Saunders

When you go, go green

Staff WriterAugust 2, 2010 

The philosopher Kermit the Frog said it best: It's not that easy bein' green. Especially when it comes to taking that final, everlasting dirt nap.

That's surprising, since it seems that few things are more environmentally friendly than planting someone in the ground and hearing the Rev. Trimble intone "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If God doesn't get you, then the devil must."

According to Joe Sehee, founder of the 5-year-old Green Burial Council, many of our final resting places won't turn to dust "for years and years and years" - if ever - because of the metal and concrete in which we'll be unnecessarily entombed.

"The Green Burial Council is careful not to [disparage] any end-of-life ritual or practice, but there's a tremendous amount of embodied energy ... in burial vaults and metal caskets," Sehee told me recently. "There's enough cement buried in the ground [for burial vaults] each year to build a highway from New York to Detroit. ... What we're talking about is 'ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust' burials, as is done in 95 percent of the world."

Sehee is passionate about "eco-friendly" burials, so passionate that I had to jump in and pull the reins to slow him down several times when he got on a roll. He is no more passionate, though, than the people who he says are driving the environmental burial movement - baby boomers.

"Environmentalism and legacy have always been important to boomers. The people who gave us Earth Day don't want their final act" to destroy the environment, he said.

Going green when you go can not only preserve, restore and save our natural habitat, Sehee said, but "it can save you half to two-thirds of a conventional burial" in costs.

Sehee said that the nascent green movement "hasn't received a lot of opposition" from traditional funeral homes. "They could've been threatened and thrown roadblocks at us, but they haven't," he said.

Joe Smolenski Jr., whose son Joe Smolenski III runs the Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh, said, "In the field of business, anything can pose a threat. You have to be dexterous and able to land on your feet."

That dexterity may be why Renaissance is the Triangle's only certified green funeral home and one of only three in the state. The concept of green burials, at least by that name, Smolenski said, "isvery much in its infancy. Green burials are simply what in the past was a typical Muslim or Jewish funeral - removed from the religious practices."

The body, he said, is interred with no embalming and wrapped in a shroud or placed in a wood coffin with little or no metal.

Sehee said pine makes great, biodegradable coffins "if the wood is not stained with toxins ... and comes from a sustainably harvested forest" that's close to where the burial takes place.

Whew, that's a lot to think about when you're checking out, isn't it?

I don't want to hurt the environment when I leave, but I doubt that my final thoughts will be about whether my coffin is biodegradable. Most likely, I'll be thinking "Hmmm, did I turn off the stove?"

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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