The movement towards reducing carbon footprints, even in death, has come to the Pittsburgh region. The Penn Forest Natural Burial Park in Verona has been certified by the Green Burial Council, a national nonprofit that encourages environmental sustainability in the burial industry.
The growing popularity of natural burial is a sign that people may be starting to prefer forests over graveyards and existing trees instead of tombstones. But Joe Sehee, director and founder of the Green Burial Council, said natural burial isn't a new idea.
"It's a departure from conventional funeral services over the last 100 years but it's really a return to the tradition of allowing a body to return to the earth in a more simple and sustainable fashion," Sehee said.
Green burial goes beyond the natural plot, as the entire method is a move away from sealed caskets, embalming chemicals and vaults intended to protect the body from the elements.
"There are a number of Green Burial Council-approved funeral homes who are willing to provide an alternative to embalming with toxic chemicals and be able to sell burial containers shrouds caskets that have an environmentally low impact as well," Sehee said.
The council has three levels of certification; hybrid, natural and conservation. "Hybrid" is a cemetery willing to provide a vaultless option. The "natural burial ground," the category in which Penn Forest is certified, is a cemetery that prohibits the use of burial vaults and toxic embalming chemicals. The "conservation" level, for which only six cemeteries are certified, requires survey research on the biological, geological, and hydrological levels with land trusts that guarantee perpetuity of those conditions.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral was around $6,560 in 2009 — and that doesn't include a cemetery plot, tombstone, and miscellaneous items such as flowers. Estimates for a natural burial with a linen shroud are around $3,800 without a service and not counting cemetery costs.
However, Sehee said most don't consider the lower cost of natural burial as the selling factor, as many will still choose cremation if cost is a concern.
A 2010 survey by the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association showed that 23 percent of people 50 and older preferred a green burial. A 2007 AARP survey reported that 21 percent of Americans older than 50 want a green burial.