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Cemeteries go eco-friendly

Most cemeteries can be described as green spaces, but some are going "green" in the ecological sense.

"Green burials," which can lack embalming fluids, caskets, vaults and sometimes even markers, are gaining in popularity around the world. City of Mitchell Golf and Cemetery Director Kevin Thurman is researching the possibility of allowing green burials at the local cemetery and expects to report to the Golf and Cemetery Board next month.

Thurman said he does not yet know if the cemetery could accommodate green burials, but he anticipates requests for them.

"We can't keep people from changing and entertaining these ideas," Thurman said, "especially with the trend for more ecological choices in life as the synthetic way of doing things is losing its luster."

Standards for green burials are maintained by the Green Burial Council. In South Dakota, the only council-certified cemetery is Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls. Randy Pudwill, a Mount Pleasant board member, treasurer and grounds director, said the cemetery began allowing green burials last summer.

"It's something new, but it's actually just something old that's come back," Pudwill said. "It's just basically a traditional funeral the way it was prior to this last century, and for centuries before that."

Mount Pleasant Cemetery works with Chapel Hill Funeral Home & Crematory of Sioux Falls, which Pudwill said is the only Green Burial Council-certified funeral provider in the state. So far, the cemetery has accommodated some semi-green burials but has not done any fully green burials, Pudwill said.

The Green Burial Council has three levels of certification: low-impact burial grounds, where burial vaults, toxic embalming chemicals and burial containers made from toxic and nonbiodegradable materials are banned, and pesticide use must be reduced; natural burial grounds, which must meet the low-impact standards and feature a more naturalistic appearance; and conservation burial grounds, which must meet all the requirements of the lower standards and also must protect in perpetuity a significant area of land for conservation purposes.

Pudwill is convinced that green burials will grow in popularity, partly because of their lessened impact on the environment.

"This all got started in this country a number of years ago when people stopped and looked and said, 'Why are we putting thousands of tons of concrete and steel and precious metals and precious hardwoods into the ground?' " he said. "And, formaldehyde (used in embalming fluid) is a toxic chemical that eventually leaches back into the ground water."

Besides their environmental benefits, another attractive facet of green burials is their cost. The total cost of standard funerals and burials can approach $10,000, Pudwill said, which is about double the $4,700 green burial and funeral service offered by Chapel Hill.

Pudwill said regulations at many cemeteries that require caskets to be placed in burial vaults could impede the growth of the green burial trend. Vaults have long been used to prevent ground settling, he said, but all vaults eventually give way to nature. After a green burial, settling occurs quickly.

"It's your choice whether you want it to settle quickly and have it done with, or whether you want to delay the process till later years," Pudwill said.

In Mitchell, green burials are only one of the new trends expected to change the look of the city cemetery. Thurman, the cemetery director, said preparations also are being made for the possible future installation of a "columbarium" -- an above-ground vault with dozens of recessed cavities to store cremated remains.

Besides meeting increased public demand for storage of cremated remains, Thurman said, a columbarium will save space in the local cemetery, where about 40 of 66 acres have been used.

It's all part of the changing times in the funeral and burial business.

"People," Thurman said, "are rethinking tradition."