Staying eco-conscious beyond the grave

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December 9th, 2011

Lincoln, NE – Practices like recycling and driving fuel-efficient vehicles have come to the forefront of maintaining a healthy planet. But what kind of environmental mark do we leave when we die?

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Perhaps the first step to living an eco-friendly life is being fully prepared for when it might end.

Tom Belford is owner and director of John A Gentleman Mortuaries - the only mortuary in Nebraska to offer green funeral options. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

Tom Belford is the owner and director of John A Gentleman Mortuaries. In the basement of the company’s Omaha location, Belford showed an assortment of what would be considered green or biodegradable coffins. He also explained the difference between natural burial coffins and those of a more contemporary variety.

“This one here probably won’t be a good choice,” said Belford, pointing to a displayed coffin. “It’d probably be a ‘B’ choice, not an ‘A’ choice. It does have a varnish on it, and things like that. We’re looking for something simple with really no chemicals on it to go back into the earth.”

It’s all a part of something called a natural burial, and it’s started to catch on. It includes a biodegradable coffin and shortening the viewing ceremony.

An important factor in a natural burial is the coffin. Those pictured here offer a variety of alternatives. Natural cemeteries often restrict the use of different varnishes or chemical treatments on the coffins. (Photo by Ben Bohall, NET News)

As for embalming, natural burials have forgone it completely.

“Rather than having a family come in and have the embalming take place, we basically place them in the refrigeration unit,” Belford said. “When you cool the body off, it stops the natural deterioration of the body. So you don’t really need to have the embalming in that case.”

Without embalming, Nebraska law requires that a body be buried within three days of death.

Individuals are buried in what are considered “green” cemeteries that have restricted the use of chemicals like pesticides, varnishes, or formaldehydes. Essentially, it has become a process with little-to-no negative impact on the environment. The idea has been that the individual’s body decomposes at a faster rate, and becomes, as Belford says, “one with the earth.”

It’s a process similar to that of Orthodox Jewish burial traditions. According to Rabbi Jonathon Gross of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, it’s an “ashes-to-ashes” mindset.

“The burial itself was always environmentally conscious,” Gross said. “There’s a Biblical imperative that man was created from dust and he’s supposed to return to the dust. We do want the body to return to its natural state, in a natural way, as quickly as possible. In America, we just use pine boxes, which disintegrate quickly … In Israel, they do not use coffins at all. The body is placed directly into the ground.”

But if the whole idea of letting nature take its course leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth, you’re not alone.

It’s a criticism Bellevue city councilwoman and city cemetery committee member Carol Blood has faced.

“I have absolutely had people tell me that they think it’s disgusting literally,” Flood said.

Last week, along with other members of the council, Blood approved a proposal that would make Bellevue the first city in the state to offer the natural burial option.

Blood said she and the committee members saw the addition as an exciting new option, but by no means a requirement.

“It’s the same reason we offer traditional burial and cremation. It’s another product, another choice that really allows families to bury their loved one the way they see fit,” she stressed. “If you choose that you want a traditional burial, and not cremation, then you aren’t going to get cremated. Well, it’s the same thing. If you are not impressed by the principles of green burials, simply don’t make that your choice.”

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