As baby boomers age, they're looking for new options to traditional burial. Two recently opened green cemeteries, The Meadow in Ferndale, Whatcom County, and White Eagle in Goldendale, Klickitat County, offer environmentally sound ways of burial and are part of a new nationwide trend.
A cedar seedling grows at the head of the Rev. Daniel Dorr’s grave. The lacy green-fan foliage outweighs the spindly trunk. Someday, it will tower high, nurtured by what Dorr hoped would be his final act of environmental charity.
Dorr, a Wesleyan Methodist who died late last year, believed that taking care of the Earth was part of his Christian responsibility. So when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he and his wife, Eulene, planned for a burial that reflected their values.
The Shoreline couple chose a plot in a meadow of long grass, bracken fern and thimbleberry, where Dorr’s remains are buried 4 feet deep so they will easily decompose and enrich the soil.
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As baby boomers age, they’re looking for new options for burial. Some elect for the exotic — shooting ashes into space, putting them into an engraved capsule and sinking them in the sea, or scattering them by plane.
But what’s emerging as an option between exotic and traditional is the green, or environmentally friendly, burial. It involves nothing that’s not biodegradable and avoids releasing toxins into the air or using the energy required in cremation.
Burying loved ones without embalming, coffins or vaults is legal in all states as long as the burial is done in a designated site, says Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council trade association. Historically, “Americans have been robbed of this option and we’re trying to restore it,” he said.
The movement is an odd cross between conservationists and the funeral industry, he said. “But there’s a lot of interest.”
There are about 20 states with cemeteries designated for totally natural burial, Washington among them.
Greenacres Memorial Park’s The Meadow in Ferndale, Whatcom County, is the first green cemetery in the nation to be located within an existing cemetery, Sehee said.
The state’s other facility is the 1,300-acre White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Goldendale, Klickitat County, which Daniel Dancer, the general manager, developed after the death of a friend two years ago.
A 2007 AARP survey found that fewer than one-fifth of those older than 50 had considered green burial, compared with more than half who had considered cremation. Green-cemetery promoters such as Dancer expect the green-burial number to increase as more people learn about its environmental benefits.
“All they have to do is take a look at the cemetery business and see what a toxic and wasteful business it is,” Dancer said. “Do you want your last act on Earth to be something polluting, or be part of the natural world?”
Dorr, 74, was buried Dec. 15 at The Meadow in a simple pine box.
“For years Don had been a strong advocate of Christian stewardship of the Earth, believing it to be biblically sound,” his wife said.
Before moving to Shoreline, they lived in the Texas Hill Country, where Dorr was a Texas master naturalist. When his wife discovered green burials online shortly before her husband’s death, “we were very excited and knew that this was perfect for us,” she said.
Like White Eagle, The Meadow began offering green burials about two years ago.
“We listened to what people wanted,” owner John Moles said. Thirty plots have been sold so far, exceeding his expectation.
For Lorrie Otto, of Bellingham, who died Saturday at age 90, the choice of a green burial was easy. She devoted her life to conservation causes, was instrumental in the fight against DDT and started the natural-landscaping movement.
Committed to values
The thought of putting mercury and other toxins in the air through cremation, or using the energy it needs, was not in keeping with her values, she said several weeks ago in an interview.
In a few days, her body will be wrapped in a shroud and laid to rest in The Meadow.
“There is nothing macabre about it,” she said in that interview. “It’s very beautiful.”
With a limited number of green cemeteries, bodies are sent to The Meadow from all over the Northwest, said general manager Brian Flowers.
Graveside ceremonies at The Meadow have ranged from chanting Buddhist monks to drumming American Indian shamans to Protestant and Jewish ceremonies, Flowers said.
Some elect to bury their loved ones in caskets made from cottonwood, pine, cedar or reclaimed barnwood, all crafted on the nearby Lummi Nation reservation and made with pegs instead of nails.
Others elect to bury their family members in shrouds of African mud cloth, Irish linen, tartan wool or silk. Some shrouds are intricately embroidered.
Like many green products, green burial can be expensive. Moles, whose family has been in the funeral business for four generations, says burial in The Meadow costs about the same as a traditional funeral — about $6,500.
A plain shroud is less expensive than a handmade cedar casket. But in general, green cemeteries allot more space per gravesite to allow for ground settling, making green burial less cost-efficient than traditional burial. The plots also are challenging to maintain because of the lack of vaults and uneven ground, experts say. Those costs can offset the savings from not embalming.
Dancer says more can be saved if a funeral home isn’t involved.
Funeral homes charge about $1,400 for picking up, delivering and storing a body until the funeral. Dancer said it’s possible to get around that cost if someone wants to transport their loved one’s remains. A transport permit is required.
While driving the deceased from the place of death to a green burial site might be over the top for most, studies have confirmed a shift in thinking since the latter part of the 19th century, when the use of metal coffins, vaults and embalming became common.
Even the well-established cemeteries such as Seattle’s Evergreen Washelli are giving a nod to green burial.
General manager Scott Sheehan said it offers biodegradable caskets and a choice not to embalm. But there is no designated area for green burials.
The natural simplicity of The Meadow appealed to Eulene Dorr and her son and daughter. When they visited the grave May 13, “it was a sweet time,” she said. They talked about her daughter’s plans for a river-rock grave marker, then they knelt in the rich earth of the mounded grave.
They planted wildflower seeds and one small cedar, taking pleasure in knowing that even in death their loved one would enrich life.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org