that? Man wastes so much money on so many destructive things that have no good end that fade away into nothingness. The end of a person’s life on this earth surely is worthy of a small permanent piece of stone in a field somewhere for someone to notice and remember. If you want to do it your way, more power to you and I sure hope you feel the same about the way we want to do it.

        I could share many other memories of my mom, some silly and some very serious and meaningful, but I won’t with you. But I will tell you about my great grandfather. He died very poor and I was told that he was buried in a pauper’s grave on a hill in an established cemetery. I have visited that cemetery on numerous occasions, searched records and talked to employees there in an attempt to find exactly where he was buried. I wanted to place a small marker there. I know the hill will remain uncluttered with buildings and the like in the future because of where it is, but something is just not right that I cannot see some little mark he has left on this earth even though it would only be a small stone. I am aware there are other ways such as writings or on-line memorial posts to remember people, but with my lost relative, I find nothing like that. A small granite stone would remain and while other remembrances might be lost, forgotten or deleted, this little piece of land with the marker will testify that he was here and experienced a human life. That is important to me and so many countless others who give tribute to departed friends and loved ones regularly at cemeteries around the world.

        It seems that some think that we are just an accident of nature, live here on earth, die and are no more, so why not just throw us in the ground and forget us. Every person has a designed purpose and each is worthy of remembrance. Placing a remembrance stone is a practice that goes back in ancient history. I am reminded that Joshua placed memorial stones to remind people what God had done and for the express purpose that “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’”, these remembrances can be passed on to that generation and as long as the practice continues to all generations. Some may not care but others, possibly your grandson or granddaughter, might see a stone with a familiar name and ask what it means and there may be someone who had been told and remembers and will tell them. In such a way, the human story is placed on that heart through remembrance triggered by a simple stone marker.

        • Mr. Orleck, Please note that I have no problem with remembrance stones in a green forested area as long as they are not traditional cemetery markers. Please attend my presentation on Friday, August 23rd, 4:30 PM at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, 58 Barre Street. Also, in the photo at the beginning of this article, I showed the reporter my name now added to the “Bisbee” stone on the back. I would just rather have my body return to the environment to fertilize new growth.

          • Bob Orleck :

            Dear Ms. Bisbee: Thank you for the invitation but I probably will be unable to attend. I think we might have some serious disagreements about the value of as you call them “traditional cemetery markers”. The community of the traditional markers, small and large in organized cemeteries, speaks to me of the richness of our culture through the many years of their creation. These traditional markers provides such a rich historical record of each little town across our nation. They define us better than any written document ever could. So many different families facing loss of a loved one played a role in writing the story recorded in stone for the world to see. With the speed our society is traveling we are running the risk of losing our personal and collective identity and I believe the traditional marker helps us preserve that.

            So we will differ and while I respect your choice for you, I would hope you would respect mine. I had the privilege of organizing a memorial service at Arlington and the many monuments, large and small painted an indelible image that is as beautiful as any natural scene I have ever seen and I lived six years on the island of Maui so that is saying a lot.

            I am now doing a special event that includes Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego and I have visited there several times and the beauty and meaning of the memorials there is something overwhelming. My ability with words is inadequate to express fully my feelings and emotions about this but I would hope that as I respect your burial choice you would respect mine and others and not try to undermine our freedom to express ourselves in this solemn way.

  2. On the whole, I was delighted to see the article by Viola Gad about the program planned for August 23rd at the Montpelier Sr. Activity Center. However, I was very disappointed that the important distinction I stressed to the reporter was entirely ignored! The event is not supported in anyway by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont and I no longer speak as the president of that organization. In fact, at a recent meeting of our board, where I am still a member, the majority agreed NOT to take a position on the proposed legislation, H. 83, which has been “dozing” in the House Government Operations committee.
    As an individual Vermonter,who is very concerned about the lack of public safeguards in H. 83 as introduced, my intent is to bring the issue to the attention of more Vermonters and encourage thoughtful dialogue about its implications. As an individual, I am not sure what should or should not be legislated. Currently, green burials are permitted on family land, ONLY. It would be great if land could be set aside and conserved “in perpetuity” for ALL Vermonters to consider green burial if they so choose.

  3. H. 83 adds “natural burial ground” to the cemetery statutes and provides that such land is recorded with the town. Once that is recorded, there is no statutory provision for un-dedicating it for burial purposes. I’m certain that no zoning board would permit a change of use for condos once burials have started on such land, as Joe Sehee worried.

    Patrick Healy is concerned about a court ordering a disinterment, highly unlikely once burial has occurred. The most common reason for disinterment is a family member who has moved and wants to move the body, too, to be nearer.

    I’m not sure why Helen Head is concerned about platting, something totally unnecessary and unwanted in a natural burial ground. That is certainly necessary for more formal cemeteries where bodies are squeezed in cheek by jowel. Density of burials in a natural burial ground would be more dispersed.

    There are multiple ways to identify where someone has been buried, and I think the legislature should let the individual locations use their own method of choice: GPS, plantings, indigenous rocks, electronic chips, etc.

    In Europe where land is limited, they plan to re-use burial areas over and over, saving bones in an ossuary after decomposition. I would think that should be permitted on green burial grounds, too, with no vaults or metal caskets.

  4. Pam Ladds :

    What a drama! Green burials have existed in Europe for decades, no fuss, no mess and no problems. Instead of reinventing the wheel why not look at how sites are regulated elsewhere, how recycling of plots occurs and memorials are created for those that want them. How about a bench in the area for example? For those who want a “bells and whistles” funeral with all the burial trimmings, this does not infringe on your ability to have that. For those of us who would be quite happy to be composted just let us get on with it.

  5. rosemarie jackowski :

    The important point is that everyone should decide for himself about the disposition of his remains after death. BUT, what happens if someone dies, has no family, and has left no instructions? What happens then? There seems to be a lot of confusion about that.

    A few years ago, a friend died. I called the funeral home to ask about a wake and was told that since my friend had no local family, his body was immediately cremated. I wrote an article about this and hoped for feed back. The article is titled “A Death on Valentine Street” and is on the Internet.

    Also, those interested in this issue should read the news reports, also on the Internet, about the legal case in NY and NJ. It is often referred to as ‘The Case of the Body Snatchers’. (Body parts were taken and sold – without any authorization.) Some who did this are now in prison. No one knows how widespread this crime is.

  6. Can anyone clarify what the law is in Vermont about being buried on one’s own property without a casket, and what if any regulations this practice is subject to?

  7. rosemarie jackowski :

    Awhile back there was a news report about someone in Vermont making caskets. They were very nice. Made out of wood. Could be a good local business?

    • For contact information on Vermont and New Hampshire casket makers and other memorial arts, go to the New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy website at nhfuneral.org. Find it Fast will get you to the Memorial Arts Resource List

  8. Peter Everett :

    I just want to be beried in my garden. I’ve been told I’m full of __IT. Why not use me as free fertilizer???

  9. Alan Hansen :

    This is a really nice article discussing an issue that I doubt many people knew about. Journalism should do three things: Educate, inform and entertain. This article did all of those things and did them really well.

  10. My suggestions for Rosemarie, in addition to Lisa’s comments, are to call the Information Hotline for Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont at (802)223-8140 and leave her contact information for personal follow up. You could also stop by the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, 58 Barre Street on Friday afternoon when I will be assisting folks with their Advance Directives and answering questions about home funerals and burials. There are several books on the subject as well.

    • rosemarie jackowski :

      Mary Alice…Thank you, but an Advanced Directive is only a piece of paper. If there is no one to enforce it, it is almost meaningless. Doctors in the hospital tell me they don’t even look at these directives. I advocate for those who are alone and have no family support system… the forgotten, isolated, silent, marginalized. We need a system of Medical Advocates to support those who are most in need.

      Also, I would appreciate support in the fight for transportation in and out of Bennington. There is no way many here can ever get to Montpelier. There is grant money available, but no grant writers have come forward to help. VT Dept of Rural transportation is under the mistaken belief that we have transportation down here.

      • Rosemarie: You may also contact me at the FCA-VT web site which is http://www.vermontfca.org . You are not alone. Someone would be happy to go to Bennington to meet with you or your group directly.

  11. I like how the article pointed out that there is not one definition for “green burial.” I hope that everyone will keep asking for whatever form of natural burial they want so that more options open up. The National Home Funeral Alliance is focusing on green burial at our upcoming conference, October 18-20 in Raleigh, NC. We will visit a green cemetery and learn how it developed.

  12. A great article – thank you. The more we all hear about green – or natural – burials the more they’ll be requested. This can only be a positive thing for us all.
    Thank you again….

  13. Very interesting article! For more information on green burials and eco-friendly funerals, visit: http://www.novaterium.com.

  14. Bunny Daubner :

    Very interested in green burial on my land, but how does it work if the ground is frozen??A group of us has been discussing burial options and advanced directives.
    would appreciate any suggestions!
    Thanks,
    Bunny Daubner
    Bristol

    • Good question. I don’t know the answer and suggest you check with Mary Alice Bisbee, of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont.

      • Lisa Carlson :

        Fill the casket with sawdust around the body and keep it in a garage or shed until spring. Some town cemeteries have holding vaults and might be willing for you to use that until spring burial.

  15. rosemarie jackowski :

    Recently a neighbor was buried in his yard. There is an hour long video of this. I saw it on Bennington’s CAT-TV. It was very interesting. Beautiful casket and nice hour long eulogy. Everyone should see it. Just contact CAT-TV and request it for your community.

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