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Let’s talk turkey about being buried “green”

Published on 11/19/2022
Last week, the League of Women Voter’s column celebrated Crawfordsville for its new park, and this week, we can tootle our trumpets for another fabulous feature of Montgomery County. For a minute, though, let’s hold the suspense.
In about a week, many Hoosiers will gather around the table with friends and family to give thanks. Whether it’s your favorite holiday or not, such gatherings may be opportune to talk turkey, not the one on the table, but the one that is as scary as any of “the talks” we have to have with kids and loved ones. This talk is the one about planning for the end-of-life.

It might be helpful to begin with the traditional “What are you grateful for this year?” and also to make this talk a ritual. Or, wait until later in the day, after tryptophan-induced naps over the cold turkey sandwiches, maybe as you deal out a game of euchre.

“Having shared what you’re grateful for in life, what are your end-of-life plans? What do you imagine will give you peace when you die? And how do you want to be buried?” Likely silence will ensue. Hopefully, no one chokes on their food. Give everyone about thirty seconds, and, if need be, lead by example. Share your answer to loosen the bottleneck of silence and thoughts. 

Why do this? Because having clear plans communicated to your loved ones frees you up to live, and you give others the freedom to grieve.

It’s possible that fear of death, and the weirdness we associate with it, keep us from telling loved ones what we want, but money often lurks behind the conversation. Many Americans are unhappy with the funeral industry and the costs of burial, which is why direct cremation (cremation without the trimmings and services) has climbed significantly since the 1970s. The average funeral along with the plot costs close to $10,000. A lot of trimmings that drive up costs- embalming, caskets, flowers, and vaults- are optional. These trimmings may seem like “requirements” to grieving people planning a funeral under duress.

Planning ahead takes back the control. About 54% of Americans surveyed by the National Funeral Directors Association said they prefer natural burials, which are far more affordable and simple. Here’s where Montgomery County wins kudos. 
We are home to Oak Hill Cemetery, one of four sites in Indiana where anyone can be buried “green.” Indiana is somewhat remarkable when it comes to natural burial because it offers one of the highest densities of hybrid sites in the United States. This gives Hoosiers the freedom to be buried more affordably, more simply, and without leaving a huge stamp of carbon waste in their wake. 

Ask and you shall receive apparently. As of 2020, there are now 166 sites in the US that offer natural, conservation, or hybrid burial grounds. Oak Hill Cemetery is hybrid because it offers both traditional plots that require a vault and a section of natural grounds. For those who prefer this, they may be buried unembalmed in a casket made of biodegradable materials (think wood, cloth, bamboo, wicker, or heavy-duty cardboard). No concrete box will prevent them from natural decomposition. 

In short, this is “green” burial. By definition, it means no artificial processes are used in handling human remains. It’s the form of burial that was common prior to the Civil War. Grave markers may be identified by GPS or allow for simple flat stones or trees, and the site is planted with native vegetation. 

It contrasts significantly with expensive funerals and burials. Every year in the USA we bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (which is toxic and does not preserve bodies much more than a few days or weeks beyond the viewing). We also sink 90,272 tons of steel via caskets and vaults, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze in casket linings, 30,000,000 boar feet of hardwood (including wood from endangered forests), and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete burial vaults. None of these are for public health and safety. (Green Burial Council) 

Though direct cremations (again those without all the trimmings) are less expensive, each one cremation burns about as much fuel as a 500-mile car drive and releases 400kgs of carbon. (US Funerals Online)

In 2017, two people I loved died. A 51-year-old friend (husband and father of three kids) died from a heart attack and my sister died of cancer. Both were buried naturally, or mostly in my sister’s case. 

Often, it’s hard to bury a heart attack victim this way, let alone have a viewing, because of the autopsy that is required. We were fortunate that he had a caring coroner, so we could conduct a funeral fitting to his faith tradition. 

Because Indiana is one of eight states requiring a licensed funeral director to be present at the interment, his family retained a local director who provided transportation and helped with casketing and included it in the basic services, a common fee that often reaches close to $2000. A woodworker in his congregation built his casket and his church held the services and provided the flowers and the meal for the memorial service.

In my sister’s circumstances, we could not arrange for a church close to where she died in Frederick, MD, she opted for a home burial. We hired the same casket builder and drove it to Maryland. That state’s rules allow for a family member to handle the body, so I obtained the burial permit and death certificate from her hospice nurse. Family members prepared her body and casketed her. The viewing and wake at home allowed each of us to spend long private times with her remains. She was interred by arrangement with a local cemetery, though they unfortunately required a partial concrete liner over her casket to reduce subsidence. The cost of both burials, including caskets and plots was close to $2000, rivaling direct cremation. 

With this information in mind, perhaps holding the hard talk about everyone’s wishes will be a little easier. I doubt anyone would fault you if choose a different day than Thanksgiving.