Choosing Green Forever

By Gail Condrick

Article published in Natural Awakenings Sarasota in 2008

""They stand with arms entwined, supporting one another as the wind whips their hair and the rain comes down. Several generations of family and friends gathered in final tribute to wife, mother, grandmother and neighbor. The family tosses red roses in silent remembrance to the waves as the boat rocks gently, and the sound of quiet sobs comes from those in attendance.

And the ancient tradition continues; the honoring of the dead and the continuation of life. But here there are no ashes to merge with the water, in this place and in this time, that job has already been done. Instead, a crane lowers a 400 pound memorial reef ball containing cremated remains, or cremains, into place 30 feet below to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. This is no ordinary burial at sea, 15 families are gathered on a fishing boat transformed with flowers for the occasion, to watch the placement on Lynn Silvertooth Reef an artificial reef 1.8 nautical miles off the coast of Sarasota, Florida.

This is an example of a green burial, the ultimate act of environmentalism, giving of the self back to nature in a direct way. And, while few of us have “Die Today” on our“To Do” list, we can now choose environmentally friendly burial options on both sea and land as part of our life plan and eco choices. In life and in death, we can quite literallygo green.

“I couldn’t stop the brain cancer but I can do this,” says Dawn Rinaldi, whose husband Tom saw a story about the artificial reefs on television and decided that was what he wanted for himself. His memorial reef was put in place on the same date as their 30th anniversary as a celebration of love.

“Artificial reefs benefit the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay. We see sea turtles, grouper, sharks and seasonal fish on Silvertooth Reef. This is a win-win for everybody,” says Mike Solum, Artificial Reef Coordinator for Sarasota County. Florida leads the nation and is second only to Japan in artificial reef development, according to Solum.

Artificial reefs have been used to create and sustain marine life in areas that have been damaged around the world for years. These reefs create a safe haven and a nursery for new sea life and blend into the underwater landscape as living ecosystems. It is this continuation of giving life to continue life that fascinates many people who choose to return to water for the final transformation.

Eternal Reefs, located in Decatur, Georgia, is the first company in the United States to offer memorial reefs. When founder Don Brawley’s father in law died in 1998 he requested his cremains be added to the concrete cast of the reef balls that Brawley was deploying for marine rehabilitation.

This was the first time that Brawley considered that the reef balls could be an alternative environmentally friendly funeral option. Since then, the cremated remains of individuals, couples, and even pets have found their way into memorial reef balls. The company has placed over 600 memorial reefs off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia. The reef balls are designed to last up to 500 years and tests of some 600,000 reef balls deployed around the world for marine renewal show they stay in place even during hurricanes.

According to Brawley, there is another and more spiritual reason for choosing this type of memorial, it brings survivors back to the ancient ways of being directly involved with the deceased. “We are in the closure business, we get people back in touch with the process,” says Brawley.

At Eternal Reefs, the families are part of the process in a hands-on way and can choose to assist in the creation of the memorial reef ball in a plant in Sarasota. Some even leave handprints for perpetuity.

“If only 2% of the cremations performed in the United States each year were to become memorial reefs, we could build 15-20,000 reefs per year, just think what an environmental impact could be made,” says Brawley.

And others are joining the marine reef concept all over the country. Great Burial Reef is a new green burial company, based in Sarasota, Florida that is taking a different approach. Great Burial Reef offers a custom designed memorial reef that will hold up to two separate specially designed cremation urns. To keep in touch with the underwater world, Great Burial reefs will videotape the process and provide monthly updates of the progress of the reef on their website. The founder of company, Jason Rew, will make the first deployment in March 2008 with the remains of his father, whose recent death motivated him to create the company he had been planning for years. “Our goal is to ensure that the public understands there are options in death that also serve the environment,” says Rew.

While the practice of burial at sea is ancient, the technology is up to date. Both companies offer GPS tracking data coordinates that locate individual memorials so that families can revisit the reef and find the exact location of their loved ones in the years to come. Unlike the scattering of ashes on water, this service provides a place to gather and to pay homage to the deceased and to enjoy life on and under the water.

Green burials return ancient traditions to a modern culture searching for more contact with the earth. Envision times past when the body of the deceased was washed and anointed by the family or minister, placed gently into a favorite blanket or shroud and buried directly into the earth. Consider a simple casket of wood lowered into the ground under a flowering tree or near a special stream that would become a place to visit and enjoy the beauty and the comfort of the natural world. These options are available today in dedicated nature conservancy areas and parks designed for this purpose. The first “green” or natural cemetery in the United States, Ramsey Creek Preserve, opened in South Carolina in 1998, and more are under way.

John Wilkerson, co-founder of Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in the panhandle of Florida, now has 20 grave sites on his family land turned conservancy for green burials. The cemetery area is on 70 acres set aside for the preserve. Wilkerson attributes his establishment of the conservancy which is run by a non-profit board, as divine intervention to save his family farm inherited at the passing of his parents. “People come to us for three reasons, the ability to do their spiritual practices their way, an aversion to embalming, and cost,” says Wilkerson.

The National Funeral Directors Association estimates the average cost of a funeral in the United States, not including cemetery fees to be $6500. Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve provides plots for free and charges $1800 to open and close the grave sites. Eternal Reefs, whose prices vary with the selection of one of four memorial reef options begin at $2500 and range to $6500, and Great Burial Reef, whose prices begin at $7500 to $9800, have two packages from which to choose. Neither water burial includes cremation costs but both include other features that contribute to the memorial experience.

Giving consumers choice in green burials and creating standards for this new eco business is the concern of the non-profit Green Burial Council. “We want to harness the deathcare industry for the purpose of land preservation and to give people an option on what to do with their bodies. This is environmental stewardship. The green movement needs outlets even through death,” says Joe Shee, founder of the Green Burial Council. Shee spends much of his time these days speaking with the funeral industry over the passion to go green and is a strong advocate of inclusion and persuasion of all parties. His concern is that there are no industry standards or guidelines for green burials or guarantees that the land used today for burial will have sufficient funds in the future to remain as intended.

What is needed, and a future project for the council, he says, is a green checklist to help consumers make their own choices.

Until that time this choice, as with all choices so intimate and personal, will remain choices of the heart. Dying will come, and the opportunity to choose a final act that reflects the values of ones life is the ultimate choice open to us all.

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Copyright © Gail Condrick, 2008

Gail Condrick is a writer and lover of all things earth and ocean living in Sarasota, Florida. Write to Gail