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Philadelphia is home to four funeral providers that offer 'green burials.'

September 16, 2015

Infrequently Asked Questions: What is a 'green funeral'?

Funeral Director John Barnes explains eco-friendly funerals

The world is full of questions we all want answers to but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. In the spirit of that shared experience, we're embarking on a journey to answer all of the questions that burn in the minds of Philadelphians -- everything from universal curiosities (What's it like to be shot wearing a bulletproof vest?) to Philly-specific musings (How do they clean the Liberty Bell?). 

Have a question you're dying to have answered? Send an email to entertainment@phillyvoice.com, and we'll find an expert who can give you the answer you're craving.

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John Barnes is a funeral director for Slabinski Funeral Homes, a provider in Northeast Philadelphia that claims to be the first offering green burial services in the region. Notably, Slabinski and its three affiliated homes are certified by the Green Burial Council, founded in 2005 as a nonprofit watchdog to ensure death care steers in an eco-friendly direction. Certified homes adhere to the strict standards laid out by the council.

Barnes told PhillyVoice that Slabinski first sought out green burial services five years ago, after "going green" became a hot topic at a national funeral directors' convention. He and his colleagues took that knowledge back with them to help establish Slabinski's green burial services in 2010.

Here, Barnes, who has been in the business since 1987, dishes the 411 on green burials. 

What is a green burial, for someone who knows absolutely nothing about it?

I always use the word ‘greener,' because there’s really no -- what’s green for any of us anymore? We all throw out papers, we all use vehicles for different things that are not good for the environment. So, what’s a greener funeral? It uses a bit less of everything. Green funerals in many cases do not have the embalming process and procedure, harmful chemicals and things like that. In many cases caskets aren’t used – metal caskets. Concrete vaults aren’t used, the burial container that goes into the ground in cemeteries. So by all this happening it’s just lessening our carbon footprint. It’s doing a little bit less damage to the world we live in by doing those things. People also carpool to funerals, so it uses less fuel. People will not use as much of a paper product as they would in a traditional funeral. We use dry ice, as opposed to using embalming chemicals and things like that. And a lot of funerals are graveside services, so you’re not using funeral homes and buildings and churches. You’re going right to the grave site, the way funerals were hundreds of years ago.

Is there a ceremony?

A recent one we had, a minister or clergy person came right to the graveside and had a service right there. Cemetery workers dug the grave by hand so they didn’t have to use equipment, fuel and all that, so they dug it by hand. We used Irish linen to wrap the deceased, then placed her into the ground -- right into the earth, with no casket, no vault. That’s probably the greenest way to go for a funeral -- as simple and basic as possible. That’s the ceremony the deceased wanted and what all her loved ones wanted for her. It was a beautiful ceremony, and it felt like we were at a funeral from 200 years ago, where there was no automotive equipment or all that.

Do you use a separate cemetery space for these burials?

Yeah. A lot of these will be at some of the old Quaker cemeteries throughout Philadelphia. We use Beechwood Cemetery in Bucks County. They have a green section where they don’t allow any concrete to be poured or any caskets that aren’t biodegradable. 

When you do use a casket, what do you use?

Usually a wood, or wicker. Wicker is very popular. Because wicker, they can sew the handles on, whereas wood you might have to use metal nails and things like that. You might have to glue wood together -- harmful glues. Wicker is probably most popular. They look like wicker baskets, probably the same kind they used in the Civil War days to bring the dead off the battlefield.

If they’re not embalmed, does that mean you need to move faster with the process?

You do. In Pennsylvania, the law says that within 24 hours they need refrigeration or to be embalmed, and in a case like that the dry ice is the choice of keeping someone cool or cold enough to help deter decomposition. There are also green embalming chemicals placed on top of the skin or injected arterially, and those green products are not hazardous at all. They’re made from herbs, oils and things that temporarily preserve the body.

Do they tend to be less expensive than a standard funeral service?

It just depends on your choices. And you basically pay for the items you need to use. If you use a hearse, you pay to rent a hearse. If you need embalming, you need to pay for it. If you’re paying for a casket, you pay for that. So the difference with the green funeral is a lot of that is eliminated because you don’ have a need for a casket. You’ll save money there. You may not require embalming. So yes, it could be less in cost. A funeral price is just a menu of itemized services and merchandise, and when you have a green funeral it could be less because you’re not choosing all of the traditional-type items that you need.

Is there a grave marker?

There are a couple options. In the green sections, you have a few different options. Some of the newer green cemeteries don’t want to use monuments or markers like a traditional cemetery, because you need machinery and fuel and you’re carving stones and digging for stones or driving them out in a truck, or tractor trailers with a destination point. So, they’re either using GPS tracking devices they bury with the loved one, which you can follow on your iPhone or Android, or they’ll use rocks or something like that -- a special marker to mark the grave. It’s a neat concept to put a GPS tracking device and always be able to find your loved ones. No need for a monument or marker.

When someone opts for this, is it usually the person who died requesting it or the family?

The last few we had it was the deceased that expressed to their loved one, spouse, partner or child that that was what they want to do. I spoke with a family not long ago, her husband is dying of cancer and they’re trying to make their decision. …. We'd bring a wicker basket, place him into the basket, have a prayer service there, and then we’ll bring him into the cemetery together. In the meantime, the cemetery will have dug the grave, have everything ready for us, and they want it to happen very swiftly and dignified in a one-day service. When this person passes, our plan would be to be there by 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. the next day, and then they would greet family and friends. They'll put times on Facebook for the service, have a minister come over, and do this all in a day. That was their plan. They set it in motion for when the time comes.

Is this the green alternative to cremation?

Even cremation is using fuel, equipment and machinery. There are some cremation retorts, the machines for the heating process that performs the cremation, that are greener than the machines created 10 or 20 years ago because they’re more fuel-efficient and all-around better machines. Some machines are better than others.

What do people misunderstand about green burials?

That if I put a Billboard on I-95 that said "Green Funerals," people would assume that means they can’t have the traditional type of funeral. The ‘normal’ funeral. That’s why I use the word ‘greener.’ Even in our offices our staffs are greener, people around us are greener -- everyone’s having a greener funeral now than they did 20 years ago. Just because of the knowledge and information we all have now.