Lee Webster wrote “Green Burial by the Numbers” in 2016 for the Green Burial Council. While these numbers are five years old, the story they tell has only become more compelling. There’s so much useful information packed into this piece that we’re reprinting it in sections so you can fully digest and appreciate the message.
Who Buys Green Burial?
In a poll conducted by the GBC in 2014 canvassing cemeteries both in and out of the GBC network, the reported satisfaction of families choosing green burial was a whopping 72%, with 28% stating they believed there was no difference in satisfaction between green and conventional burial. No one reported believing that families are more satisfied with conventional burial. They also learned most providers agreed that, at least in their cemeteries, demand was growing significantly and steadily.
It came as a shock to many that the prime motivation of families choosing green burial was not money but a belief that their actions would result in a positive contribution to the environment. Note that the second biggest reason was still not cost but a desire to go back to a simpler time, with practices that are less invasive and more direct.
In light of an apparently tepid interest in money, who exactly is purchasing green burial products and services? The conventional assumption for some time has been that green burial is either a “cheap” funeral chosen by those looking to skimp by avoiding vaults and polished caskets, or an “elite” one, costing more than conventional for its uniqueness or cool factor. The truth is that, like other real estate transactions, costs tend to be determined more by what the market will bear in any particular location than any other factor. But still, who is willing to pay good money for this?
The answer now has changed significantly from what it was at the beginning, according to Bixby. “Ten years ago, I would have answered this differently. The customer base then seemed to lean toward highly educated urbanites. Today, I can proudly say that my customer base has no predictable socioeconomic or religious leanings. Black, white, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Asian, veterans, grandmothers—you name it, we have had the pleasure to serve. I have buried and sold plots to every type of religious person and non-religious person under the sun. That is what is so exciting and unique about natural burial—it knows absolutely no boundaries.”
Suzanne Kelly, author of Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, September 1, 2015) and 2016 recipient of the GBC Leadership Award, remarks in her book on the significant percentage of green cemeteries that are owned and operated by religious groups, specifically conventional Catholic cemeteries that have recently designated areas for vaultless burial. At the time the book was published, 15% of the more than 100 cemeteries were religiously affiliated, and nearly 2/3 of those were Catholic, and that trend continues.
Jewish and Muslim cemeteries are almost exclusively vaultless, though many Jewish cemeteries have used modified vaults in recent years to address space concerns. In the GBC publication To Lie Down in Green Pastures: How the Catholic Church is Leading the Way, the welcoming back of traditional burial rituals and methods that support the doctrine of resurrection and their relationship to the Pope’s encyclical on nature is also explored. These traditional cemeteries are or counted or included in statistics that seek to quantify green burial rather than simply vaultless burial, skewing the number of people looking for natural burial for any reason.
What makes green burial worth the uncertainties of choosing services outside the current norm? When asked about additional benefits beyond laying a loved one to rest naturally, respondents indicated that there are myriad activities they would continue to take advantage of in green cemeteries long after the funeral service that are not commonly offered in lawn cemeteries. Not only do these activities enrich community, they offer funeral directors an opportunity to engage in and support life-affirming events that may contribute to changing public attitudes about death and funeral service for the better.
Bixby describes green burial families this way: “I see my families all of the time. So much so that I know them on a first name basis. I would say that most come monthly. I will usually find them wandering the trails. They visit the gravesite, but seem to find solace in the surroundings and enjoy the facility on a whole. It is simply amazing to see these grieved loved ones in a different, happy light, no signs of sadness, just smiles. This speaks volumes to me of the healing nature of green burial.”