Natural Burials Help Families Personalize Final Farewells
by Sheila Julson
Somber, traditional funerals often end with the standard in-ground burial, in which the deceased, already embalmed with toxic formaldehyde, is buried in a shellacked, non-biodegradable coffin, releasing toxic residue into the land. But shifts in social attitudes toward funerals and burial are leading more people to instead choose life celebrations tailored toward honoring the deceased person’s individuality, and with that comes a growing interest in natural burials.
Dual-licensed funeral professional Melissa Unfred, The Modern Mortician, explains that natural burials use none of the chemicals typically used in the preservation of the body. “The blood is not drained, and the body is not injected with carcinogens and embalming fluid preservatives,” she says. “The body is simply bathed and anointed with oils, if the family wishes, and is then wrapped in a cotton sheet, or maybe placed in a wicker basket or a pine box.”
While there are still not many natural burial parks, Unfred emphasizes there are natural burial options for families. “You can absolutely achieve a natural, green burial in any cemetery. If the family plots are at a cemetery that requires a vault—and they don’t always require a vault, you have to ask a lot of questions—what they can do is flip the vault upside down, like a butter dish. The unembalmed body can be laid into the grave first, and then the vault is placed upside down over the body.”
If a cemetery doesn’t require a vault, families can ask to have a shrouded burial or a burial in a container such as a cardboard box, which Unfred says every funeral director has access to for cremation purposes. Grief-stricken families are sometimes not in the state of mind to ask questions and have to make quick decisions when choosing funeral services, and Unfred notes that can lead to the purchase of unnecessary goods or services.
“As part of Federal Trade Commission rules, you’re not required to buy a casket from the funeral home,” Unfred affirms. “Families can go online and find woven wicker caskets or cardboard. There are a lot of different options. As far as a shroud goes, anything that’s biodegradable and made from cotton, silk or wool can become a shroud.”
Another common belief is that the body must be embalmed before the funeral. Unfred states that even for home funerals, which can save thousands of dollars versus having the service at a funeral home, the body does not have to be embalmed. “There are freezer packs available to keep the body temperature cool for 36 hours,” she says. “The body can also be stored in large funeral home refrigerators until the funeral, or until aquamation or cremation takes place.”
Flame cremation, where the body is reduced to bone by flame, has become a more common option in recent years, but the process uses a lot of fossil fuels and releases mercury into the air. Water cremation is a gentler process in which the body is reduced by a solution of water and lye. Unfred says the cost is about the same as flame cremation, but because aquamation is not yet legal for use on human corpses in Texas (it’s currently legal for animals), Unfred partners with an aquamation facility in Missouri. Aquamation is currently legal in 17 states, and Unfred says the Texas State Legislature will be taking up legalizing aquamation in early 2019. To that end, Unfred has opened the first carbon-neutral funeral home in Texas, Affinity Green Cremation Texas.
Unfred sees natural burial rituals as giving families more control over their loved ones’ final passages, thus helping the grieving process. In an effort to aid families in their time of sorrow, Unfred frequently brings Kermit, her border collie and the first certified therapy dog working in funeral care in Texas, to meet with families and make arrangements. If the family requests, Kermit will also attend home visits, churches or gravesite services.
Unfred emphasizes how important it is to research and plan burial arrangements before an illness or accident strikes. “People find it morbid to talk about death, but I find it morbid not to talk about it. Too many times, I showed up at a hospital after a loved one has died, and the family had no idea what to do,” she says. “Conversations need to happen before the dead body is already in the room.”
For more information, call 512-609-0092 or visit TheModernMortician.com and GreenCremationTexas.com.
Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.