'Afraid to talk about death:' Raleigh funeral director says green burials can bring solace to mourning families

ByKaylee Merchak WTVD logo
Thursday, January 24, 2019
How 'going green' is now an option after death
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"I think that families that choose green burial are very happy with the intimacy green burial brings."

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- Two things are for certain in this world: we're all going to be born and we're all going to die.

It's true. Death is inevitable. But the hardest concept surrounding death is dying.

It is the idea of letting a loved one (or ourselves) go into the great beyond -- and based on your beliefs -- whatever it holds.

Imagine losing a person you love. A person who was your everything. The one who made you smile, laugh, wiped away every tear, helped pick you up when you were down, and maybe made the world feel all right.

Now, imagine being able to take all of those intimate moments to the grave -- literally.

That's what green burials do, according to Heather Hill, a funeral director with Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh.

Unlike traditional funeral services, green burials take the process and make it eco-friendly.

When it comes to green burials there are three tenants that differ from more mainstream funerals: no embalming of the body, the use of a biodegradable casket, and the lack of a vault or burial liner (body goes directly into the soil).

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After a loved one passes, families must decide quickly if a green burial is right for them, because the body will need to be refrigerated instead of embalmed.

"What we use instead of embalming is refrigeration," Hill said. "So if the body is cooled then that acts as embalming and we are able to, we don't have to do the burial within one, two, or three days; we can wait as long as seven, maybe 10 days. So embalming is not required nor is it supposed to happen in a green burial."

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One problem with embalming, Hill said, is formaldehyde, a chemical used in the embalming fluid which helps preserve the body.

"It (formaldehyde) is a toxic material that we don't want to put directly into the Earth," she said.

The fear of formaldehyde is not just that it would damage the planet but the embalmer too because it's a carcinogen.

In fact, a study released by the National Cancer Institution in 2009 revealed that funeral directors have an increased risk of death from myeloid leukemia.

However, there are now formaldehyde-free alternates that have been approved by the Green Burial Council.

Hill said another positive aspect to a green funeral is using a biodegradable casket, burial shroud, or box.

Credit: Renaissance Funeral Home

Cremation is not as eco-friendly as green burial because fuel is used during the burning process that is harmful to the Earth.

Also, during cremation, if the deceased has dental filings, some of the mercury in those filings is released into the air.

In addition to the formaldehyde, traditional caskets pose a threat to the Earth because they have metal parts, which take longer to break down in the soil.

When wooden caskets or burial shrouds are used, a body placed in the ground is able to decompose more naturally, creating better soil.

"You're giving back by not harming the Earth," Hill said.

Green burials also lack liners and vaults, resulting in a more natural decomposition because they're placed directly into the ground.

Furthermore, any material or substance used to make an urn, casket, or shroud that were harvested in a manner that unnecessarily destroys a habitat are not deemed green because of the harm they cause to the planet.

Green burials are only permitted in certain cemeteries or self-owned properties based on health department regulations.

Since there are only two locations in the Triangle area (Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh and Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in Wake Forest) that have these sections, green burials have not yet become widely popular in our area.

But Hill said she's thrilled to see more people are becoming interested in the option.

"I'm happy to see the interest in green burial," Hill said. "I'm happy there's another option besides traditional burial and besides cremation. There are families that didn't know that this was available, and I think the options that we have, there's always room for improvement. I wish other cemeteries would get on board with the green burial movement."

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And while some may think it is a fad, Hill said it's actually going back to our roots.

"Green burial is how we took care of loved ones before the funeral industry came in and took over and started making embalming and separating families from their loved ones, so I think we're just going back to our roots, so I don't see this as a fad ... I think people just want to go back to basics and go back to a natural, more intimate way of burying their loved ones."

And Hill said it's that closeness that makes all of the difference.

"I think that families that choose green burial are very happy with the intimacy green burial brings," Hill said. "I had a family that sat with their loved one and had his hand on his partner the whole time. I think there's more of an intimacy and you're more involved. You're able to cover up the grave, you're able to lay flowers or personal items on top of the body, so I think there's more of an intimacy and I think that helps us grieve better when we're able to be a little closer to it if that's right for you and your family."

But Hill believes there is one thing stopping many from having that final intimate moment.

"As a society, I think we're afraid to talk about death and afraid to talk about dying, and, until it's on our lap, we don't want to deal with it or talk about it," Hill said.

But she hopes Death Cafe, a monthly meeting to discuss death, dying, funerals, grief, and more, will help ease those fears.

"The whole tenet of Death Cafe is to bring it out of the shadows and to actually talk about it. Death is not fun. Losing someone is not a positive thing but if we are able to talk about it and come to the conclusion that 'this will indeed happen to us someday' that the more we talk about it the easier it is."

More information about Death Cafe and green burials service can be found on Renaissance's website.