Green Last Requests, Part Three

  • One graveyard in Chicago is comprised of over 2.2 million dead at 43 cemeteries - that's a lot of land to maintain (Photo by Todd Melby)

During the past couple of centuries,
the typical graveyard hasn’t changed
much. Its central features still include
tombstones, winding paths, trees and
grass. Some critics want cemeteries to
ban tombstones, stop fertilizing, and
institute other green practices. Todd
Melby reports that traditional burial
practices die hard:

Todd Melby and Diane Richard produced a documentary on green burial called “Death’s Footprint.” You can listen to it here .

Transcript

During the past couple of centuries,
the typical graveyard hasn’t changed
much. Its central features still include
tombstones, winding paths, trees and
grass. Some critics want cemeteries to
ban tombstones, stop fertilizing, and
institute other green practices. Todd
Melby reports that traditional burial
practices die hard:

I’m in a mausoleum with Roman Szabelski. He’s the head of Catholic Cemeteries for the
Archdiocese of Chicago. He’s punching information into a computer.

Catholic grave locator: “Spell out the last name of the deceased that you are trying to
locate using the touch-screen keyboard …”

“So I’ve just keyed in my family name and I’m pushing search. Florence Szabelski is my
mother so I’m asking it to show that record to me.”

Szabelski started mowing grass at the cemeteries in 1979. Today, he presides over 2.2
million dead at 43 cemeteries. That makes Catholic Cemeteries one of the nation’s largest
graveyards.

Other than the high-tech grave locator, Szabelski says his customers prefer things the old
fashioned way.

“We come from a very conservative tradition where people want their 3 by 8, their grave,
to look like their backyard, which is perfectly manicured.”

Some people would like to change that. Advocates of something called green burial say
the perfectly manicured grass, the granite tombstones, the concrete burial vaults, the big
wooden or metal coffins, all of it, is wasteful.

Instead, they’d like to see graveyards filled with native grasses and flowers, rocks used as
grave markers, biodegradable coffins or no coffins at all.

So far, there’s not much demand for green burial.

Most people here are like Charlene and Margaret Villarreal, who are sitting near their
mother’s grave at Queen of Heaven Cemetery. Until her mother’s recent death, Margaret
Villareal had no reason to visit a cemetery.

“I’m 45 years old and nothing has brought me to the cemetery. Nothing, until she passed
away.”

The Villareals have decorated their mother’s grave with red roses, a crucifix festooned
with purple ribbons and a Chicago Cubs pennant.

On this day, they’ve come to honor their mother’s birthday.

Charlene Villarreal: “I’ve planned it since the day she died. I knew I would be here.”
(long pause)

Margaret Villarreal: “Oh get a grip. If she were here …”

Charlene Villarreal: “Sorry, Ma. It’s not as bad as it was on Mother’s Day. (Pause)
(Sniffles) I’m OK.”

They chose a traditional funeral for their mother. Her body was embalmed, which
allowed for an open casket. That casket was placed inside a concrete vault and buried. A
grave marker notes that she was a “loving wife and mother” who will always be in the
hearts of her family.

Margaret Villareal fears a green burial would have robbed her mother of the respect she
deserved.

“Here we are. We’re in the United States. That’s traditionally not how it’s done. You
might do that with animals. But as humans go there is more of a process of dignity
involved. You know, it sounds like that’s something you would do in a mass burial with
some kind of a tragedy like the Chicago fire but not something you’d do to remember
your loved one.”

Environmentalists dispute that. They say most people simply don’t know enough about
green burial to make an informed decision.

Whether that’s true or not, Roman Szabelski of Catholic Cemeteries is plowing ahead
with his plans. He’s got plenty of land on hand for tomorrow’s dead.

“We’re sitting in Queen of Heaven Cemetery right now, which is roughly about a 300-
acre site. About 100 of those acres are leased to the golf course next door. As we need the
property, the golf course will go from 18 to 9 to zero and a driving range and that
property will be used.”

When Szabelski adds up all the land Catholic Cemeteries owns, he figures it can keep
doing business as usual for the next 100 to 200 years.

For The Environment Report, I’m Todd Melby.

Related Links

Green Last Requests, Part Two

  • Steve Dawson is an undertaker trying to give people greener options (Photo by Todd Melby)

When businesses begin offering
earth-friendly alternatives to
traditional products, it often
takes a while for those items
to catch on. The funeral industry
is no exception. Todd Melby reports
on one undertaker’s attempt at
greening death:

Todd Melby and Diane Richard produced a documentary on green burial called “Death’s Footprint.” You can listen to it here .

Transcript

When businesses begin offering
earth-friendly alternatives to
traditional products, it often
takes a while for those items
to catch on. The funeral industry
is no exception. Todd Melby reports
on one undertaker’s attempt at
greening death:

Steve Dawson is an undertaker who lives above his funeral home business.
His backyard looks like many here in suburban Chicago. It’s full of cherry
trees and apple trees and he’s got one of those round, above ground
swimming pools. Next to the pool, there’s a small building that looks like a
two-car garage.

We step inside.

“This is the crematorium. This is a cremation retort. As you can see it’s a
fairly large machine.”

That retort is a big furnace. It’s also a big part of Dawson’s business here at
Sax-Tiedeman Funeral Home.

Dawson: “We have a body that has been dropped off here for cremation. If
this is bothering you because we have a body here, I will do what I can to
get the body out of the way.”

Melby: “No, I’m fine.”

Dawson: “We’ll go back over here and get this started.”

(sound of the crematory furnace)

“That starts out the blowers, which is a purging blower, to basically clear
out anything that might be in the way there.”

After the furnace starts, it takes about two hours to finish the process. Then
Dawson takes the remains over to a machine that sifts through what’s left.

Dawson: “What we do is we go through there and sort through the
cremated remains.”

Melby: “This is actually what happens at the end, obviously.”

Dawson: “Right.”

Dawson collects all the prosthetics, those titanium knee and hip joints, in a big
can nearby. They get recycled.

That’s important to Dawson. At home, he’s a passionate recycler of soda pop
cans, newspapers and other household items.

“My family calls me the recycling Nazi because I get after them to put it all gets
put in the recyling bin.”

On the job, he tries to be green too.

Dawson knows that cremation — an option chosen by nearly 1 in 2 Americans —
has environmental downsides. Many older people have mercury dental fillings.
During cremation, that cancer-causing toxin vaporizes and goes up into the
atmosphere. Heating up the cremation furnace also eats up energy.

Dawson is also a savvy businessman. He believes more Americans are going
to want green choices, even when buying death products.

That’s why he’s embraced green burial. Sax-Tiedemann is Chicago’s first —
and so far only — green-certified funeral home. So in addition to selling
baseball-themed urns and big wooden caskets, Dawson has other choices
too.

“In this area here, we have rental caskets and up on the top, these are e-caskets,
Eco-caskets. These are made out of bamboo and these are designed to be
biodegradable.”

Although most Jews and Muslims skip embalming, the procedure is still quite
popular among Christians. Green death advocates are opposed to embalming
because of the formaldehyde used in the process. So to get certified, Dawson had
to buy a new machine.

“This is a three-body cooler. Inside a three-body cooler, this is what we use to be
able to hold remains without embalming. The temperature in the cooler is kept at
roughly 42 degrees. That’s enough to be able to slow down the decomposition
process.”

(funeral music)

A chilled body will hold for a day or so, which is usually enough time for friends
and family to gather and say good-bye. As baby boomers begin dying in big
numbers, Dawson expects more of them to choose green burial.

For The Environment Report, I’m Todd Melby.

Related Links

Green Last Requests, Part One

  • Amy Weik has a will drawn up that specifies a green burial (Photo by Todd Melby)

Memorial Day is coming up. Many people still visit the graves of family and friends, maybe bring flowers. When a loved one dies, grieving prevents most of us from thinking about the environmental consequences of conventional funerals and burial. But some people are beginning to weigh the environmental costs of caskets, burial vaults and grave markers. Todd Melby reports on the green death movement:

Todd Melby and Diane Richard produced a documentary on green burial called “Death’s Footprint.” You can listen to it here .

Transcript

Memorial Day is coming up. Many people still visit the graves of family and friends,
maybe bring flowers. When a loved one dies, grieving prevents most of us from
thinking about the environmental consequences of conventional funerals and burial.
But some people are beginning to weigh the environmental costs of caskets, burial
vaults and grave markers. Todd Melby reports on the green death movement:

Amy Weik works at a bank in downtown Chicago. She’s also a big-time
environmentalist. She bikes to work, doesn’t eat meat, recycles and she composts.

“This is my worm bin. It’s a rectangular cube, which I keep my worms in that eat
my scrap vegetables. Mmm, look at that. Yum. Scrap paper, food that went bad.”

The environment is such a big part of Weik’s life, she’s not only interested in
living green.

She wants to die green.

“We’re Americans. We are wasteful and we consume. We think that we are
entitled to everything. So I’m entitled to using up this massive plot of land for the
rest of eternity. That’s ridiculous thinking. You know what I mean?”

So 11 years ago — when she was only 23 — Weik wrote her own will and shared it
with her mother.

Weik: “I can read part of it.”

Melby: “Sure, what does it say?”

Weik: “Zero products or services from funeral homes are to be utilized.”

Instead, Weik prefers her body to be chemically cremated. But that new, high-
tech process isn’t widely available yet. Her second choice is to be composted with
worms.

“If all efforts have been exhausted, but these two options are not available, please
bury me in a green burial ground, location unimportant.”

That second option leaves Weik’s mother — Linda Williams — confused.

“The second was composed with worms? When I read it today, my first reaction
was, oh my Gosh, she composts with worms in her kitchen. I hope she doesn’t
expect me to put her in the box!” (Laughs)

Weik sees lots of unnecessary waste in conventional burial practices. Caskets
constructed from wood or metal are used for a short time and then go right into
the ground. Most graveyards require the casket be placed inside a concrete burial
vault to prevent leaking, but most eventually leak anyway. Grave markers are
often made of granite. And cemeteries are usually manicured to perfection using
fertilizer and riding lawn mowers.

Green burial advocates prefer biodegradable caskets — or just a shroud — no
burial vault, no grave markers and no landscaping. They prefer natural
surroundings.

Weik is hoping to live long enough to see a cemetery in her town go green.

So far, that’s not happened.

But one organization is working on it.

“I don’t think many people really want many aspects of conventional death care. I
think they think it’s legally required.”

That’s Joe Sehee. He’s head of the Green Burial Council.

“Most Americans do not know that you can have a funeral with a viewing without
embalming. Most don’t know that you can transport a body across state lines
without having to embalm it. Most don’t know that burial vaults can be avoided,
for example, or that you can go into the grave with a shroud or nothing at all.”

The council has been busy certifying all kinds of earth-friendly death products,
but has been slow to find graveyards willing to ban concrete burial vaults and
minimize traditional landscaping.

That leaves Amy Weik wondering if she’s going to have rely on the worms in her
compost bin to dispose of her body.

For The Environment Report, I’m Todd Melby.

Related Links