Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

City explores creating ‘green cemetery’ option

Peonies adorn a hillside Friday at Oak Hill Cemetery. The city's Parks and Recreation Department staff is considering creating a new green cemetery area at Oak Hill. In a green cemetery, the dead are buried without the use of embalming fluids in a biodegradable casket or blanket, and traditional headstones aren't used. Instead, a tree or a patch of wildflowers, for example, would mark a gravesite.

Peonies adorn a hillside Friday at Oak Hill Cemetery. The city's Parks and Recreation Department staff is considering creating a new green cemetery area at Oak Hill. In a green cemetery, the dead are buried without the use of embalming fluids in a biodegradable casket or blanket, and traditional headstones aren't used. Instead, a tree or a patch of wildflowers, for example, would mark a gravesite.

May 26, 2008


On the street

How often do you visit the graves of your loved ones?

I moved from Lawrence to Houston in 1955, and we drive back here every year on Memorial Day weekend to decorate the graves and pay our respects.

More responses

They carry your ornate metal casket to the graveside.

It is a beauty. The polished brass corners and detailed hardware give it the look of fine furniture meant to last generations. It fits well with the backdrop of a manicured cemetery, tightly mowed and peppered with intricately carved tombstones chiseled from a granite quarry far from here.

Then, funeral workers carefully lower the casket, and your perfectly preserved body, into a cement vault that lines your grave.

For most, this time-tested ritual is their final statement on this earth. It is the ultimate swan song.

But recently it has become a song that is a bit off-key to a few. Environmentalists and others who have spent their time on earth promoting a green revolution are starting to think twice about traditional burials.

"People are more interested in a sustainable lifestyle these days," Lawrence City Commissioner Boog Highberger said. "I think there are people looking for an opportunity to have a low impact as they leave the world, too."

Enter the latest of the green trends: green burials.

The concept has begun to take root in a few communities. Santa Fe, N.M., and San Francisco already have cemeteries devoted to green burials. Others are planned in Denver and Madison, Wis.

Highberger is interested in Lawrence adding its name to the list.

"We are the burial plot provider in the community," Highberger said, noting that the city recently took over ownership of the once troubled and privately owned Memorial Park Cemetery. "I think we ought to give people the option."

The noncemetery

Here are the basics of a green burial, according to Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council:

¢ No use of toxic embalming chemicals such as formaldehyde.

¢ The use of biodegradable coffins, instead of steel caskets that often take decades to degrade. A green burial also could be done without a coffin by wrapping the body in a shroud or blanket.

¢ The elimination of concrete burial vaults, which Sehee said are wasteful because of all the energy needed to produce and transport cement.

But green burials also could change the face of cemeteries. Green burials likely would not take place in the highly maintained, granite-heavy graveyards that people are visiting this Memorial Day weekend. Instead, visiting the final resting place of a loved one may be much more like a walk through a meadow or forest.

Many times a tree, a grouping of wildflowers or some other piece of nature will serve as a marker for the grave - although some green burials include a GPS chip to mark the location. As for the area surrounding the grave, it largely is left to grow naturally. That means graves could be scattered among trees or covered with prairie grass.

"In its best form, it should look more like a nature preserve than a cemetery," Sehee said.

To Highberger, that's an important part of the concept.

"Just think of the ground a cemetery takes up, and the gasoline it takes to have a cemetery mowed," he said. "I think there are people interested in having less resources set aside for their burial."

Thinking it through

Lawrence city staffers have said the idea looks feasible in Lawrence.

Ernie Shaw, city interim director of parks and recreation, has identified an approximately 50 foot by 60 foot area at the city's Oak Hill Cemetery that could accommodate about 55 green burials.

The largely wooded area could be converted for very little cost, Shaw said, because he's proposing to only remove some underbrush and plant a few additional natural grasses and flowers.

Funeral directors in the city said they're not opposed to providing the option but don't want to portray the traditional methods as being wrong.

"We are a people who want choice," said Larry McElwain, an owner of Warren-McElwain Mortuary. "There are people who will say they want to leave no footprint, basically, and they want a way to do that. But as far as saying that we're adversely impacting the environment the way we are doing it today, I think that is a pretty weak argument."

McElwain said he thinks the bigger issue with green burials is ensuring that family members truly understand what is involved with the concept. For example, does a green burial mean that a gas-powered back hoe and dump truck prepare the grave? How is a body that is not in a casket respectfully lowered into the grave? How will the family respond to a body that has not been embalmed?

"People could like the idea of a green burial, but then they get out to the cemetery and see how it is done, it could be very repugnant to them," McElwain said. "How do you go back at that point? That concerns me."

Bart Yost, a funeral director at Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home and Crematory, said he's also fine with providing the option but doesn't think it is one that would be used often.

"There is a lot of tradition we're talking about here," Yost said.

But Sehee, whose Santa Fe-based council has been in existence for three years, said funeral homes are becoming more receptive to the idea after they realize a green funeral probably will cost more than a cremation.

"There are many funeral homes recognizing that this is trending mainstream very quickly," Sehee said. "It is emerging more quickly than we imagined. I think it just represents where America is at right now."


number3of5 10 years ago

I think having a cemetary for green burials is a wonderful idea. I would like to be buried in that fashion instead of cremated, which was my choice as I want my blood buried with me.

Godot 10 years ago

I thought there was state law that required embalming, even prior to cremation.

Jay Lovett 10 years ago

What about a big, sealed digester like what is used in wastewater treatment. As bacteria eat our former selves we could harvest methane gas and use it to power converted city lawnmowers or other industry. It's morbid but it would be green.

Richard Heckler 10 years ago

It's either ashes or this. Let me blow in the wind rather than spend money mowing and trimming around me. Certainly an expensive casket stuck in the ground will not work for me. Why a high dollar casket instead of a $40.00 pine box? This green idea is not new by any stretch of the imagination just forgotten. Cremation is one of the best proposals. We were discussing this matter Sunday and it be best for me if after death there would no pressure of grave yard visits and the family would be free to move or whatever. Fond memories are better than grave sites.

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 10 years ago

I think embalming bodies is a lot more morbid.

igby 10 years ago

Green burial:Slowly roasted over a methane flame and reduce to pot ash.Then, shake the ashes out on your lawn.

Godot 10 years ago

Well, I googled it - looks like it is not required unless a body is crossing state lines. I got snookered to the tune of $1000 by a funeral director a few years ago.

idarastar 10 years ago

That's an awesome idea! I would like a tree or flowers to be feed with my remains. It's a WHOLE lot better than sticking me in a box that will stay there forever. I used to think that cremation would be my only option. At my age, I'm hoping there will be MANY years before I die. This excites me to know that this option is being explored today. :-)

Bladerunner 10 years ago

lol i was just thinking of soylent green too! How would you ever know which group of wildflowers you were paying your respects at is your loved one? Sign me up for the permavault3000 with the 1000 year guarantee please. And mark it with the 5 ton chunk of granite using lots of resources to mine, finish, and deliver.

Tom McCune 10 years ago

Yes, indeed. Burying bodies without caskets or vaults should make for a green cemetery. A very green cemetery.

LFCChapel 10 years ago

Just to let whoever in on the facts in the area for burials.1. Burial without an outside container (Vault) is required by certain cemeteries, yes cemetery is spelled with a E not an A.2. Green burials are not a new idea, some customs or direct burials do not require an outside container.3. Embalming is only necessary if the family wants a public viewing (24 hrs after death) otherwise its the funeral home discretion on what is needed, or crossing state lines before cremation.4. Cremation is a very popular choice and still less expensive than direct burials or green burials. Mainly because the opening and closing cost 75% of my funeral homes charges for attentive care cremation cost.

1Patriot 10 years ago

Oh my, I hope they dig those graves nice and deep and that I'm not privileged to ever live downwind from one of those "green cemeteries." And I guess instead of bringing flowers to the grave, you can pick a bouquet to take home and display on your dining room table while your family gathers around for their tofu turkey? Just think you might be able to find a way to capture all that wasted methane gas seeping up from all that decomposing flesh.Hey Boog, where are these people that are looking for an opportunity to have a low impact as they leave the world? Have they ever felt the impact of a "Round-a-bout?" Guess we can't count the wasteful energy needed to produce and transport the cement used in those? Not to mention the wasteful monetary impact it has on our wallets as we fund it with our tax dollars?Woo Hoo Lawrence! When's the next election?

Godot 10 years ago

Unsaid, but understood, is that green burials can only take place on DADA days.

hornhunter 10 years ago

What will Bremby think of this? Some counties have different laws that require vaults, I assume it's because they don't want anything to seep in to the ground water.

labmonkey 10 years ago

Tomorrow is soylent green Tuesday.

LFCChapel 10 years ago

oh, one more thing the reason the cemeteries require a vault is for the lawn care and care taking purposes. A burial without a minimum standard container show signs of sinking and creates a ground depression that is hard to care for, and gives the cemetery the not so nice look.

earthartist 9 years, 12 months ago

Natural Burial Around the WorldThe modern concept of natural burial began in the UK in 1993 and has since spread across the globe. According the Centre for Natural Burial, there are now several hundred natural burial grounds in the United Kingdom and half a dozen sites across the USA, with others planned in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and even China. A natural burial allows you to use your funeral as a conservation tool to create, restore and protect urban green spaces.The Centre for Natural Burial provides comprehensive resources supporting the development of natural burial and detailed information about natural burial sites around the world. With the Natural Burial Co-operative newsletter you can stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the rapidly growing trend of natural burial including, announcements of new and proposed natural burial sites, book reviews, interviews, stories and feature articles.

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