"Green" Burials Offer Unique, Less Costly Goodbyes

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The ashes orbit Earth for years or centuries. The craft they are on will eventually reenter the atmosphere and incinerate, Chafer said, making space burial environmentally benign.

Another advantage of a personalized space burial is that it helps friends and family move from "grief and darkness to celebration," Chafer said.

In addition to the ecological and emotional benefits, green burials can often be friendlier to the pocketbook. A conventional funeral—including the embalming process and a metal casket—can average $6,500 (U.S.), plus another $2,000 for cemetery charges.

Not including costs for cremation, a space burial can cost as little as $995 to send up a gram of ashes.

A spot in a communal memorial reef ball costs $995, while a private reef ball measuring four feet (one meter) high by six feet (two meters) wide can be nearly $5,000.

Back to Nature

The idea of a green burial is commonly thought to have come from England, where the practice is widespread. But it really hearkens back to early U.S. pioneers, who were buried simply amid tall grass, said Billy Campbell.

Campbell, who founded green burial firm Memorial Ecosystems, Inc., in 1996, also started the first U.S. green cemetery, the 33-acre (13-hectare) Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina.

Ramsey Creek serves the dual purpose of a cemetery and a land restoration and preservation site. It already has more than 60 graves, with another 50 or so prepurchased. Prices start from $250 for a scattering of ashes to $1,950 for a body burial.

"By accident, the pioneer cemeteries performed a conservation value for rare plants," he said of the history of green burials. He talks proudly about the rare and native plants that thrive in Ramsey Creek, including the little blue stem and smooth-leaved cone flowers.

Ramsey Creek's green practices were used in the last episode of the HBO funeral series Six Feet Under, where the main character, Nate, who runs a conventional funeral business, gets a green burial when he dies.

A separate nonprofit organization, the Center for Ethical Burial, uses principles Campbell developed in its effort to establish green burial standards.

Green, But High Tech

Being green doesn't mean excluding advanced technology. Modern gadgets are playing an important role in helping mark the final resting places of the environmentally minded.

Eternal Reefs gives families the latitude and longitude of their reef ball. Ramsey Creek offers a choice between stone markers and use of a geographic information system (GIS) to pinpoint a loved one's final resting place.

The firm is also experimenting with using radio frequency identification tags. The tags can store information in an electronic device that can tell visitors details about the deceased.

Tyler Cassity, owner of Forever Fernwood, a 32-acre (13-hectare) cemetery and land preservation site in Mill Valley, California, also uses GIS and global satellite positioning technology to locate gravesites.

He's working on technology that could let visitors view information about the deceased and even add their own musings at the gravesite with a handheld computer or eventually a cell phone.

Such personalization eases the grieving process, Cassity says. "People respond better to this ethos, to celebrate life. They can share stories and sing songs. It takes the heaviness off of a family."

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