This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section.
Would you like your final legacy to be a gift to the planet? Having a green burial is one way to do that.
Though the term green burial is new, it describes something that has been around for millennia — the interment of a body into the earth where it can naturally biodegrade, without toxic embalming chemicals or the burying of metal caskets in concrete vaults. Green burial also saves the vast expenditure of energy required to cremate a body and the harmful gasses it can release.
To put green burial in perspective, one need only look back about 100 years. A person typically died at home and was cared for afterward by loved ones and neighbors. The viewing/wake was held in the front parlor and perhaps the funeral. Then the deceased was taken to the cemetery in a wooden box and laid to rest in a hand-dug grave where nature took its course.
But like so many things in the 20th century, death became outsourced. It wasn’t until the price of the embalming, funeral, casket, vault and cemetery plot reached five figures that people sought alternatives. According to the Green Burial Council, an organization that sets standards for cemeteries, funeral homes and product manufacturers for green burial in North approved providers has America, the number of grown from 1 in 2006, to more than 340 in 2015.
Now there is a resurgence of the type of death care and burial our ancestors would have recognized. People are caring for loved ones after death, often with the assistance of “death midwives,” who assist a family in planning and and help with preparing hosting a home funeral, the body. Many more are burying loved ones in natural areas set aside for that purpose.
Is it legal?
All of this is legal— with or without a coffin — albeit regulated.
Common misconceptions surround green burial and the law, says Caroline Vuyadinov, executive director of the Midwest Green Burial Society. The main one is that people believe that state law requires a coffin be placed in a concrete vault. It does not. This is a rule that cemeteries impose primarily to keep the ground level, says Vuyadinov, who used to work at a Chicago-area cemetery.
In fact, most burial conventions are simply cemetery rules. Caskets are not required by law. Neither is embalming. Burial on private land is allowed (but check with your county for permission first.)
However, Illinois state law does require that a funeral director be hired to fill out paperwork when a person dies. But the deceased is not required by law to go to a funeral home.
“You can actually have a home funeral in Illinois, but you must find a funeral director willing to work with you,” Vuyadinov says.
More than cost
Cost is not the only thing driving interest in green burial. It’s part of the environmental movement, embraced by many baby boomers who are planning their own exits, and their parents’.
“Baby boomers want to do things their way. They’re not so held to convention,” Vuyadinov says.
Green burial appealed to Jerry DiPietro, formerly of Streamwood, when his elderly mother was dying of Alzheimer’s disease in 2013. He didn’t want traditional embalming or the “upselling” of a glitzy casket and expensive vault. His family’s orthodox religion frowned upon cremation. So DiPietro chose a funeral director who could ensure his mother’s embalming would be formaldehyde-free. He bought a plot for her in a natural burial area of Windridge Memorial Park in Cary, and selected a carved wooden casket.
The whole affair still cost about $11,000, including the funeral, which was not a home funeral. But DiPietro is happy with his mother’s final resting place: alongside a scenic wooded path. “She is in a grove with a bunch of other people, and it’s more natural,” he says. “It’s a place where people have put out benches and planted flowers.”
Planning a green burial
If you want to explore green burial, visit greenburialcouncil.org or midwestgreenburial.org.
If you want an excellent depiction of how a home funeral and green burial can be consciously planned by the person for whom it is intended, and lovingly carried out by his family after death, view the award-winning documentary “A Will for the Woods” at awillforthewoods.com.
Put a plan in place before there is a need, and find a burial spot — or set up your own.
That’s what DiPietro plans to do on his land in Buchanan, Michigan, where he now lives.
“I intend to have my own family cemetery on my own property,” he says, adding that family plots might come back into vogue in the future. “The millennials are not going to be spending $11,000 to bury their parents,” he says.