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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Going green, even at the end

In Washington, some question formaldehyde, metal caskets as way to go for funerals

Grouped on a rocky ledge in the shadow of Washington's Wanapum Dam, Melinda Madamba and her family tossed a disk-shaped urn with her mother's ashes into the Columbia River.

As they watched, it traveled the currents of blue churning waters and disintegrated, releasing the precious ashes to their downstream journey.

Madamba's mother had been an engineer at the dam, with her office window just across the river. "It was so neat," said Madamba, a member of First Lutheran Church, Poulsbo, Wash.

A small but growing population of baby boomers is discovering a range of environmentally sensitive options for saying goodbye to loved ones beyond cremation. This group shuns embalming and metal caskets, and says no to concrete vaults that stick around forever. Instead, they choose options with a smaller carbon footprint — biodegradable urns like Madamba's, wooden caskets sans metal handles, and boxes made of sea grass, bamboo or willow. Some even bury their loved ones just in shrouds.

Joe Sehee, executive director of the six-year-old Green Burial Council, says boomers have
Joe Sehee, executive director of the six-year-old Green Burial Council, says boomers have "changed every cultural milestone they've met," and many now want green options for burial.

"[Boomers have] changed every cultural milestone they've met, and death is the last frontier," said Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council. The 6-year-old council is among the nation's strongest advocates for green options in the $11 billion death-care industry. It also sets green guidelines for cemeteries and funeral home operators.

Also at the forefront are independent funeral operators with flexibility to react to boomers' wishes, Sehee said. Take Dave Cook of Cook Family Funeral Home, Bainbridge Island, Wash., who said bio-urns are a common choice among his clients. It's become routine for ferry boats that serve the island to pause so a family on an upper deck can toss a bio-urn into Puget Sound.

Bio-urns are just one expression of the greening of death care. Tucked in among the traditional caskets at the Cook funeral home is one of the so-called basket caskets. "It's kind of a conversation piece when people come in and see it," Cook said. Muslin lines the interior, and a small muslin pillow and shroud come with it.


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