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Call it a final act for the environment: Natural burials, around since the start of time, are seeing a resurgence of popularity in the state

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Robert Prout is the director of Prout Funeral Home in Verona.
Robert Prout is the director of Prout Funeral Home in Verona. - ()

An eco-conscious lifestyle doesn't have to end at the grave. Seriously.

Like buying a hybrid car, shopping for organic produce and using paraben-free beauty products, green burials not only exist — they are becoming increasingly common.

In fact, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, 64 percent of adults said they would be interested in green funeral options, compared with 43 percent in 2010.

And if you’re thinking this is just another part of the millennial lifestyle, think again. Those surveyed were over 40.

Robert Prout, director of Prout Funeral Home in Verona, isn’t surprised. He said green burials are nothing new. In fact, he said, they are all most of humankind has ever known.

“A natural burial is what most of the world is still doing and what was done on ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” Prout said. “They had no embalming back then. Most of the time they would wrap people in a shroud and bury them in woods or in a field. Green burials are a rebirth of that whole concept.”

Natural burials are growing in popularity.
Natural burials are growing in popularity. - ()

Prout Funeral Home has been in Prout’s family for three generations. An outdoorsman and a conservationist all his life, sustainability always has been a priority, but the 60-year-old admits he first got involved with green burials in a roundabout way.

In 2009, Prout Funeral Home was the subject of a bit of a media flurry when it installed 150 solar panels on the roof to become 95 percent independent of the power grid, while cutting utility bills by nearly 80 percent.

“Because of the oddity or novelty of a very conventional, traditional, slow-to-change business like a funeral home embracing a newer technology, we were featured by CNN worldwide, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Star-Ledger and the Verona-Cedar Grove Times,” Prout said. “After that, we started getting calls asking if we did environmentally sensitive funerals. That opened the door really wide.

“We’ve done a lot of natural burials over the years and have been asked to speak about the topic in front of many funeral director groups and other conventions.”

The green burial process is designed to have a lower impact on the environment than the traditional burial practices that have evolved over the last 100 years.

Natural burials

Steelmantown Cemetery, in Woodbine, is the only woodland burial ground in the state and exclusively serves natural burials.

The facility dates to the 1700s, but there had been little to no activity at the cemetery since the 1970s. Until about six years ago, the historic property was falling further and further into disrepair.

In 2010, Ed Bixby, a real estate developer, found himself the unwitting owner of the near-defunct cemetery.

Bixby’s ancestry in South Jersey dates to the 1690s, and generations of his family had been buried on Steelmantown property. His family had owned 195,000 acres, including the cemetery that stretched from the Pine Barrens to the Atlantic City area.

Bixby’s family gave the family cemetery property over to the township in 1840 to be used for the interment of the dead. The land stayed in township’s possession until 1955, when a funeral director bought the property as a place to bury the dead whose loved ones could not afford the concrete vaults required by most traditional cemeteries.

Fast forward to 2009, and the cemetery had been out of operation for more than 30 years. Bixby’s mother was concerned about the final resting place of generations of her family becoming a dumping ground, so she kept after Bixby to persuade the owner to clean up the cemetery.

Instead, the cemetery owner persuaded Bixby to take over the property and fix it up himself. Rather than put in traditional burial plots, Bixby kept the land as a natural cemetery.

“We don’t look like what you would traditionally think of when you think of a cemetery,” Bixby said. “We look more like a park system. We have three miles of trails, and the actual burials take place off the trails.

“We serve a dual purpose. Our cemetery is meant to be used by the living on a daily basis. It also represents a final statement from those buried here about their lives and how they chose to live them.”

Bixby bought an additional plot of land to connect his cemetery to the adjacent Belleplain State Forest and linked up to the trail system so hikers, bird watchers, cross-country skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts could use the land for passive recreation.

“That’s the really neat part of the natural burial movement,” said Robert Prout, funeral director at Prout Funeral Home in Verona and green burial expert. “A lot of natural cemeteries are using the profits they earn for land preservation. They increase the entities’ holdings and offerings so the land will always be open, protected space.”

For starters, bodies are either not embalmed or they are embalmed using a formaldehyde-free substance. The deceased can then be wrapped in a shroud or placed in a sustainably sourced casket.

All wood caskets are biodegradable, but choosing a casket made of bamboo or wicker rather then mahogany or pine is a more eco-conscious choice. Bamboo grows 15 feet in a year and the shoots regenerate annually. It could take 60 years for the mahogany wood to grow. Bamboo also disintegrates more quickly than harder woods, allowing the deceased to return to the earth more quickly.

But that’s not the only way green burials are different.

In fact, not every cemetery allows them, as most require the deceased to be embalmed and the casket laid to rest in a cement vault.

When it comes to earth-friendly funerals, there are many shades of green.

Natural cemeteries offer the most sustainable option, but green burials can take place in any cemetery that does not require use of a concrete burial vault. These cemeteries include Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah and Greensprings Natural Cemetery and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York. 

Cemeteries that do earth-friendly burials are different in other ways, too.

A woven bamboo casket at Prout Funeral Home.
A woven bamboo casket at Prout Funeral Home. - ()

Green or natural cemeteries do not allow for traditional headstones or markers. Instead, families can plant a tree, shrub or wild flowers to mark the grave. In some cases, stones found at the burial site may be etched with a name and date to be used as a memorial. To find a gravesite, the cemetery plots are mapped out and visitors can use GPS technology to find loved ones.

The increasing awareness and rising popularity of green burials can be attributed to more than just a commitment to a sustainable lifestyle and love of nature.

Green burials also are less expensive.

According to the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, the cost of a typical burial in 2015 was about $15,000. A green burial will cost about $2,000. These fees reflect just the burial, not funeral or memorial services.

According to Prout, another reason for the increased interest in natural burials is that families of the deceased can have greater participation in the burial service, rather than serve as spectators from a pew.

“I’ve had families want to help shroud the person,” he said. “They can carry the casket to the graveside or help lower the casket.

“The hardest part about explaining a natural burial to people is they don’t understand it until they experience it. Many times, a natural burial is more spiritually and mentally fulfilling.

“There is only a foot and a half between your head and your heart, but there is a huge disconnect between the two. You can rationalize in your mind, but until you feel it in your heart, it isn’t part of your being. Being a participant in a natural burial is a connection of the head and the heart.”

E-mail to: dariam@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @dariameoli

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