A discussion with Edward Bixby of the Green Burial Council on eco-friendly burial options – and the consumer's role in helping expand what's available.
A discussion with Edward Bixby of the Green Burial Council on eco-friendly burial options – and the consumer's role in helping expand what's available.
Mentioned in this episode:
GBC map of certified providers: https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/interactive-maps.html
"Climate Change: The massive CO2 emitter you may not know about" by Lucy Rodgers for BBC
"Lawn Maintenance and Climate Change" paper by Princeton Student Climate Initiative
"This heatwave is a reminder that grass lawns are terrible for the environment" article by Akin Olla for The Guardian
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the climate is changing. Many people are rightly concerned about this and do all kinds of things to be kinder to the environment like recycle, buy hybrid or electric vehicles, eat less meat. All those actions are great for while you’re alive, but did you know that you can also make environmentally friendly choices about your death?
On today’s show, I talk with Edward Bixby, President of the Board of the Green Burial Council. He’s also the owner of Destination Destiny Memorials, plus several natural burial grounds including Steelmantown in New Jersey, and Purissima in California. We discuss the full range of natural burial options, the process of certifying funeral homes, and the future of traditional cemeteries.
If you’re at all concerned about the environment, I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of this episode.
Hello, and welcome to Dying Kindness, the podcast for people who are going to die someday. I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday. Spoiler alert: You will, too. So let's all do what we can to make key decisions now in order to be kinder to the people we'll leave behind. That's a dying kindness.
Thanks for joining me here today. Big topic in funeral news over the last couple weeks has been, of course, the death of Queen Elizabeth. The pomp. The ceremony. The strain on the family. The transfer of ongoing business. I think there may be a few things for us to learn from how all that was handled — not that any of us is going to expect anything so elaborate, but still, there are lessons there that I’ll explore in the future.
In my personal world, I’ve been thinking a lot about aging and how to do it well, or at least as well as I can. So I’m starting to dive into research on brain and body health and will tell you what I find. You might not think of that as part of Dying Kindness, but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s wildly different to care for someone who stays active and engaged with the world versus someone who lets their body or mind atrophy through lack of use. So in the future, expect some episodes on healthy aging. And if you have any specific questions about that, please email them to email@example.com.
I’m about to get into this interview, but first let me remind you that you can get the transcript for this and all shows at DyingKindness.com. While you’re there, I think you should sign up for the newsletter. It’s filled with more resources and tips than I cover here in the podcast and I only send it out once or twice a month. Plus you can unsubscribe any time. So go sign up!
OK, now on to our main topic for today: Natural burials. That’s a general term for environmentally conscious burial practices, for burials that are eco-friendly.
I’m sure some of you may not know why there’s a need for eco-friendly burial options, maybe you don’t know how burial practices in traditional cemeteries harm the environment, so let me start there.
First, I need to say that I’m going to focus on the United States. Much of what I’ll cover today applies to the majority of Europe and many other countries around the world, particularly since Hollywood has been spreading these practices through film and TV, plus some US funeral corporations have been expanding overseas. But different cultures have different traditions and it would be impossible for me to cover all that. So for today I’m focused on how burials are handled in the United States.
All that to say I know it’s not really right to use the word “traditional” to mean only one style of funeral or burial, but that’s the common term used here to distinguish it from a “natural burial.” So I’ll be talking about “natural burial” as compared to “traditional burial.”
Are you ready for me to stop with the preamble? Me, too. Let’s start with describing a traditional burial.
A traditional cemetery in the United States generally includes burial plots that have grave markers. Historically, these grave markers were vertical headstones or monuments made of stone. These days they’re often lying flat, flush with the ground, and made of stone or metal.
When someone has a traditional funeral and burial, they are usually embalmed, then placed in a casket for a viewing before the funeral. Caskets are usually made of heavy wood that is polished and has metal handles to make it easier to carry. They are usually padded and lined with satin or velvet, and may include other aesthetic details.
After the funeral the casket is brought to the burial location at the cemetery. To prepare for the burial, the cemetery does more than just dig a hole. For the past hundred or so years, many cemeteries have required the use of burial vaults in order to prevent the ground from collapsing as the grave “settles” (that’s a euphemism for the decomposition process). These vaults are basically strong boxes that line the grave and are made of concrete, metal, or plastic. The casket is placed inside the vault, which is then capped before the dirt goes in to fill the rest of the hole. Yes, it’s a box for the box that the body is in.
When you think of a grave, you’re very likely to think of a tombstone that stands up. That’s certainly what we see in movies and in Halloween displays. But many traditional cemeteries these days are lawn-style, a wide expanse of grass with flat grave markers. The cemetery often maintains these lawns using heavy equipment like riding lawnmowers that can easily keep the grass trimmed over the grave markers which are flush to the ground. Side note that burial vaults have to be strong enough to withstand the weight of this heavy equipment. So yes, that means that vault walls are pretty thick.
Got a picture of traditional burials in your mind? Good. Now let’s recap all the things that take a toll on the environment:
First, we have embalming. This uses formaldehyde, which is toxic for the environment and for the funeral home workers.
Next we have a casket made of multiple kinds of non-biodegradable material. Wood. Metal. Foam stuffing. Paint.
Then we have the vault liner, which is most commonly made of cement. Many articles have been written about the environmental cost of cement and I’ll link to a couple in the show notes. When it’s not cement, the vault liner is metal or plastic and is specifically designed to be non-biodegradable or it couldn’t do its job. So there’s really no eco-friendly option there.
Lastly we have the lawn and all that it takes to create and maintain that. There are some good write-ups on how lawns are destructive to the environment. They’re mostly focused on house lawns, but it all applies. And then there are the lawnmowers, which are often gas-powered. Not to mention the land-use concerns of devoting so much space to burial sites.
If you’re someone who envisions being buried somewhere that your loved ones can visit in the future, and you’re also someone who cares about climate change, I’m guessing that by now you might be feeling a bit despondent. But keep listening because there are many ways that you can make choices to reduce the environmental footprint of your death. You can opt out of embalming and ask for refrigeration or direct cremation instead. You can specify a biodegradable casket. You can find a cemetery which doesn’t require burial vaults. And, of course, you can work with a funeral director who handles natural burials and choose all kind of alternatives to the traditional lawn cemetery with the burial vault and all that.
There’s an entire world of people working on expanding these options, including my guest, Edward Bixby.
I first became aware of Ed when I heard about someone converting neglected historical cemeteries into natural burial sites. Ed’s first venture in this was in 2007 when he acquired Steelmantown Cemetery in southern New Jersey. Since then, Steelmantown Cemetery Company has converted or restored several other sites in California, Pennsylvania, and Oregon, with plans for more. He also has a company called Destination Destiny that offers other eco-friendly options like memorial tree planting and memorial reefs. In addition to all this, he’s very active with the Green Burial Council and currently serves as the President of the Board.
So it’s safe to say that Ed is deeply involved in natural burials. It’s also true that he’s really busy so I caught up with him while he was driving between two of his cemeteries.
I started by asking him to explain what the Green Burial Council does.
So the green burial council was formed in 2005 by a gentlemen named Joe Sehee. And it was created to not only promote what we call natural or eco-friendly burial, but also to create a set of standards that the consumer could look to and the provider could meet those standards. And so, essentially, protect the consumer's rights while representing the best practices.
He explained that the original function of the Green Burial Council was to educate professionals in the funeral industry about eco-friendly options, and to certify funeral homes and cemeteries. It was entirely focused on the industry side. But after a while they realized that they also needed to educate the consumers, to create a market for these options or else the industry had no incentive to offer them. So now the Council has two main branches, one that’s a certification agency and one that focuses on public education.
I wanted to know what it meant for a funeral home to become Green Burial certified.
To certify a funeral home, you have to offer natural burial to a consumer, meaning unembalmed, no embalming, biodegradable burial containers, refrigeration services, and also carry eco-friendly funeral products for the families so that, you know, you have them on hand if necessary.
The Council also certifies companies that make products for the funeral industry.
They have to go through a pretty stringent testing and manufacturer safety data requirements. We need to know that these things are not processed, that they're being, you know, they're not using forced labor. There's all kinds of stuff that goes along with that. And that it's being, you know, that it's a renewable resource. And no toxic metals and glues and paints. And if you can provide all that scientific information to us and to our standards and we can certify your products as well.
I asked him what kind of products he was talking about.
Right now, it's typically burial containers. So like, uh, you know, biodegradable. Pine box, paper, banana leaf, bamboo, rattan. You know, anything that would be considered biodegradable. Burial shrouds, made out of muslin, cotton, or any type of biodegradable hemp or, or, you know, biodegradable environmentally friendly materials.
There is, believe it or not, a certified embalming fluid. And you might say to yourself, well, that sounds kind of crazy because you don't allow embalming fluids, but I will tell you what it is. It's, it's a product that is, uh, produced by a company called Champion. And essentially it's all, it's all organic. And the purpose of this is, in the very unfortunate circumstance that a family member cannot be refrigerated, or maybe they're not found in a timely fashion. Maybe they pass away at home, unfortunately by health standard laws, you know, they must be embalmed. This is a 100% biodegradable fluid that basically helps inhibit the decomposition process, but only lasts three to five days. And that. Certified this probably over 10 years ago. And what I always tell people is anyone who wants a natural burial typically does not want to be embalmed.
So, you know, that's not that doesn't even go with what we do, but for the health and safety of the funeral director themselves, because embalming fluid with formaldehyde is extremely toxic and dangerous. It makes all the sense in the world to use an organic based fluid if a family wants that. We certainly, you know, we want to be able to give them what they want in death, so if by law they must be embalmed that product is used.
That sounds like a great addition to the list for those reasons, like a really necessary gap was filled in.
These days, many funeral homes offer at least some of these options. The Council has an interactive map on their site of GBC certified funeral homes. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
When we started talking about certifying cemeteries, though, it got more complicated.
there's three different types of cemeteries. There's a conservation level cemetery, the natural burial grounds, and then the hybrid. So to give you a better understanding of what that means: conservation level cemetery is the most stringent requirements, meaning there's all kinds of environmental testing and reports that we have to receive. You have to be good stewards. You have to have operation manuals and best practices in place. You have to deed restrict the property, not to allow embalmed bodies and concrete vaults. It's just, it's a very large commitment. It's a lengthy process. And at the end of the day, if you're a conservation level burial grounds, you have to either be part of, of an actual conservation agency, things like actually be run by one, or state agency.
Now the natural burial ground is exactly the same, as far as requirements are concerned, testing, and reports, but it can be owned by a private individual or a cemetery company.
And then the absolute low hanging fruit, meaning the most potential for this movement to grow, lies within the hybrid. The hybrid cemetery is a traditional cemetery that allows natural burial in a specific section, and deed restricts that section to protect the rights of the consumer. So that's very easily attainable, the hybrid, for all cemeterians. And it really is the low-hanging fruit meaning that the more cemeteries that adopt that, the more growth there will be with natural and conservation burial grounds, because there will be more awareness for the consumer.
So that means that if you’re looking for a cemetery, your choices are expanding. Let’s say your family has been buried in a particular cemetery and you would like to be buried there, too, but you also want an eco-friendly option. You could call up that cemetery and ask if they have a section there for natural burials – and if they don’t, maybe encourage them to consider it. If you want something even more environmentally conscious, search for “natural burial grounds” and “conservation level cemetery.” Or, you can connect with a funeral director who handles natural burials to help guide your search so you don’t have to do it on your own.
Ed told me that initially the funeral industry was slow to adopt eco-friendly options, but that things have gotten a lot better since more people are requesting them. We got into a conversation about how ultimately these funeral homes and cemeteries are businesses. They want to do right by the families they serve and at the same time they need to make a profit to keep the business going and they respond to customer demand just like any other business.
It turns out that for a while the funeral industry was getting concerned about the trend towards cremation, particularly direct cremation. Many people were choosing flame cremation as an alternative to burial for both financial and environmental reasons. Direct cremation is the least expensive option, basically skipping everything - no funeral, no casket, no anything. The funeral home picks up the body and then later delivers the ashes. As for the environment, some still consider flame cremation a poor choice, but it’s better than traditional burial, particularly if you also forego embalming and choose a cremation container that burns completely.
Direct cremation is cost effective and efficient – and it turns out it’s deeply unsatisfying for funeral directors. Despite the sensationalized stories you might see in the media, most funeral directors care about the families they serve and take pride in doing it well. I found it interesting that natural burials have created a new way for them to create rituals and ceremonies to honor someone’s passing, while also staying current with larger environmental concerns.
you know, in the funeral industry, you're there to serve your families and to do what's right for them. And believe it or not a big segment of our, uh, our cremation converts, uh, you would be very surprised to know that.
You know, the majority of the people who actually choose natural burial were the same individuals who wanted to be cremated. And mainly because they didn't want the fanfare or the expense of a traditional funeral. So cremation made a lot of sense to them. So when they found out that a natural burial was available, they say, "Geez, that's what I always wanted. I just didn't know I could have it." And that's the very good thing for the funeral industry itself. Because as we know, flame-based cremation is not very environmentally friendly. And you lose a lot of ceremony, celebration, and memorialization with a cremation. So to be able to bring people back to their roots, to what we've done for a millenia is a wonderful thing, not only for the families, but it's a wonderful thing for the funeral provider. Because instead of funeral homes, you know, looking at a very grim future of 100% cremation and no need for the funeral home anymore, they found new footing. They found new purpose. They found new life in natural burial. So it's actually a very exciting time, not only for natural burial and the consumer, but for the funeral director as well. There being, it's a, it's a rebirth, if you may.
Ed encourages everyone to work with a funeral director – and says that many find the experience surprisingly wonderful.
Every funeral director traditional or natural serves a giant purpose for families. I can't stress that enough. I mean, you know, some families can do this on their own and they're certainly willing and able to do it. But you know, in this time of need to be able to have someone to be able to guide you through this process, it's very, very helpful. What I have found with funeral directors is that once they become familiar with natural burial, they absolutely fall in love with it because they're looked at differently by the family itself. Because natural burial is very family participation oriented, they're not looking at that funeral director, as that guy in the dark suit, waiting for the phone to ring. He all of a sudden becomes a, a very friendly face. And I say that because like, you know, the funeral industry and cemeteries of the last 50 years have kind of become these macabre scary places, mainly because of like movies and horror movies and ridiculous reasons.
So, so what I'm saying is it's bringing it back to its roots and people are looking at these people differently and they're starting to say," Hey, that's Bob." And Hey, you know, instead of like, "Oh my God, there's a funeral director at the store." Trying to duck into your car. It's like, "Hey Bob, how are you?" because it's a different shared experience now. It's very, very different.
When Ed described the experience of going through a natural burial, it sounded so different from how we usually think of funerals.
This is the thing, we're all human beings. We all have the innate ability to care for our loved ones in death. We've lost touch with that. It's in our DNA. It's the way we did it for, you know, thousands upon thousands of years. It's only in the last 150 years we've lost touch with that. Now, with that being said, the funeral director themselves, you know, because they're being looked at in a different light and because they're not directing, but they're helping facilitate, they're helping guide the family through the process.
Imagine laying your loved one to rest, being able to carry them back to the grave site, place them on it, lower them down, back fill the grave. You run the gamut of emotions: anger, happiness, sadness, joy. It's so cathartic and washes away the grief. And you have a greater form of acceptance of the loss, but you're celebrating the life that was lived.
So you can leave that place saying to yourself, I accept the fact that this person has passed away and you feel differently about it. In the traditional sense, many times people leave a gravesite and the caskets still remains on top of the lowering device. And you almost feel like that person doesn't belong to you anymore. And you want to, you want to turn around and go back, but you can't because it's not part of the process.
People fall in love with it. You know, the best advertisement is if you're fortunate enough to be part of one, and who's fortunate to go to a funeral? But, with that being said, the light bulb goes off when you do experience it. And when my families leave that cemetery, they leave with genuine smiles on their faces. Not because they're happy per se, it's that there's a real true sense of relief.
To further help your loved ones in the future, Ed strongly suggests arranging all this in advance for yourself.
Well, you know what, this is the thing, and this is really important, just so you know, and the listeners know, you really need to know exactly what you want, you know, when you pass on, because not only are you, you know, you're, you're making sure that you, your wishes are met. What's, you're actually taking care of your family so that they, you know, during this hard time that it's not more stressful than it needs to be. The main thing people should do is prearrange or be sure that people know what their wishes are.
His thinking starts with the immediate family and then goes on to legacy and the environment overall.
And what I say to people all the time is, you know, what a wonderful way to memorialize someone with life, knowing that that life is giving back to the environment. Meaning that, for instance, if you planted an Oak tree that can live 500 years, If that tree were to live 500 years, how much carbon offset to the carbon footprint would it produce? It would erase the entire carbon footprint of the life of that individual, and then some. So like, you really have to give serious thought as to what you want and what impact you're going to make with your decision. And then if you pre-arrange, you know, you're making an environmental impact and you're making a familial impact by, by taking care of arrangements so that your family can honor your wishes and not have to worry about, oh geez. You know, can we afford this? Or where can we find this? Or just makes it easier on them. Cause because, you know, I see it every day. It's really tough for people when people pass away and they haven't done that and you've got to pick up the pieces and the people will say, you know, I think one time they mentioned they wanted a natural burial, but they just never got around to it.
You know what I mean? That's what I like to the public to say to themselves, do something about it now, uh, you know, it's a wise choice, it's a wise investment and it only, uh, cements your place Uh, it it's, you know, in what we're doing in the movement and, and helps us continue to grow.
Every day we hear so much depressing information about climate change. I confess it was wonderful to talk with someone who truly believes in what he’s doing and believes that change is possible. He closed with a message of hope for all of us.
And at the end of the day, whether or not you are an environmentalist, or you're just someone who likes nature, we can all agree, we've got to take care of, take care of our world for future generations or otherwise, you know, there's not going to be any world to take care of.
The earth is remarkable. It can heal itself. It's never too late. So, you know, The future without natural burial is an unfortunate future, but I don't think we'll go that direction because I think people have woken up to the fact that, you know, you've got to take care of what takes care of you
Really think of your life and how you chose to live your life. Uh, you know, this is the final statement in that life and how you chose to live it. And, you know, to be surrounded by love life and laughter in death is a very special thing. And there's no reason that every single cemetery in this country cannot have that feeling. It's just reinventing the way we perceive death.
It's better to embrace it. It's far less scary when you do. And I can tell you for a fact with my families in particular, that, once they visit and they feel the feeling, they feel like a relief, like a burden lifted off their shoulders. Like they feel really good. So, yeah. You know, just be open-minded and, and visit your local cemetery and encourage that special place to, uh, to allow what we do if they don't already.
So if you’re someone who cares about the environment, call your local funeral director or your local cemetery and ask them about natural burial options. Help expand everyone’s options by increasing the market demand for this. The more the funeral industry knows that people want these options, the more common and easily accessible they’ll become.
Thank you for joining me today. If you know someone who wants to learn more about natural burials, please send them this episode. Use the share button in your podcast player, or just send your friend a link to DyingKindness.com.
Today’s music is by Blue Dot Sessions, and everything else was done by me. I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday - but hopefully not before there are memorial reef options in places I love to go scuba diving.
Today’s death reading is by David H. Wright
If when I am gone
Thou would’st honor me
Then plant a tree.
Some highway, bleak and bare,
Make green with leaves.
So radiant and fair
And full of leaves my monument will be,
So ever full of tuneful melody.
My monument will be
A sight most rare –
Trees planted everywhere.
A highway broad from city to the sea –
Plant this in memory of me.
President, Green Burial Council
Ed Bixby is the President of the Green Burial Council and owns Destination Destiny Memorials, a premier eco-friendly funeral provider. Ed lives in New Jersey with his wife, Helena, and his four children.