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PORTLAND — Some local businesses are helping Maine residents be kinder to the earth when they return to it.
New England Green Funerals, a group of four funeral homes that include Jones-Rich-Hutchins Funeral Home on Woodford Street and Lindquist Funeral Home in Yarmouth, began offering environmentally sustainable services in February.
They include burial in caskets made from biodegradable materials, embalming without the use of toxic chemicals, and coordinating with cemeteries that deliberately minimize their impact on the land.
The funeral homes are all part of Dignity Memorial, a Texas-based network of 1,800 funeral, cremation and cemetery service providers in the United States and Canada. The formation of New England Green Funerals is the company’s first attempt to “go green,” a response to growing demand in the area.
Jane Mullen, who conducts family education programs for Dignity in Maine, said she started receiving more questions about green funerals last year. “I was feeling empty-handed,” she said, “but this told us there was at least some interest.”
Mullen and a small task force began exploring a green marketing strategy for the company in August. Six months later, a menu of earth-kind offerings was introduced at Jones-Rich-Hutchins, Lindquist, Veilleux Funeral Home in Waterville, and Ker-Westerlund Funeral Home in Brattleboro, Vt.
Prices are roughly comparable to those of traditional burial services and products, according to NEGF. The costs of its green caskets range from about $1,000-$1,500.
The homes haven’t sold any green goods to date, but Dignity expects that to change, especially as environmentally conscious baby boomers grow older.
“What we’re hearing from our funeral directors is that … baby boomers are coming in, making arrangements for a parent, but they see the information about green burials and say, that might be interesting for me,” said Michael Martel, Dignity’s local market director.
Being eco-friendly is a new and growing trend in the “death-care” business, as it’s sometimes called. The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that provides green training and certification for end-of-life businesses, was founded in 2005. In 2008, there were only a dozen green funeral homes in the country, according to Bloomberg Businessweek magazine; today there are 300.
But there are many definitions of green death-care.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Mullen said. “It’s just about making some greener choices among a range of options.”
Biodegradable caskets come in various forms. NEGF offers boxes made from willow, wool or pine, some with linings of organically grown cotton. Metal screws are avoided in favor of wooden pegs. Cremation urns are made from earth-friendly materials such as bamboo, paper or hemp.
Families can even have NEGF add a loved one’s cremated remains to concrete then used to create an artificial reef, providing a home and feeding ground for marine life.
There are green final-resting-places on land, too, Martel said. Maine is home to dedicated, green burial grounds in Limington and Orrington, two of several dozen in the United States.
Such cemeteries try to keep a low environmental impact by refusing to install burial vaults, which delay the natural decomposition of the body. Green cemeteries usually are not landscaped or mowed, and often require grave monuments to be made of locally found stone.
“A green burial is like going back to our roots. It’s not a new invention. … There’s no vault, and you’re just lowering a very simple casket into the ground,” said Martel, a licensed funeral director.
In Freeport, more than an acre of Burr Cemetery was reserved last year for green burials. But only a couple plots have been sold so far, according to Chris Stilkey, president of D.C. Stilkey & Son, the company that operates the cemetery and an on-site crematory.
Stilkey’s green burial services take green to the extreme. No monuments are allowed in the space, and grave-digging is done by hand, without heavy equipment. That’s one of the reasons burying a casket in the space is three times as expensive as it is elsewhere in the cemetery.
“Instead of taking me a half hour with a backhoe, it takes about three hours,” Stilkey said.
He also questions NEGF’s claim of being green, noting that Lindquist Funeral Home contracts with a crematory in Auburn, nearly 30 miles away, rather than ones closer to Yarmouth – such as his. The extra corpse-carrying that’s necessary increases the business’ carbon footprint, he claimed.
“If you’re going to talk green, let’s talk green,” he said. “Is (NEGF) doing everything it can to be green?”
Martel admits there’s more that could be done.
“Right now, we want to serve families who are green-oriented … but in terms of turning our entire operation green, we’re not there yet,” he said. “It’s a really a fine line for us to walk, whether it’s the crematories we use, or the gas we put in a hearse.”
The eco-friendliness of cremation itself is also debatable, according to Martel.
“We didn’t spend a lot of time on the cremation side, frankly, because using a lot of carbon fuel to cremate a body just didn’t seem very green to us to begin with,” he said.
Stilkey, on the other hand, claims that his cremation services are environmentally responsible, with pollutant emissions 10 times less than the maximum allowed by most standards, according to his website.
“Sure, cremation isn’t completely green. You’re burning fossil fuels,” he said. “So does a Prius (car), but it still gets better mileage than an SUV.”
This “green” casket, displayed at Jones-Rich-Hutchins Funeral Home, 199 Woodford St., Portland, is made of willow, a sustainably grown tree that doesn’t require fertilizers and replenishes soil nutrients.