Karen van Vuuren has seen scores of funerals. But the death she wasn't able to attend is the one that's affected her most.
"My brother was two years younger than me. When he was 9 and I was 11, he ended up in ICU," she remembers. "Though he had been very sick all of his life, it was a time when they didn't let children really have access to family members in the hospital ... and so I never got to visit him when he was near the end.
"I didn't see him for months and months. And then, it was just a phone call that we got when he died. There was really no memorial. There was nothing."
Only many years later, when van Vuuren attended a hospice volunteer training, did she begin to realize how significant his death had been in her own life.
"My brother's life was not really marked in any way that would kind of allow me to see it for what it was," she says. "The loss of a sibling is a huge deal, and so I ended up having all this grief come to the surface many years later. ... I realized, 'God, I never cried when my brother died.' How was that? And how was his death — to be a little boy dying alone in an institution?"
It's exactly the type of experience she works to prevent now, as a home funeral guide and executive director of Natural Transitions. The Boulder nonprofit aims to educate and empower families to care for their own dead in less conventional ways that are more meaningful to them, more affordable and more environmentally conscious.
The families she works with forgo funeral homes, chemical embalming and fancy metal caskets. Instead, they care for their dead in their homes, where they bathe, dress, and lay out the body — preserved with strategically placed dry ice — for up to three days. These rites give them time to find personal ways to say goodbye.
When the vigil reaches an end, families may place the body in a shroud or a simple, biodegradable casket and transport it in their own vehicle to the final resting place, whether that's a crematorium or a "green" cemetery.
Families try to find roles for all members, from children who might draw pictures and make handprints on the casket to adults who might dig the grave.
"Having a home funeral is a bit like having hospice beyond death," van Vuuren says. "It's just hands-on care, in a personal space, until that body is ready to go into the earth or into the air."
When she founded Natural Transitions with two other women in 2003, van Vuuren was at the forefront of the natural "death care" movement that had recently arrived from her native England. Since then, the organization has helped guide more than 70 Colorado families through the process, while spreading the word to others through their workshops.
"Just today I talked to someone in Durango who is starting to help families do home funerals," she says. "And I went to Crestone for the weekend, where they have something called the Crestone End of Life Project. ... They step in when someone dies, and it's a community thing. They even have a community open-air cremation pyre there."
Next week, van Vuuren will bring her message to Colorado Springs. Not everyone will be excited to see her, especially those with an interest in the old-school funeral business. But she already has one important ally, a city employee who dreams of creating a local green cemetery as soon as this year, who has raised the idea with City Council, and who knows of "a potentially perfect spot."
"My boss calls me Dr. Death."
In a crisp suit and tie, sitting behind a huge wooden desk, Colorado Springs cemetery manager Will DeBoer looks more like a businessman. When the 49-year-old discusses how a green cemetery might be just what the city needs, he edges closer to philosopher.
"One of my favorite movies, from when my kids were little, is The Lion King," says DeBoer. "It always kind of stuck with me. You know the part where Simba is talking to his dad and asking him, 'What happens to us after we die?' And he says, 'Well, when we die our bodies return to the earth — that earth feeds the grasses that feed the antelope.' And Simba says, 'But we eat the antelope.' And his father says, 'That's the circle of life.'"
A pleasant idea, but over the years, we've strayed. In the U.S., conventional burial practices involve embalming a body with chemicals, placing it in a metal casket, then sealing it in a cement burial vault underground.
"We bury enough metal in caskets in the ground each year to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, and we bury enough reinforced concrete vaults — about 1.6 million tons — to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit," says Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council.
The Santa Fe, N.M.-based organization certifies green cemeteries, funeral providers and related businesses, and encourages consumers to make environmentally conscious end-of-life decisions.
"There are only about six or seven countries in the world where embalming is done at all," says Sehee, "and in many countries it's illegal."
The process involves draining fluids from the body and replacing them with a mix of chemicals — such as formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol and other solvents — to temporarily preserve the body for viewing. It's a practice that grew popular during the Civil War, when soldiers' bodies were transported long distances. Today, the toxicity of the chemicals involved, especially formaldehyde, is cause for concern; the Journal of the National Cancer Institute released a study in May linking formaldehyde in the workplace, including mortuaries, to certain types of cancer.
"You just have to ask, 'Why are we exposing anybody ... to this, or worrying about how much leaches into the ground, when we live in an era with refrigeration and dry ice?'" asks Sehee.
Above ground, conventional burial poses its own troubles. DeBoer points out that the two city-owned conventional cemeteries, Evergreen and Fairview, require a lot of upkeep: pesticide application, mowing, paving, landscaping. And then there's water.
"We're one of the biggest users in town," he says. "In fact, last year we spent almost $190,000 on water."
Some counter that we already have a relatively low-impact answer, and a popular one at that. According to DeBoer, 66 percent of all deaths in El Paso County now result in cremation. And despite cremation furnaces reaching 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit or more, Sehee says that the energy expenditure is relatively small compared to how we burn through energy in our daily lives.
Another concern, which the Environmental Protection Agency has on its radar, is related to some of what comes out of the smokestack.
"The big issue right now — it's debated, but it's an issue — is that the vaporization of dental fillings causes mercury pollution," Sehee says.
At a green cemetery, quiet reigns. The grounds are typically not landscaped, mowed or watered, and stone monuments either are limited in size or are banned in favor of GPS systems to locate burial sites.
That's not to say green cemeteries are pristine. Sehee says even when a body decomposes, it gives off methane gas. And if you bury someone at a green cemetery, someone will most likely drive a gas-burning car there to visit.
Never mind bigger questions: "If you want a green casket, do you care if it comes from China?" asks Sehee. "Do you care if it has to be shipped across the ocean on a boat? Do you care about the labor conditions? There are a lot of different ways of breaking this stuff down."
The real appeal, then, of green burial, may be different for different people, ranging from the satisfaction of reducing your environmental footprint to finding a simpler answer to the question of how you want to go.
"Sometimes cost is the driver with families, sometimes it's religious tradition, sometimes it's other things," Sehee says. "We have been very careful not to diminish any end-of-life ritual or option. We want families to know that there are ways of greening up all of them."
John Kelly's 82-year-old mother, Rosemarie Kelly, was severely injured in a fall. When the doctors said they couldn't do any more, he and his wife Jan checked her out of the hospital and took her to their Boulder home.
"When we brought her to the house, it was about the last time she could speak," remembers Jan. "We'd already gotten a hospital bed, and we arranged the room with tons of flowers and pictures of her deceased husband and her aunt who raised her. The sun was coming through the window when we brought her in and she just pointed her hand and said, 'How beautiful, how beautiful.'
"She had spent the last two days in the hospital pretty much crying nonstop and very overwrought, and that all disappeared when we brought her here."
The family cared for her with the help of hospice for four days, before Rosemarie died in the Kellys' living room. The family then called Karen van Vuuren, and she joined them to lead the tasks of preparing and laying out the body.
"I kept expecting her to respond," Jan says, laughing softly at herself. "That was part of the process of letting go, of me letting go. I'd known this woman since I was 16 years old."
Over the next three days, they sat around her bed with friends and family sharing stories of Rosemarie's life, saying the things that needed to be said, and coming to terms with her death. Only then did they move forward with cremation.
"Instinctually," Jan says, "we have a fear of death. This culture has made it very difficult to look at death ... and this helps dissipate that fear. Because it was such a peaceful leaving, that can only help in your own dying."
Van Vuuren does concede that home funerals may not be for everyone or every situation — for instance, after a sudden death when a body has been autopsied or received a serious trauma. But those practical concerns are rarely the ones cited in knee-jerk reactions to the concept: According to a Wall Street Journal article earlier this year, opponents of a green cemetery in Georgia successfully blocked its opening when the owner's business plan identified its potential customers as "pagans, 'old hippies,' penny pinchers, environmentalists and Muslims — who traditionally bury the dead without caskets."
Says van Vuuren: "It's not that you have to be New Age or into pagan ritual ... Actually in all traditions that I know of, we don't have this professional, absolute stranger who steps in and does things for us who is not connected to us or to our ways."
In fact, simpler funerals and burials have been part of many traditions: Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Native American and Christian. A recent survey by a major funeral industry magazine found that 43 percent of Americans over the age of 50 indicate a preference for green burial. According to Sehee, a similar survey just a year and a half earlier showed 21 percent preferred green burial, though only 19 percent had actually heard of it.
"What I've learned is that it says more about the fact that most Americans don't know their options," says Sehee.
Town and country
In certain parts of El Paso County, those options already include green burial.
"This came up a few years ago," says county assessor Mark Lowderman. "One of my appraisers came upon a rural property that every time he'd drive by it, more and more headstones were popping up."
After the assessors contacted the sheriff's office to be certain all was in order, they determined the practice was legal in the county.
"Then just maybe a year ago, the same gentleman who brought the issue to light, dug everybody up and moved them back to Missouri," says Lowderman with a chuckle, "which we thought was a little strange."
Strange or not, if you have a residence on county land zoned A-35 (amounting to 35 acres or more), the law allows you to bury immediate family members on your property. As with home funerals, some paperwork is required, but the practice of rural families burying relatives "on the back 40" used to be common.
In town, however, anyone buried within city limits in Colorado Springs is required to be buried in a cemetery. Right now local residents' only choices are Evergreen Cemetery, Fairview Cemetery or the privately owned Memorial Gardens, none of which is green. (In fact, Sehee says there are only about a dozen exclusively green cemeteries in the country, along with another 15 or 20 offering green sections.)
DeBoer has identified a location for a green burial ground adjacent to Fairview, on the city's west side. At one time, he had considered transforming the six or seven acres on the cemetery's south end into a pet cemetery, because expanding Fairview's conventional burials in that area didn't make sense. It's hilly, deer continually munch on the landscaping, and it lacks a sprinkler system.
But those same qualities make it a great candidate for green burials. The rolling topography, views of the foothills, herds of wildlife and natural landscaping would be regarded as scenic in a green cemetery.
If it were certified, it would be the first such cemetery in Colorado, though Fort Collins is moving in a similar direction. The northern city now allows burial of an unembalmed person in a biodegradable casket or shroud in city-owned cemeteries. Fort Collins still requires a vault for grounds maintenance purposes, but will invert it so that the casket or shroud is placed directly on the dirt in the grave.
In a sort of "State of the Cemeteries" talk that DeBoer gave before Colorado Springs City Council last August, he raised the idea as a way to increase revenues for the cemeteries, which are suffering in part due to the increase in cremations. Fewer people buying burial plots means fewer dollars to maintain the cemeteries, and DeBoer believes that strong interest in green burial could reverse that trend.
"On the business end, it's offering up an alternative to traditional burial or cremation," says DeBoer. "It's trying to capture another part of the market — folks that are environmentally conscious.
"Obviously, we've got to do some things. We'll ultimately have to have Council approval, but I really feel like I've planted the seed on that."
In fact, when he initially presented the idea, the majority of Council members who commented were supportive. Tom Gallagher expressed some concern about groundwater, but DeBoer says that if everything is all natural and biodegradable, it will not be an issue.
In fact, he points out, "We have sections for the poor, sometimes called the pauper's cemetery, and many times those folks are buried in cloth-covered caskets ... and they're not buried with vaults."
He says cemeteries that require vaults do it for maintenance reasons, not water-quality reasons. Driving heavy equipment like mowers and backhoes over graves without vaults can cause them to settle.
DeBoer has been talking over the options with the Green Burial Council, which offers certification for four different categories of green cemeteries. He's cautiously optimistic that he could open the state's first green cemetery either late this year or early in 2010.
"Overall, the feeling I got from the Council meeting was that they're pretty receptive," DeBoer says. "The main thing is, if we can keep the cemetery out of the taxpayer's pocket, they're really receptive to that. Because if they don't have any money to water the parks, how are they going to help us?"
To a $15-billion-a-year industry that has already taken a blow due to the rise in cremation, the home funeral and green burial movement may seem threatening.
"The burial industry is not recession-proof," says DeBoer, correcting the old cliché. "The average [conventional] funeral is between $5,000 and $12,000, not including the cemetery, and if someone just lost their job, they're not going to pay for a big, expensive event."
Though DeBoer hasn't finalized his calculations, he estimates that a plot in the city's green cemetery would cost around $1,300, plus opening and closing fees. (Families aren't allowed to dig graves in city cemeteries because of liability issues.) When Rosemarie Kelly died, her cremation and final ride to the crematory — typically about $1,000 total — were the only major costs incurred.
Earlier this year, Jan Kelly and a number of other green believers drove to the Capitol to talk about their experiences. Colorado House Bill 1202 was on the table; drafted with the help of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association, it outlined provisions "concerning the regulation of people who provide for the final disposition of dead human bodies in the normal course of business."
Those in the natural death care movement feared it might block families from caring for their loved ones or stop home funeral guides like van Vuuren from teaching them how to do it. The ideas they brought were challenging for some in attendance, van Vuuren says.
"We testified at committee, met with senators, and you can tell this is a subject some of them are not comfortable talking about," she says. "In the course of the bill going through the House and the Senate, there was a lot of education that happened."
Steffani Blackstock is executive director of the funeral directors group that helped bring the bill to the floor. She points out that Colorado is the only state that does not license or regulate funeral directors, embalmers or funeral homes, and that the funeral directors' goal was "title protection."
"Anybody can say they're a funeral director or embalmer and go into business tomorrow as a funeral director," Blackstock says. "So funeral directors are popping up all over the place. By creating a registry with the state, we'll know who all those businesses are and they are subject to standards."
Ultimately, a clause was added to the bill saying that a nonprofit organization can teach families how to care for their dead, but cannot furnish death care services themselves. In other words, activities such as handling the body, preparing the body and transporting the body would be left to the families.
The bill was scheduled to be signed into law this week. Van Vuuren says she's been told it won't limit families' end-of-life care choices, but adds, "We just need to see how it plays out when it becomes law in July."
A green wave
Whether more legal wrangling will follow as natural death care grows in Colorado remains to be seen. In DeBoer's opinion, the momentum is on the green side.
"If they're smart, [conventional businesses] will start selling greener products, offering things like rooms where you can come and wash the body, help with refrigeration and transportation, and things like that," he says. "I think the smart funeral homes are going to realize there's a tremendous opportunity here. There's money to be made for everybody, because never forget, cemeteries are businesses, funeral homes are businesses, and you have to offer what people want."
Blackstock concurs: "Some families are finding a happy medium, having the funeral director do some pieces of it, while the family does other pieces of it. So they're not entirely getting away from using the services of a funeral home. But they may be more selective."
As it turns out, that may create more openings for new end-of-life businesses. Esmerelda Kent, a 60-year-old Californian, was making costumes for television commercials and movies when she became "enamored" with the HBO series Six Feet Under, and a documentary called The Young and the Dead, which exposed her to green burial.
Soon she left costumes behind and began working at California's first green cemetery, Forever Fernwood, answering phones, caring for bodies, attending burials and "everything in between." One day while trying to wrap a body in a long shroud, she realized her costume design background could help her in creating one that was easier to use, so she started experimenting.
What happened next is something Kent calls a "full circle moment." One day without warning, she got a call at Fernwood from Six Feet Under, looking for someone who could help them with a green funeral episode. And the shroud she had designed a few months earlier got a role in the episode.
Today, Kent runs her own business, Kinkaraco, which sells eco-friendly burial shrouds, cremation shrouds and other green burial products in 16 states around the country, including Colorado. During her time in the natural death care industry, she's seen it win other people over.
"I had a funeral director who was almost in tears after he'd done his first green burial," explains Kent. "He said, 'I've been doing this for 30 years and I've never had such a moving experience.'"
But when she looks at the big picture, Kent sees natural death care not as a trend that will change individual lives, but as part of a bigger movement that is continuing to change the nation.
"When people think of our generation, the baby boomers ... all they think about is rock 'n roll and sex and free love and drugs," she says. "But we really changed the fabric of society."
"This whole green thing started 40 years ago in terms of people going back to the land, having children at home, eating food that wasn't processed, learning how to garden ... Now that we're this age, we want to be able to pass in the same way that we've lived all these years. It's the same revolution."