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Takeaways from the First Ever Green Funeral Conference

Posted By Barbara Kemmis, Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Takeaways from the First Ever Green Funeral Conference

 

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.

Consumer Insights

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.

What's Next?

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

Barbara Kemmis is Executive Director of the Cremation Association of North America.

Tags:  alkaline hydrolysis  body preparation  cemetery  education  embalming  events  green practices  manufacturers  marketing  personalization  services 

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Navigating the Green Funeral Landscape

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Navigating the Green Funeral Landscape

 

All around the country, cremation rates are continuing to steadily rise. If you are reading this, you will already know that this change is an almost daily conversation for those of us in the industry, and understandably so; in 2016, the national cremation rate hit 50%, a landmark meaning that for the first time, the majority of families going through the funeral process had their loved one returned as cremated remains, while a minority of the deceased were buried in a casket. Since then, this upward trend of the cremation rate has continued, and everyone has been working out how to address this change while keeping their businesses – often businesses that have been in the family for generations – successful.

There are a host of factors encouraging families to find new, creative options for their funerals, and green values are a key influence. People are generally living more eco-conscious lives, and prefer not to contribute to the large environmental footprint left by grave vaults, hardwood caskets, embalming fluids, etc. And, with life moving at internet-fast pace, people value simplicity. To most, the simplest option for a funeral is to get a cremation and have an intimate service, rather than taking the time and going through all the variables that are involved in a traditional funeral.

Cremation as an Opportunity

While any change in customer demands can be frightening, the way our industry is evolving opens up new avenues for businesses that previously did not exist. 10% of funeral homes may have closed between 2005 and 2015 (the recession in 2008 can be given a good part of the blame for that), but the number of deaths in the USA rose nearly 11%, from 2.45 million in 2005 to 2.71 million in 2015. For lack of a better way to put it, the customer base in the funeral industry is rising, but what they are buying has changed. Even with the rising popularity of non-traditional options, funeral homes and crematories are still the experts that we go to when a loved one passes away, and the drop in traditional burials leaves a massive opportunity to offer people something new and different.

Now, let’s look at the environmental reasoning behind non-traditional options. The world is becoming more eco-conscious, and people are taking steps to reduce their personal carbon footprint wherever they can. Electric cars and green energy sources are more popular than ever, many stores now charge for plastic bags to reduce waste, and even single-use utensils and plastic straws are being removed or replaced with biodegradable options. The entire City of Malibu recently banned all plastic straws and utensils to reduce waste from the thousands of visitors passing through every day.

If people are taking this much care in reducing their carbon footprint, why wouldn’t they also want to leave a minimal impact after life? Cremation is perceived as the greener alternative to burial, because it does not require the cement, toxic fluids, hardwoods, or physical space of a burial, and this opens up another opportunity to generate business from families. Plastic temporary containers can be replaced with biodegradable options at a very low cost, and will leave green-minded families satisfied. More importantly, while these families would not consider a marble or metal urn, there are many Earth-friendly urn options in the same price range as more expensive permanent options, which can be presented to families.

A beautiful urn hand-made from a natural gourd or carved from salt may be the best option for families that don’t want to purchase a permanent urn, but still want to place their loved one’s remains into something special. And, using unique biodegradable urns can open the door to some amazing services. We once had a family perform a ceremony at sea with one of our Turtle Urns, and they were joined by real sea turtles, resulting in an unforgettable experience for all involved. We have found that most members of the public didn’t know that these better options even exist, so by suggesting these options to families that see little or no value in a permanent urn, you can create a new revenue stream and provide unparalleled value to your families.

Through my work at Passages, I’ve come to learn many reasons that people choose to cremate and scatter instead of a traditional burial. More than ever, people are moving to new cities for work or family, and it has become rarer for a family to remain in the same place for generations. This means that visiting grave sites of parents or grandparents is harder. Often, people who are moving would rather not add an urn to their already heavy load, viewing it as “just another thing to carry.” Non-traditional options make more sense for these families, who may choose to get together once to scatter and celebrate a life, before going their separate ways. Offering higher-end biodegradable urns can help families make this a proper, memorable experience, whether they choose to scatter at sea or on land.

Green options don’t have to be low-tech or cheap; at Passages, we recently released a contemporary new urn that allows families to keep a loved one’s remains inside their home while they begin the healing process, but will be buried and grow a memorial tree. The family plants a memorial tree in the top half, with the remains in the bottom, and after some time the outer shell of the urn begins to crack. We like to see as the loved one telling the family it is time to bury the urn that holds their remains. The design of the urn neutralizes the pH of remains to allow healthy root growth, and it includes a unique geotag to mark the final planting location of the remains and memorial tree, with an online platform for families to create a memorial.

The final major reason cited for the shift to cremation and non-traditional funeral options is that people are attracted to the simplest option or whatever is the least amount of work and worry during an already difficult time. This is becoming truer in all aspects of life: ordering a rideshare service has become hugely popular due to the simplicity over a traditional taxi, and people have become used to shopping online with their purchases being delivered to their doors. So, when going through the funeral process, people expect a similar level of ease. If you improve your basic cremation package with natural, sustainable cremation containers and dignified temporary urns, families will feel taken care of. Those families that need something cheaper can ask for cardboard, but by offering something more in your “base” package, the simplest option that families can choose will also be a more profitable, more meaningful package.

If Someone Wants to Buy a Bike, You Won’t be Able to Sell Them a Car.

In our rapidly-changing funeral environment, it’s more important than ever to really understand how families are thinking and what it will take to provide them with a personal funeral experience. Many families today simply are not looking for the traditional funeral services that have been offered for generations, and we have to understand that those customers won’t be convinced to go that route due to a lack of other options.

Does your selection room reflect what over 50% of your cremation families are planning to do? Scattering is what over half of cremation families intend, a recent report from NFDA states. And most urn selection rooms offer a very small selection of urns intended for scattering of remains or burial in the earth or sea. If a family declines a permanent urn, it’s up to you to offer a non-traditional urn that they will see value in. If not, the opportunity for a sale will be lost, along with the opportunity to provide the best in the eyes of the family.

Passages International has partnered with CANA to host the first-ever Green Funeral Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because we want to take a deeper dive into where the industry is heading. Green funeral practices are being driven by consumer demand and, for the most part, progressive funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematories are finding a way to say yes to greening funeral arrangements. Participants in this Conference will learn current green funeral practices and, through interactive sessions, apply innovative ideas to their businesses. This isn’t just lecture, it’s interactive solution-sharing with colleagues from across the profession and around the world.

This event will include presentations and panels with experts in the non-traditional field, and will help funeral professionals understand how to market and offer green and non-traditional options to families successfully. You can find more information and register at the CANA website or the Passages International website. The event will coincide with the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and participants will be invited to take a tour of the Passages International facility in Albuquerque, to learn more about biodegradable urns and eco-friendly caskets.

 


Kilian takes the stage at the first-ever Green Funeral Conference this October 2-4. See other eco-experts coming for this unique opportunity to discuss green funeral practices on our website. Register soon, because this is an event you won't want to miss!



Elisa Krcilek

Kilian Rempen is the Marketing Manager at Passages International, leaders in the green funeral sector for 20 years. Kilian has been published in multiple major funeral industry publications and helps spread the word of greener alternatives in funerals and other areas.

Tags:  consumers  events  green practices  memorialization 

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