By Jill Draper
If you want to leave this world a better place than you found it, think about the way you plan to leave.
Cremation and conventional burials are still the most common end-of-life practice, but demand for green burials is growing, especially among baby boomers who want to avoid putting toxins and manmade materials into the earth when they die. According to some surveys, more than 50% of the population is now considering this alternative.
Until recently there were no places open to the public for green burials in Kansas City. But two years ago Elmwood Cemetery began offering this environmentally-conscious option east of downtown, and last month Longview Cemetery in south KC followed. Officials there had been considering adding this choice, and their decision was quickened in March when a middle-aged couple inquired about purchasing adjoining green burial plots.
Longview is a 44-acre cemetery at 12700 SE Raytown Road south of Longview Lake Park. About 9 acres feature conventional gravesites, often marked with bronze headstones, tiny American flags and plastic flowers. The green burial site has a different look—a grassy field edged by woods and a curved drive.
“We’ll keep the area maintained, but not manicured,” said Bridget Anaya, general manager at Longview Funeral Home and Cemetery, who explained the field will be mowed twice a year and headstones will be limited to natural rock, like the flat stone marker that will be placed at the first grave there—a woman in her 50s who loved the countryside.
“She wanted to be one with the earth again,” said Phil Zehms, director of operations. According to Zehms, the price of a green burial plot is comparable to those in the rest of the cemetery, about $2,000, but there are some savings because an outer burial container is not needed. These can cost anywhere from $995 to $2,000, he said.
“Most people who choose organic and natural things are not looking to save a lot of money,” Zehms observed, likening the experience to buying an electric car or shopping at Whole Foods. “They just want something different, something more environmentally friendly.”
According to the Green Burial Council, the standard cremation process uses a furnace that heats the body to extreme temperatures—1400 F to 1800 F or more—and produces dangerous pollutants in the process. It also requires a significant amount of fuel. Conventional burial impacts the earth, too. It requires wooden or metal coffins that are placed in vaults made with reinforced concrete. Often the body has been treated with toxic embalming fluid.
During a green burial the body is lowered into an unlined grave in a biodegradable coffin or fabric shroud that sometimes comes with a pocket near the heart for notes and pictures from loved ones. No embalming fluid is allowed, but Longview does offer a formaldehyde-free solution for families who want a public viewing. And while conventional gravesites require the coffin be placed within a vault about 6 feet below ground, natural burials simply mound dirt above a shallower grave about 3-foot-deep and allow it to settle over time.
Green burials also take place at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence and Highland Cemetery in Prairie Village, although all gravesites have been sold at the latter. Some Jewish and Muslim cemeteries offer this option, but not to the public, said Steve Nicely of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of KC. He added that another alternative option, water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis, is offered by a funeral business in St. Louis, but is only locally available for animals at Heartland Pet Aquamation.
Longview Cemetery is still deciding on rules (no trees will be planted on gravesites, but can wildflower seeds be sprinkled?) as it works with the Green Burial Council to become certified. John Niedfeldt-Thomas, council director, hopes to work with more cemeteries in the future.
There’s a growing understanding that human activity is damaging the world and conventional burial practices and cremation are contributors, he said in a blog post, noting the situation is all about choice and values. Or as Joe Sehee, founder of the council, once said, “Let’s be very visionary in deciding what we want for a final resting place. The big question is what can our death do for the living?”