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Fairmount Memorial opens first eco-burial garden in Inland NW, but can it bring back burials in Washington?

Fairmount Memorial’s Candace Aramburu and Jorge Vara II stand near the Forest Grove eco-burial garden in Riverside Memorial Park.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Fairmount Memorial’s Candace Aramburu and Jorge Vara II stand near the Forest Grove eco-burial garden in Riverside Memorial Park. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Take a trip to Riverside Memorial Park, and you may stumble upon a mulch path in a dense forest and wonder why there’s a hiking trail in the middle of a cemetery.

Other than a few unmarked basalt stones, the area has no structures or signs to indicate whether you’re in a cemetery or if you took a wrong turn into a state park.

But walk far enough, and nature is interrupted by a stake with a bright red rope just to the right of the path, in a plot of land snuggled between three towering trees.

It was the first sale for Fairmount’s eco-friendly burial and cremation garden in the Riverside Memorial Park cemetery, the first of its kind in the Inland Northwest.

“The family said, ‘We want to find an area that speaks to us,’ ” said Jorge Vara, sales director at Fairmount Memorial Association. “And that’s where they bought land for their family to be buried.”

The eco-friendly burial and cremation garden will provide families with the option of green burial for their loved ones, something many see as the more sustainable, and fulfilling, alternative.

Green burials vary greatly in practice and materials used, but in general they try to conduct the process with as few resources and chemicals as possible.

Green burial caskets can be made from wicker and bamboo, or could include no casket at all with a burial shroud, and the practice stays away from embalming fluids such as formaldehyde.

Many of the materials used in traditional burials, such as concrete and steel, are carbon-intensive, and the process of cremation produces about the same amount of carbon dioxide as using 20 gallons of gas in a car, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Green burials generally aim to avoid these emissions, but it’s not always just about sustainability. Many green burial advocates don’t see the point of delaying the inevitable.

“If you let nature do its thing, it knows exactly what to do,” said Gretchen Spletzer, a staff member at the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that promotes green burials and certifies funeral homes to provide eco-friendly disposition services.

Traditional burials use durable material for caskets and line burial vaults with concrete to intentionally separate the body from the earth. So, many green burials aren’t just an eco-friendly alternative, but a different mindset. Practitioners don’t see the point of temporarily halting the decomposition process.

Eco-friendly funeral practices are expanding beyond just burials, with options now available including alkaline hydrolysis, a process in which bodies are dissolved in a water solution that produces fewer carbon emissions than normal cremation, and human composting, which is exactly what it sounds like.

It can get a bit wacky.

“We had one question about potentially putting remains in an animal feeder in the forest,” said Vara. “You really feel like there’s all sorts of requests that are out there.”

Despite a few eclectic requests, eco-friendly funerals are anything but a fringe practice.

According to a survey by the National Funeral Directors Association in 2019, more than half of those surveyed would be interested in exploring green funeral options because of potential environmental and cost-saving benefits.

In Washington, it could mean the return of burials in a state dominated by cremation.

According to the state’s Department of Health, 78% of Washington residents were cremated, while only 17% were buried in 2018. That gives Washington the second-highest cremation rate in the country, trailing only Nevada.

Rob Goff, executive director of the Washington State Funeral Directors Association, said there are a variety of reasons why the state has abandoned the shovel and dirt.

“In some parts of the world, cremation is the preferred method, and immigrants bring their culture with them,” said Goff. “Other people simply have a fear of burial.”

Cremations are also cheaper. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral viewing and burial with a burial vault, which many funeral homes require, was $9,135 in 2019. The median cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation was $5,150.

If a family decides to skip the viewing and other various funeral services, a cremation can cost less than $500.

While the main purpose of green burials is sustainability, they can also be financially prudent because they intentionally avoid using resources.

“It’s cheap, which is a lot of the reason why people choose it,” said Spletzer. “It can be a thousand dollars compared to $8,000 for a traditional burial.”

To put it simply, a wicker casket or burial shroud is a whole lot cheaper than a mahogany casket with all the bells and whistles of a traditional funeral.

With selling points including lower costs and sustainability, the funeral industry has its eye on developing green funeral packages to suit new demands.

“This industry, we’re always behind the times,” said Candace Aramburu, director of human resources and marketing at Fairmount Memorial Association. “We want to stay on top of things this time around.”

Fairmount has developed green funeral options including sustainable urns, seagrass caskets and planting a tree at the spot someone is buried.

But despite its potential, green burials aren’t as big of a factor in today’s funeral industry compared to cremations and traditional burials.

Jack Mitchell, a member of the board of directors of the National Funeral Directors Association, said he estimates the number of green burials is still low in the U.S., and that it’s unlikely to become mainstream practice in the near future.

But others weren’t so sure.

“People didn’t want to believe cremation was going in the way it was going,” Aramburu said. “It could happen in the next 10, 20 years.”

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