Does Grandma really need the Cadillac of caskets when her body expires?
Blunt, but an increasingly serious question as the median funeral cost — not for cremation — rose to $7,360 in 2017, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
The bulk of that average comes from the metal casket, ringing in at $2,400. (Cremation caskets, according to the association, still cost $1,000.)
“You don’t have to open your wallet and give your cash away,” said Boring, Ore.-based funeral director Elizabeth Fournier in a recent phone interview.
Fournier, nicknamed the “Green Reaper,” operates Cornerstone Funeral Services and Cremation in Boring, and recently penned a book called “The Green Burial Guidebook,” in which she illustrates why high funeral costs are unnecessary — unless it’s what the loved one who died wanted — and that there’s a much more environmentally friendly way to go about it.
She’ll be giving a talk about these topics at 2 p.m. Saturday at Vintage Books, 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver.
To Learn More
• Find a list of green burial sites in Washington and Oregon at: https://www.cornerstonefuneral.com/green-burial-resources
“The typical ceremony run by a funeral home — one that involves embalming and a casket burial in a traditional cemetery — not only can fail to provide a satisfying ritual for mourning, but it frequently leaves behind lasting financial and ecological burdens,” she writes in the book’s introduction.
The concept of green burials isn’t new, but is steadily on the rise as more people become aware not only for the cost factor, but also the environmental factor. In the Pacific Northwest, we like our organic foods and saving the planet how and when we can. Some of those fancy caskets might contain metals and other materials that leak toxins into the earth.
Green or natural burials, as they’re called, advocate to bury people without being embalmed or even using a large casket, which is entirely legal.
Nick Brown, funeral director of All County Cremation & Burial, 605 Barnes St., Vancouver, has noticed an uptick in inquiries about green burials over the last 10 years, and he doesn’t shy away from offering them, he said. Another local funeral director would not comment on green burials.
“If he shied away from it, he’s probably looking at it from the standpoint that you don’t get a sale from an outer burial container, and with revenues declining because of cremation rate rising, it’s just one more thing you’re not getting revenue on,” Brown said. “I personally like it, because if you think about it, it’s the way burials have been done for the majority of U.S. history. It’s only been the last 50 to 100 years that we went to these outer burial containers and started requiring them.”
Fournier’s book notes that up until 150 years ago, in fact, “most burials were inherently green,” that when someone died, they were bathed, prepared and placed in a “humble wooden box.” This practice changed dramatically during the Civil War, when bodies had to be transported over long distances in large quantities. Embalming became popularized to preserve the bodies, and funeral homes realized they could make money off the practice.
Attitudes are changing, though. Will Zalpys, the cemetery district commissioner who works as a groundskeeper at Park Hill Cemetery, 5915 Mill Plain Blvd. in Vancouver, like Brown has taken notice of a rise in people opting for natural burial. He introduced the practice at Fern Prairie Cemetery in Camas in 2008 after inquiring about doing it at Park Hill, but that cemetery requires coffins to be encased with concrete outer liners. Fern Prairie doesn’t have those requirements. According to Fournier’s funeral home website, there are only five in Washington that offer it, and 13 in Oregon, with three in Portland.
Brown said that there would probably be more, but the burial rate in Clark County is very low because cremation rates are so high. Washington, according to the Cremation Association, has one of the highest cremation rates in the country, at 75 percent.
Fournier argues in her book that although cremation is also a cheaper option, it’s “not considered a genuine environmental alternative” because of the energy it takes, including the fossil fuels used by cremation ovens.
In a natural burial at Park Hill Cemetery, bodies are buried with a basic liner, such as a wicker basket. Zalpys warned that there are already companies out there capitalizing off the new trend, tremendously marking up the most basic green burial caskets. A quick Google search of green burial caskets yields costs anywhere between $300 and $1,195.
Zalpys said the first year they did very few, but now they’re up to about 10 natural burials a year. He said most who come in aren’t necessarily doing it for the cost factor, but for the environment.
Brown has observed that things in the Pacific Northwest may be different from other parts of the country.
“We’re not as traditional as the rest of the United States. Religious beliefs are different, customs are different,” he said. “I get a lot of times, now, families are saying, ‘how quick can we get this done? We just want an immediate burial.’ ”
Zalpys had a similar observation about a changing culture, adding that he faced some criticism for offering the service.
“I had so many expletives said to me when I started this. (Funeral homes are) like any business, you have to be able to make a living,” he said. “But the culture’s changing.”
If You Go
• What: “Green Burial Guidebook” author talk
• When: 2 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Vintage Books, 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver
It would appear that Fourier would be shooting herself in the foot as a funeral director by so vehemently advocating for cheaper alternatives, but she doesn’t seem to care.
“Basically, natural burial or green burial is awesome for the environment and it’s awesome for the economy,” she said. “And families are really finding a lot of support for their own healing process by doing a lot of things themselves.”