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Green Burials Growing in Popularity

Aug 31, 2016 10:30AM ● Published by Vanessa Orr

Penn Forest Natural Burial Park

Gallery: Green Burials [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

The bad news is, no one here gets out alive. The good news is that you can choose how you want to go. And while many people opt for traditional burials or cremation, interest is growing in a third alternative—green burials.

According to Green Burial Pittsburgh, green, or ‘natural’ burial is safer for the environment, as it uses no toxic chemical embalming fluids or non-eco-friendly materials, such as steel caskets. The departed are buried naturally, in a shroud or biodegradable casket, under two to three feet of soil cover where their remains nourish plant growth as they return to the earth.

“Green burial is actually traditional burial when you think of it; it is how it was done for years,” explained Pete McQuillin, who co-owns Penn Forest Natural Burial Park in Penn Hills with his wife, Nancy Chubb. “During the Civil War, a way was needed to get the dead from the warfront to their homes, so embalming came into use. Before that, there was not much embalming as people were usually buried within two days of death. 

“Historically, bodies were laid out at home by the family members, and the local barber or carpenter built a coffin,” he added. “Then families would hold a gravesite service. The whole idea of a funeral director didn’t start until around 1910-20, which led to a whole host of products and services, including cosmetology, caskets and urns, visitations and viewings, and larger services at funeral homes.”

According to McQuillin, people opt for green burial for a number of reasons. “People who are into environmentally friendly things like the idea of burial without toxic embalming fluids; they don’t want to be put in a concrete burial vault or a steel casket,” he explained. “In a green burial, whatever goes in the ground is biodegradable; for example, in our cemetery, the body is often put in a biodegradable cloth shroud—75 percent of our burials are done that way.

“Green burial also costs about half the cost of a conventional cemetery burial,” he added. “It is not as cheap as cremation, but that also uses a lot of energy and pollutes the air. A shroud typically costs between $50 and $300, compared to the cost of a standard steel casket, or one made of rainforest hardwoods that can cost $5,000 or more. But it’s not always about the cost either—some people don’t want their bodies to be embalmed or burned.” 

Frank Perman, owner of Perman Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Shaler Township, was an early adopter of the green burial movement and has been offering these services for the past seven years. “I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries about it, but not as many people are choosing it as traditional burials,” he said. “But people are curious about what it’s all about.”

Perman took a green burial class at a conference he attended and was intrigued by the idea of offering an option that other funeral homes didn’t provide. “I thought that it was kind of neat; that everything old is new again,” he said. “Jewish families have been doing this type of burial for 6,000 years—green burial is also kosher burial.

“While most people have heard of green burial, there is little knowledge of what it entails,” he added. “In a traditional burial, a person is embalmed, and in a green burial, the person is not embalmed, though there is such a thing as green embalming, which uses iodine instead of formaldehyde.

“The family can pay their respects privately, but most funeral directors will not allow a public visitation without embalming,” he added. “These funerals are usually smaller and take less time because there is no drawn-out ceremony; and it takes place within a day or two of death.”

Families can buy plots at a certified green cemetery, such as Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, which is the state’s first green burial ground, or Holy Savior Catholic Cemetery in Gibsonia, which recently established a green burial section on its property. Bodies can be interred in shrouds, or in green burial caskets, made out of weaved banana leaf, wicker or bamboo, depending on the families’ preferences. Green cemeteries and funeral directors can be found on the green burial website at www.greenburialcouncil.org. 

“People are showing up in greater and greater numbers as word is getting out,” said McQuillin of the growing interest in this form of burial. “It seems to appeal to a lot of people in their mid-50s to mid-80s who tend to recycle and make the environment a priority.”

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