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"Green" Burials Offer Unique, Less Costly Goodbyes

Lori Valigra
for National Geographic News
September 9, 2005
 
A burial in outer space seems a fitting farewell for James Doohan, the
actor who played the beloved engineer "Scotty" on Star Trek.

To honor his final wishes, some of Doohan's ashes will be shot into space this fall, along with a CD of tributes from fans and loved ones.

Celebrities aren't the only ones considering alternatives to a conventional funeral. More people in the U.S. are rejecting traditional burials as too costly and ecologically unsound. Instead they are chosing environmentally friendly, and often highly personalized, goodbyes.

"Doohan is part of a generation thinking, What is an appropriate tribute for my life? It's not just the same choices as grandma had," said Charles Chafer, chief executive officer of Space Services, Inc., the Texas-based company that will handle the sci-fi legend's burial.

For John Grayson Rogers, an avid fisherman and conservationist, a fitting tribute was a return to his favorite fishing spot, the Chesapeake Bay. His ashes were mixed into a concrete "eternal reef ball" that was placed in the Chesapeake where coral and other sea life thrive.

"Dad wanted us to put his body into a potato sack, tie a cinder block to it, and toss it into the bay," said his daughter, Jennie Rogers Moore of Birdsnest, Virginia. "I suggested the reef ball and he loved that. He could be near the critters and give back to the sea what the sea gave to him."

Don Brawley, founder of Eternal Reefs, Inc., in Decatur, Georgia, says that's how many of his clients react. "People say they prefer to be in a reef with all that life and excitement instead of in a field with a lot of dead people."

Going Green

The definition of a green burial varies, but it generally means either cremation or full-body burial with no embalming fluids and a biodegradable wooden box or shroud.

"Green burial isn't about doing extra things," said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vermont. "It's about what not to do." Although there are four green cemeteries in the United States, it is possible to be buried naturally in a contemporary cemetery, he said.

Slocum sees the green movement partly as a backlash against society's wastefulness and ostentatious consumption.

Space Services can fit as many as 150 lipstick-size containers with ashes on its launches. It places the ashes in the extra space on rockets already being used to launch satellites.

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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