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Kansas cemetery offering eco-friendly burials

Wednesday, May 6, 2009 | 11:54 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Someday soon, the grass may be greener for people laid to rest in a section of one Lawrence, Kan., cemetery.

The first plot has been sold in a city-owned cemetery that offers the dearly departed a chance to be buried without being embalmed, in a biodegradable casket, with no concrete grave liner or a traditional cut or polished headstone.

When the Lawrence City Commission decided to set aside about a third of an acre in Oak Hill Cemetery for "green" funerals, the college town with an environmentally friendly reputation joined a growing national trend.

In Lawrence, the green burial area of Oak Hill Cemetery is on a wooded hillside, where plots were laid out around the trees. The city installed some natural log benches for visitors.

In the natural burial section, visitors will not see artificial flowers, ornaments or other grave decorations. Headstones can be only natural rocks. Wildflowers and grasses will grow over the graves, eventually returning the area to its natural habitat.

It's all tucked away in a 45-acre cemetery where up to 10,000 people have been buried since the cemetery opened in 1865.

About 50 plots are currently available, but the area could be expanded into an additional five to 10 acres, said Mitch Young, cemeteries supervisor for the city's Parks and Recreation Department. Although only one plot has sold since they became available in January, Young said several people have come to see the site.

Larry McElwain, co-owner of Warren-McElwain Mortuary in Lawrence, expects demand to grow.

"This is really the front edge and a lot of people don't know yet what (green burial) means," McElwain said. "We've had a lot of questions. I think it will definitely grow over time."

Funeral directors and city officials had several questions of their own when the idea first came up. McElwain said maintenance, logistical, legal, safety and aesthetic issues all had to be addressed.

For example, how do you get a body into the ground if the family doesn't want the traditional motorized lowering device? How do you safely get the body to a wooded, hilly grave site? And do you use heavy machinery to dig?

They discussed the issues with the Green Burial Council, a national group that certifies if cemeteries meet strict green guidelines, although the Lawrence cemetery has not been certified.

The Lawrence effort would be a hybrid because it does not meet all the Green Council standards, but Joe Sehee, director of the council, still praises city officials.

"We applaud them because they are making the option available," Sehee said. "A lot of times these things can unravel but I applaud them for making the effort."

Lawrence decided to allow the lowering device unless a family declines. Then city staff will help lower the casket, using biodegradable materials. City staff will hand-shovel the first one-third of the grave, with the rest done by machinery. Loved ones can help with the shoveling.

"We don't want to this to be a bad experience for people. We tried to anticipate the 'what ifs?'" McElwain said. "We may not be 100 percent green, but it's a dramatic shift toward that."

As for cost, green burials can be between 25 to 75 percent less than a traditional burial, depending on family preferences, McElwain said.

Family preferences and legal requirements mean green burials and products used in them vary across the country, said James Olson, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and a funeral home director in Wisconsin.

"We call it the shades of green," Olson said. "For example, some people don't want to be embalmed; for others that's important. The goal of funeral directors is to offer different types of services that meet the needs of the families."

That's been the goal since embalming began during the Civil War, to preserve soldiers' corpses to take them back home, he said.

"Burial in general is a natural process," Olson said. "The 'green burial' movement is putting a title on it to make it trendy. But it's not terribly new, just getting the word out and labeling it."

Sehee said for the last century, the funeral industry has sold people the idea that it was the decent thing to do to preserve a body by using vaults and embalming. Now, he said, people are beginning to doubt that message.

"I think people are finding solace in the ashes to ashes idea again," he said. "It allows people to befriend death on some level, to say 'Let's let go and return naturally, not try to impede the process any more.'"


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