SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
In a town where people buy electricity from renewable resources, ride bikes or drive hybrid cars, and are agitating for a ban on plastic grocery bags, surprisingly few are opting for environmentally friendly burials.
“We’re getting very few requests,” said Ryan Phelps, the owner of Hood Mortuary in Durango. “People aren’t as concerned about greenness as following their family’s wishes.”
The definition of a green burial is one that has as little impact on the environment as possible. Generally, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a cardboard or other quickly biodegradable container. Embalming is discouraged. Simple wooden crosses and chiseled rocks, as opposed to granite tombstones, are used to mark the grave site. And in the greenest cemeteries or preserves, no watering, weeding or mowing takes place.
“We should talk in shades of green,” Phelps said. “The only truly green burial is to leave the body where the person dies and cover it in rocks. Almost any other type of burial has at least some kind of carbon footprint.”
Transporting a body to the burial location requires use of gasoline, and unless the family digs a grave by hand, a backhoe also requires fuel, he said.
The Centre for Natural Burial, a nonprofit that promotes the concept, says cremation uses fewer resources than burial with a decomposition-proof casket and liner. But it does require maintaining a heat of 1,400 to 2,100 degrees for about two hours and releases some particulates into the air. Hood’s crematory uses natural gas, one of the more abundant natural resources.
Cremation has become the most popular way to handle a loved one’s remains locally, Phelps said, with about 70 percent of the families he serves choosing cremation over the more traditional casket.
That’s the exact opposite of national trends, where 71 percent are choosing burial with caskets, and only 29 percent are requesting cremation, according to information on the National Funeral Directors Association’s website.
And even though Colorado ranks No. 9 in the top 10 states where cremation is a choice, that 70 percent is higher than Colorado’s average of 61 percent.
“Everyone thought green burials would be the next cremation,” Phelps said. “The funeral industry pre-emptively advertised and publicized a lot of information about it five or 10 years ago. But I’m only seeing two to three a year, if that.”
A return to the Old West
Phelps said what he calls “frontier” burials are particularly popular with families who have small private cemeteries on their own land.
“There’s nothing new about them,” he said. “Families today are choosing the simpler burial, not just in regard to greenness, but because they want to do everything themselves.”
The only restrictions under Colorado law are that a death certificate must be filed before burial can occur, and if it takes more than 24 hours, the body must be refrigerated or embalmed. Burial is not allowed on private property within the Durango city limits, but may take place anywhere on one’s own property in the county where it’s not prohibited by municipalities or homeowners associations. The GPS coordinates of the location of a private grave must be registered with the county clerk within 30 days, a new requirement passed by the Colorado Legislature in 2010.
“We’re seeing a lot of families who want to bury the same day,” Phelps said. “We had one family that was having a hard time getting the death certificate signed. We ran around and got the signatures in about 30 minutes.”
Noble Whitley, the owner of Trail’s End Pine Box Coffins based in Bayfield, is finding people are really responding to his simple pine boxes, with about half choosing ones with no finish or a simple stain. Most people select wooden or horseshoe handles rather than the more biodegradable rope handles.
“I also work in fire mitigation,” he said. “And when I see a dead tree that’s been standing there awhile, I know that will be some beautiful wood.”
Many of the trees are dead because of the pine bark beetle infestation.
“I just can’t see cutting down good living trees when there are plenty of dead ones,” Whitley said. “Our motto is ‘Live green and die green.’”
What does the future hold?
When the world’s population passed the 7 billion mark at the end of 2011, most concerns were about how to feed those billions and protect the environment at the same time. What no one seems to have examined yet is what will happen in the next 70 years or so, when those 7 billion are going to die, and the world will have to make some tough decisions about what to do with billions of bodies.
How much arable land can be dedicated to cemeteries? How much natural gas and wood will be needed for cremation? What about the resulting air pollution?
“Probably the most environmentally sensitive method is Resomation,” Phelps said. “It uses a hot lye solution and high pressure to dissolve the soft body tissue and break down the body into its chemical components, so what’s left is a few bone fragments. Colorado has already passed legislation allowing it and regulating it.”
Resomation, a trademarked process also known as alkaline hydrolysis, sterilizes the body fluids so they may be washed down the drain. The alkalinity actually helps balance highly acidic sewage. As of 2007, only about 1,000 bodies in the U.S. had gone through Resomation.
“I know people don’t like the idea of washing their loved ones down the drain, but 30 years ago, most people didn’t like the thought of their loved ones blowing away with the wind when ashes were scattered,” Phelps said. “I prefer to think of this as sending them to swim with the trout in the river.”