The pace of change driven by consumers is the greatest challenge facing funeral service. No option has fallen off the menu, and yet more options pop up each year. How is it possible to create or reposition a business to fulfill these diverse requests? The 70 practitioners, suppliers and explorers who convened in Albuquerque in October 2019 for the First Ever Green Funeral Conference were up for the challenge. Their interactive and engaging experience is challenging to reproduce in a blog post, but there is too much great content not to share.
Passages International was the obvious sponsor for this Conference. However, some potential speakers and participants and social media commenters—and even members of the media—weren’t so sure why CANA was hosting. Cremation is widely considered to be more environmentally friendly than traditional burial, but where does it fit on the continuum of green funeral practices? That is the kind of conversation I like to start. CANA doesn't shy away from hard questions, or from asking those questions of itself. We're proud to provide the space to have these frank discussions and attract the right voices to contribute.
Set the Stage
Since this was the first conference of its kind created for funeral directors and cemeterians, it was important to establish context and the intention to be inclusive in our definition of green practices. I will attempt to follow the flow of the conference in this post. Glenda Stansbury served as our emcee and she set the stage from the beginning, establishing that this conference was an exploration of green practices along a continuum. In that spirit, I invite you, dear reader, to identify where you are on that continuum. Are you a light spring green with plenty of traditional burial and cremation offerings? Or maybe you offer eco-friendly products, but want to promote more family participation and natural burial? Are you a deep forest green and all in? This post is an opportunity to learn more about the Conference content and how it may apply to your business and community.
Ed Bixby, owner of Steelmantown Green Burial Preserve and President of the Green Burial Council, kicked off the Conference with a presentation describing the wide range of green burial practices he employs in his cemeteries and has seen around the world. He challenged the audience to recognize that the spectrum includes traditional burial as well as established businesses seeking greener practices—including cremation. Yes, the attraction of green burial is related to environmental concerns, but it also appeals because it is simpler, involves less fanfare, and facilitates enhanced participation from mourners. Ed said, “Participation changes everything. You have the right to care for the dead the way you feel they should be cared for.” He challenged us—and I extend the challenge to you—to shift the mindset. You can work within regulations and laws, but you can reconceive the services you offer to families. In CANA language, "find a way to get to yes for your families."
During Ed's presentation, the topic of embalming came up. Why are embalmed bodies excluded from green cemeteries? Is this based on science or policy? Embalmers in the room shared why embalming remains an important tool for some families, but others expressed the belief that preserved bodies had no place in a green cemetery. While no consensus was reached, it was refreshing to hear so many opinions and suggestions respectfully discussed. However, many questions remained unresolved:
- People are buried with medicines in their systems and implants in place—so why is embalming prohibited?
- Should formaldehyde-free fluids influence policies?
- If embalming is required in order to transport a deceased person from the place of death to the natural burial cemetery, what happens then?
- If green practices aren’t defined by law, but rather by policies and preferences, where do you land?
Next, Darren Crouch and Kilian Rempen of Passages International joined the conversation by discussing green products and marketing tactics to help businesses remain relevant and profitable. In the 20 years since Darren founded Passages International, he has learned many lessons. His customers are serving families that value green, but also unique and beautiful options. Darren asserted that the challenge of incorporating green options into businesses should feel familiar. It is similar to the challenge of embracing cremation 30 years ago. It was once controversial to add cremation to the sign in front of your funeral home and commonplace for funeral directors to send the rare cremation customer down the street to the cremation society. Ignoring cremation didn’t turn out well for funeral service, so Darren challenges funeral practitioners to not repeat past mistakes.
Darren offered practical advice, such as offering scatter-friendly urns for the 50% of your cremation customers who intend to scatter. He argues that scattering does not equal low-end, but rather that an urn that contains cremated remains for a time can be used as art or to hold keepsakes after scattering. Darren echoed Ed’s message of changing your mindset to envision new offerings.
Put It Into Practice
Once attendees considered the various aspects of green funeral practices and started to plot their positions along the continuum, they heard from cemeterians and a funeral director who have added them to their operations.
Jody Herrington described her success in converting funeral home selection rooms to include green merchandise. She acknowledged how overwhelming it seems to offer yet more options in an already crowded space. Jody shared that her success was directly linked to the communities she has served and their green values. Incorporating local artists along with eco-friendly products and more familiar caskets can be appealing, but every community is unique. You know the communities you serve and should reflect that knowledge.
Jody posed a challenging question for me to hear – Is cremation a fall back? At this point some of you are probably nodding your heads in recognition, but I didn’t get it at first. Jody asserted that when faced with traditional burial caskets and merchandise, some consumers know they don’t want that so they fall back to cremation. Her experience showed that offering more eco-friendly merchandise and caskets resulted in more personalization and more sales to a satisfied customer. This leads me to wonder if green burial will slow the cremation rate increases we have seen. Only time will tell.
Our practitioner panel featured Donal Key and Linda Canyon of La Puerta Natural Burial Ground, Gracie Griffin of Bellefontaine Cemetery, Salvador Perches of Grupo Perches and Recinto de la Oracion, Ed Bixby, and Jody Herrington—continuing the conversation around green burial practices and tips for creating and offering green options in existing cemeteries. It is impossible to summarize the rich content generated by the discussion between panelists as well as with participants. Each panelist shared specific examples of practices they employ to promote participation and innovate new traditions. The questions from participants did touch on business models, pricing, training and incenting employees to dig graves and assist families to dress their loved ones. The key takeaway is that you can get to yes with families. It may take more time and creativity, but you can and should do it.
Next up was Tanya Marsh, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, who examined the legal trends surrounding green burials and green cemeteries. Tanya presented a framework for understanding green funeral trends. She started by sharing the macro trend of consumers looking for more control and input while also seeking authenticity and a meaningful experience. This is a trend influencing all aspects of our lives. And it poses a challenge for funeral directors and cemeterians who are typically risk-adverse.
Tanya outlined considerations to take into account when considering something new – i.e., natural burial or a new disposition.
Does the law prohibit it? The dead have rights, so that must always be considered, but there is very little cemetery law on the books.
- Are you in a gray area where there is no particular law prohibiting or allowing? If the law doesn’t say you can’t, then you can, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for moving ahead without permission from the funeral or cemetery board or coverage from a court order.
The example she gave was natural organic reduction, commonly referred to as human composting. Washington state law explicitly stated that burial, cremation and removal from the state were the legal forms of disposition. This meant they needed to change the law in order to pave the way for a new form of disposition. In states that don’t affirmatively identify the forms of disposition, a court order or opinion from the board or attorney general may pave the way.
Tanya led a free-wheeling Q&A session that touched on grave reusage, family participation, disinterments, indigent cremations, and what happens when cemeteries are abandoned.
The last sessions focused on consumers’ experiences and insights. Gail Rubin shared her perspective on consumer views of death and mourning and emphasized the ongoing theme of promoting participation and education.
I moderated two manufacturer panels—Luis Llorens of US Cremation Equipment and Paul Seyler of Matthews Environmental discussed the environmental impact of cremation and made presentations on the macro and micro impacts of cremation on the environment. This warrants its own blog post and one is in the works for publication in 2020. Stay tuned!
A second panel, with Sam Sieber of Bio-Response Solutions and Nicki Mikolai of Resomation America, discussed the science and practical application of alkaline hydrolysis. There was significant interest in alkaline hydrolysis among the participants, with some current and future practitioners represented. The questions from participants ranged from inquiries about the fundamental science, presence of radiation and mercury, to viewings and zoning challenges.
Legally, alkaline hydrolysis is considered to be cremation, but the process that occurs in the machine is completely different than flame-based cremation. Does that make it greener? That depends on the formula that is used. Is there a lower carbon footprint? Yes—or probably. Fewer fossil fuels are used to heat the water or dry the remains, but water and chemicals are used—so how does one account for that in the green calculation?
While more questions were raised than answered on the overall environmental impact of all dispositions, Sam did point participants to an important a recent study conducted in the Netherlands by Elisabeth Keijzer, who attempted to calculate the true costs of different types of disposition. Sam presents a useful framework for understanding the various environmental impacts and “shadow costs” discussed in the study.
Consumers are significantly ahead of funeral directors and cemeterians in seeking, performing and creating greener end-of-life options, so this conference represented an opportunity to engage in facilitated conversation, query panel presenters, and learn from leading experts. All walked away with practical ideas to implement now, and probably some ideas they considered but discarded for their own businesses. Here are three of my takeaways.
Takeaway #1: Definitions Matter
Language matters and it was important from the beginning to tackle some tough topics in order to facilitate open conversation and advance our collective understanding. We named this meeting the Green Funeral Conference to encompass a variety of green practices, and people came with many different ideas and opinions on what “green” truly means. However, everyone left seeing the full continuum of green funeral practices.
So, what shade of green are you or do you aspire to be? Have this conversation with your staff and seek to understand what your community wants or will respond positively to. And then have this conversation with your vendors to educate yourself on more eco-friendly options. Figure out your carbon footprint and how you can offset or reduce it.
Are your own policies and procedures standing in the way?
Takeaway #2: Everything Old is New Again
For cremation, it took a few evangelists (and 100 years) to make cremation a tradition. Green funerals are completely different. For some, the practice is cultural tradition and anything else is desecration. For others, it's an attempt to mitigate their carbon footprint on the world by removing external interference (letting nature take its course). So, whether it's to save money, to save the planet, or to honor tradition, it means every option, every time. And providing that is hard work.
You know your communities and have served them for the length of your career or possibly generations of your family. Incorporating green funeral practices does not mean starting over from scratch, but it does mean shifting mindsets. You may consider following the path you took to embrace cremation.
Takeaway #3: Start now!
It took nearly 150 years, but cremation in the West evolved from a European fad to the dominant form of disposition in the US with the help from multiple types of leaders. First came the evangelists—those spreading the good news of the hygienic and aesthetic virtues of cremation. Then came the practitioners who formed CANA as a forum to share best practices and promote the practice of cremation. Those practitioners innovated products, technology and services to support cremation practice. Many of these practitioners ultimately formed companies that supplied practitioners nationwide. As those companies matured and merged and competitors formed, cremation products and services further developed to support the industry.
Will green funeral practices follow a similar pattern? Probably. Likely following a significantly shorter timeline, but it certainly will happen, thanks to a similar mix of contributors. Yet again, consumers are leading the way by demanding greener funeral practices. The participants and speakers in the Green Funeral Conference represented a mix of champions of funeral practices along the continuum, both current and future practitioners.
This conference was a true meeting of minds and collaboration in exploring green funeral practices. I'm proud of the conversations that happened at this meeting and have attempted to capture some of the content and the spirit of the event.
Consumers will continue to require and expect a wide range of options from you and your businesses. These expectations will evolve and advance as the media reports the unfolding story. CANA and Passages are planning the second Green Funeral Conference to provide an ongoing forum for practitioners to explore their responses to consumer demands. In the meantime, you can access the Green Funeral Conference content online. Most importantly, you can share this post with your employees and hold your own conversations about how you can incorporate green funeral practices in your business.
Want to learn more from the presenters and participants in the Green Funeral Conference? This is the shameless plug to buy the recordings and join in the conversation from the comfort of your office. Learn more: goCANA.org/GFC2019
Recent CANA research shows that cremation customers are less interested in body-centric products and services, and instead seeking experiences to honor a life lived. The presenters hadn’t seen this research at the time of the Conference, but their experiences and advice supported these findings. If the consumer wants to focus on the person and not the body, are you prepared to support with your services and merchandise? This research on "The Cremation Experience" took the cover story of the most recent issue of The Cremationist and will be featured in issues and blog posts throughout 2020. Join CANA to read the magazine, consistently voted the most popular benefit of membership, or follow The Cremation Logs blog to get the reports as they come out!
Barbara Kemmis is Executive Director of the Cremation Association of North America.