Going Gentle, Going Green

by Evie Maxwell, Staff Writer

When it comes to caring for Mother Earth, the funeral industry, like virtually all others, has a lot to answer for. From the massive pyramids built by ancient kings to the endless acres of gravestones and mausoleums dotted throughout U.S. cities, to the potential carcinogens lurking in embalming fluids and the onslaught of man-made materials hiding beneath artificially green fields, the business of caring for the dead has not been ecologically kind.

That, however, is changing. Between our growing environmental woes and the emergence of a new green ethos, a new wave of funeral directors has embraced the concept of earth-friendly end-of-life ceremonies. Fortunately for those of us in the Pacific Northwest, some top-notch examples are close at hand.

From the viewpoint of Port Ludlow, the nearest example is the recently renovated Hillcrest Cemetery on Bainbridge Island. Dating back to 1958, the cemetery operated for most of its life on a purely ad hoc basis: You could be buried there, but you (or your descendants) had to know whom to ask.

By 2018, the burial grounds were overgrown, and the woman charged with their care was overwhelmed. She was looking to give it all up when she happened to meet fourthgeneration funeral director Tim Dinan and his wife Alison at a local dog park.

“My wife and I were searching for a complimentary addition to our funeral home,” Dinan says, “and the idea of this property appealed to us.”

He went looking for the place. It wasn’t easy to find, at least not until Dinan enlisted the help of a local grave digger who remembered the beauty of the cemetery in the past.

“Once we saw the land and learned more about its history, I thought that this was something that needs to be preserved,” Dinan says.

Tim and Alison made a deal for the property and, after an intensive cleaning-out period, the new Hillcrest (hillcrestcemetery.org) opened its doors. Some of the first people to walk through those doors requested green burial services. Dinan liked the idea, and the course was set for a newly envisioned Hillcrest offering everything from traditional services to a full range of green burial practices, with full certification from the national Green Burial Council.

At its most basic, Dinan notes, “Green burial means that nothing is done to the body to stop the natural process of decomposition, and nothing is introduced to the ground that is not naturally made.”

Thus, there are no caskets made of artificial materials, no concrete, nothing to interfere with Mother Earth.

In practice, however, there are many options.

“The most ecologically friendly of our practices is the natural burial,” Dinan says.

This involves a simple shroud for the body, a backboard, wooden slats and greens lining the bottom of the grave.

“The body is put in the grave, we remove the backboard and people can chose to take up shovels and fill the grave in,” Dinan says. “Participants have told me afterwards that there’s a real simplistic beauty in this. It brings the reality of living and dying to the forefront, and we need to embrace that.”

After the natural burial, the next most ecological choice in the world of green burials is composting, which is exactly what it sounds like. The body is put into a chamber at the Return Home facility outside of Seattle. There the remains decompose into soil, after which they can be returned to the earth.

After composting, the next choice is something called aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis. This is a flameless cremation utilizing a warm alkaline solution instead of fire. That fire, known as cremation, comes last on the list of green burial choices.

As a side note, an option for those who chose aquamation or cremation is the ability to turn remains into art pieces. Art glass, perhaps. A beautiful stone. Or even a diamond. But that’s a story for another day.

Still, while we’re discussing value, here’s another key benefit of green burial: By eschewing man-made products of all kinds, it cuts the cost of end-of-life services about in half, which, at today’s prices, means approximately $5,000 instead of $10,000. (Unless, of course, you go for one of those art options which, as we’ve said, is another story.)

In sum, while burial is not a popular topic for conversation, it is inevitable—an inescapable part of the cycle of life that is nature. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that when nature is allowed a key role in our end-of-life ceremonies, those ceremonies can speak to us, and to the earth, in more meaningful ways.