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.

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

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Bob Orleck
3 years 9 days ago
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… Read more »
Kathy Nelson
3 years 9 days ago
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… Read more »
Bob Orleck
3 years 6 days ago
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… Read more »
3 years 6 days ago

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
3 years 6 days ago
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… Read more »
3 years 9 days ago
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… Read more »
3 years 9 days ago
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… Read more »
Pam Ladds
3 years 8 days ago
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.
rosemarie jackowski
3 years 8 days ago
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… Read more »
3 years 8 days ago

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?

3 years 8 days ago

For burial on your own property–approval of the local health officer, 150 ft. from a water supply, 5 ft. under. No casket or vault requirements.

3 years 8 days ago

Dept of health has useful info– http://healthvermont.gov/vadr/burial/funeral.aspx

rosemarie jackowski
3 years 8 days ago
rosemarie jackowski
3 years 8 days ago

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?

3 years 3 days ago

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

Peter Everett
3 years 8 days ago

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???

Alan Hansen
3 years 8 days ago

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.

3 years 8 days ago

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
3 years 7 days ago
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… Read more »
3 years 7 days ago

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.

3 years 3 days ago

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.

2 years 11 months ago

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….

2 years 9 months ago

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

Bunny Daubner
2 years 6 months ago

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

2 years 6 months ago

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
2 years 6 months ago

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.

rosemarie jackowski
2 years 6 months ago

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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