Green unto the grave

Local funeral home offers eco-friendly options

BRATTLEBORO — What will your last impression be on Earth?

If you're an eco-friendly kind of person and would like to remain eco-friendly after your death, you may want to consider a green burial.

What's a green burial? It's a way of doing a funeral without elaborate caskets, embalming, or concrete burial vaults. Instead, biodegradable caskets, or a simple cloth shroud, are used. Proponents say it's the ultimate in recycling, where the body is reunited with the earth with the least environmental impact.

Green burials make up only a small part of America's $12 billion funeral home industry, but interest is growing around less expensive, less intrusive, and more environmentally sound funerals.

The idea is both new and old-fashioned: New, as in not many funeral homes are offering the option. Old-fashioned, in that such options were common for centuries before the trappings of the modern funeral came into vogue in the 20th century.

Although there are no green cemeteries in Vermont yet, Ker-Westerlund Funeral Home in Brattleboro is the first funeral home in the state to offer green burial options.

Jim Flanders, an advanced planning specialist at Ker-Westerlund, says he wanted to see this option available in Brattleboro.

“I approached my manager and suggested it because it is extremely important to our clientele, but we weren't offering it,” he said. “We wanted to make sure every element in the process was eco-friendly, because we live in this community and we want to keep it safe and sound.”

Ker-Westerland was recently certified by the Green Burial Council ( in green burials.

To meet the GBC's standards, a funeral home has to allow for the families of decedents to have the option of a public viewing without embalming, or with the use of GBC approved post-mortem fluids; has to carry at least three GBC approved/rated burial containers; and has to accommodate home vigils without embalming, or with the use of GBC approved post-mortem fluids.

GBC-approved funeral homes also must have at least one green-burial-educated staff member (minimum six hours), proficient in the technical, practical, and ethical issues of eco-friendly funeral service, and have to use non-invasive techniques and materials in the sanitation, preservation, and restoration of decedents.

Ker-Westerland has earned a “three-leaf” rating from the GBC, meaning it meets nearly all the criteria for a green burial provider.

The funeral home now has processes that allow someone to be embalmed in a non-toxic disinfectant. Going without embalming is also an option, though this precludes open casket viewings.

Ker-Westerlund also has a variety of alternative casket selections that are more eco-friendly, including caskets made of willow (resembling a wicker basket), wool, and New England-made pine caskets that are rubbed down in natural plant oils instead of a laminate. Many of these caskets also come with the option of a natural fiber shroud, also very biodegradable.

Although traditional direct cremation, such as what Ker-Westerlund offers, does involve fossil fuels, the funeral home offers green cremation urn options ranging from containers made of biodegradable hemp, paper, and bamboo, to urns made of sand and able to float on water before dissolving.

Green funerals are often much cheaper than traditional alternatives, Flanders said, adding he was adamant about having a green burial program that was affordable to all.

“As society changes, we need to change,” Flanders said. “People in this business are conservative and tend to look at what people traditionally want. As generations change, people's desires change. Twenty years ago, cremation was thought of as exceptional. Each generation has its own wants, needs, and desires, and we're savvy enough to look at this business in the same way. We need to be able to provide for each segment of the tradition.”

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