NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - As carbon footprints go, a typical cemetery plants a sizable one:
First, the bodies with gallons of embalming fluid in them. Then the caskets, crafted of mahogany and varnished hardwood and metal, often lowered into indestructible concrete vaults. And marble headstones meant to last an eternity. And the graveyards themselves, which require watering and mowing and upkeep.
It’s hardly a dust-unto-dust kind of place.
Cremation is a little gentler on the environment. The remains take up less space, but that process, too, has an impact on the Earth.
Crematories use a massive amount of energy - it takes two to three hours at 1,800 degrees to cremate one body - emitting hundreds of pounds of carbon dioxide in the process. And has anyone mentioned vaporized mercury from tooth fillings?
All of this was enough to get Neal Kellum thinking of alternatives.
Kellum has been in the funeral business more than 30 years. About a year ago, the Virginia Beach man invested in a new apparatus called an alkaline hydrolysis system.
It’s a water-and-chemical solution that basically washes remains away, leaving bone ash similar to that of a regular cremation. A liquid that remains after a 16- to 20-hour washing process goes down the drain as wastewater, a measure Kellum had to prove to city workers was safe and sterile.
One problem: It’s not legal to use on human bodies in Virginia.
The process was first used with cadavers that had been donated for medical research in Florida in the mid-1990s. An Ohio funeral home started using the system in 2010 but was stopped by regulators, partly at the behest of the Catholic Church, which said it was disrespectful.
But other states, including Florida, Colorado and Maryland, have moved forward in either changing or tweaking the law to approve the method, which is now up and running in 13 states.
Kellum uses the system, sometimes called water cremation or aquacremation, at his Pet Cremation Services of Tidewater business.
Count Carla Kumm of Chesapeake as a satisfied customer. While she was happy it was an eco-friendly way to dispose of the body of Bella, a Rottweiler that shared her home along with her daughter and son-in-law, another reason led her to pay the extra $20: “It seemed more peaceful for her to be washed away than burned.”
That’s just one new method being used to dispose of bodies with less fuss and muss.
Believe it or not, there are people who study the subject, like Phil Olson. He’s an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Science and Technology in Society. He comes by it honestly: His family was in the business, and he has vivid memories of embalming bodies.
He said he’s surprised there hasn’t been more talk about environmentally friendly burials in this coastal area, given concern about sea level rise and the region’s high water table: “If you look at what happened with Katrina, where cemeteries were destroyed and bodies were floating around, that could come to other coastal cemeteries.”
The industry is resistant to change, Olson said, but it does occur. In the 1960s, the percentage of bodies being cremated was in the single digits; today, it’s about 50 percent. While alkaline hydrolysis scores points for using less energy, it does use a lot of water, something that might be an issue in drought states.
One of the biggest deterrents to change is the funeral business itself, a multibillion-dollar industry in this country. For instance, concrete or plastic vaults are often required by cemeteries - not for public health reasons, but so grave sites won’t sink under the weight of mowing equipment.
Ironically, methods of our ancestors - a gathering with the body in the living room, followed by burial in a back pasture - are some of the kindest to the environment. Olson said there’s a small, but growing, “home funeral” movement in which services are held at home after family members bathe and prepare the body for burial. A Maryland woman set up a website, Crossings: Caring for Our Own at Death, pointing the way for that option after the death of her 7-year-old daughter, whose body she brought home to bathe and tend for three days.
Olson also points to the work of the Green Burial Council, founded in 2005 to certify cemeteries and funerals that uphold sound environmental aspects of burial. The body can’t be preserved with traditional embalming fluid; vaults are not allowed; only biodegradable burial containers and shrouds can be used; and cemeteries must protect natural areas.
The council lists 42 cemeteries in the United States, including one in Virginia: Duck Run Natural Cemetery in Penn Laird.
Eric and Jayne Rynar of Port Republic were two of the first to sign up for plots at Duck Run. They used to live in New York and moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains area of Virginia in 2007 after retirement. They have recycled for decades and don’t use pesticides on their plants.
Naturally, they wanted to go out of this world with as little harm to the Earth as possible. They had heard of green burials, but the closest one they could find was in North Carolina. Serendipitously, in 2010, they read that Kenneth Kyger had applied for a special-use permit for a natural cemetery on a 113-acre former dairy farm east of Harrisonburg, just 8 miles from where they live.
“We thought, hey, that’s fate for us,” said Rynar, 65. “Being buried with embalming fluid in a fancy coffin that has a lot of metal really pollutes the land and doesn’t serve any purpose.”
Rynar said this also aligns with his Jewish faith’s prohibition of embalming and cremation. Muslims also have that prohibition. The Catholic Church dropped its opposition to cremation in the mid-1960s but emphasizes that cremated ashes must be treated with the same respect as a body, and not be scattered.
Kyger, president and owner of the cemetery, has been in the funeral business for 40 years, tracking trends in the business and offering an array of traditional and newer options. For instance, he had a crematory installed in 1980. He sees natural burial as a growing trend, having heard more than one person ask him: “Kenny, why can’t you just put me in the side of a hill and let me take a rest?”
Now he feels he’s able to do that, in a natural cemetery with indigenous plants and biodegradable caskets of wicker, bamboo or pine.
A body that decomposes more quickly into the ground to continue the circle of life is one way to recycle. Another: Donating your body to medical science.
Rick Sikon, operational director of the Virginia State Anatomical Program, said that agency accepts an average of 300 to 350 bodies a year. Donor bodies are distributed to medical schools and universities and community colleges with anatomy classes throughout the state. They are used to train not only doctors, but also nurses, surgical assistants and medical researchers.
But there are a few things people need to know about this option.
One, some conditions can preclude you from having your body donated, such as opting to give your organs or tissues to other organizations. Or if you’re extremely obese, have had certain surgical procedures, an infectious disease or any amputations.
Family members need to know in advance, so as not to have the body embalmed or have an autopsy done. Sikon said they also need authorization from next of kin to make the donation once a person has died. It’s a good idea to have a backup plan, and Sikon said they also can refer to other science-based organizations.
Still, at some point after students have completed their study of the donor, the body must be buried or cremated, which each individual school coordinates, but you can ask for the remains back after study is complete.
Eastern Virginia Medical School has an end-of-the-school-year ceremony to thank family members for the use of their relative’s donor body.
At this year’s ceremony, Eric Robsich, a first-year physician assistant student, likened donating a body to science to a closing scene in a movie, in which the main character appears one more time: “Just when we thought life was complete, there’s a bonus.”
Death is generally not something people dwell on, so many don’t make plans in advance.
For someone passionate about the environment, Scott Harper didn’t discuss the topic, even toward the end of his four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Harper covered environmental issues for The Virginian-Pilot for nearly 20 years before his death in 2013.
Knowing his environmental bent, his wife, Jane Harper, couldn’t see putting his remains in a cemetery, so she researched some greener options. Ironically, one of the first entries she found on a Google search was a story Scott wrote in 2002 about a long-time environmentalist whose cremated remains were mixed in concrete to form a 1,600-pound “eternal reef ball” dropped to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.
Jane reached out to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and connected with the Eternal Reefs, which is based in Sarasota, Fla., and Decatur, Ga. The company, founded in 1999, designs the memorials using hollow, dome-shaped structures made of marine-safe concrete to mimic natural reefs.
George Frankel, CEO of Eternal Reefs, said the memorials are placed at sites permitted for development as recreational reefs for fishing and diving. The nearest locations to this area are Topsail Island, N.C., and Ocean City, Md., but the company is in negotiation to establish a Chesapeake Bay site on the Eastern Shore or southeastern Virginia within the next two years.
Jane decided against embalming, which is permitted as long as it’s a closed-casket service. She decided to have his body cremated but didn’t want to scatter the ashes because that didn’t align with her Catholic faith. So a 350-pound eternal reef ball was “deployed” by Eternal Reefs seven months later in the Lafayette River, where the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and partners had already cast other reef balls to restore the oyster population Scott had written about for years.
Jane, who now works for The Virginian-Pilot, and her three children visit the river to leave flowers on his birthday, Father’s Day and anniversaries. She notes that when it’s low tide, they can see the top of it. Often, fish jump and egrets hover near the reef ball.
“To me,” Jane said, “it is definitely a much more pleasant and appropriate place to visit Scott than a cemetery would have been.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com
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