Environmentally Friendly Burial

Ever since Aunt Azelda’s dog died, the dear old bird has been thinking of her own demise.

“I don’t want to be in the way, Evie,” she told me. “Just burn me up and put me in the rose bed.” Aunt Azelda: Green without even trying. I wasn’t sure how the rest of the family would feel about attending burial services in my front yard, so I started looking for options.

Rob Sarine at My Living Reef (800-569-7333; mylivingreef.com) told me that his nonprofit company offers an “ecologically beneficial and everlasting alternative to traditional memorials for those who choose cremation. Our goal is to reduce the species extinction rate, to enhance marine biodiversity, and to restore overfished waters.”

My Living Reef designs artificial reefs to mimic the habitats of specific forms of marine life and incorporates the cremains into the compound used to make the reef. Other ingredients include sand, crushed seashells, and low-alkaline concrete. The cost for a burial site ($875 for a four-person community reef, $3500 for an individual reef, $4000 for a reef containing the remains of two specific people) goes toward saving something such as Baja’s famous spiny lobsters. “The reefs grow brown kelp, sea urchins eat the kelp, and spiny lobsters eat the sea urchins.”

At San Diego Burial at Sea (619-987-0063; sandiegoboattours.com), one captain suggested another reason people use their service. “Burial at sea is a less expensive alternative,” he said. “I think that accounts for its popularity more than it being ‘green.’” The cost, he said, starts at $300 and can run up to $3000, “depending on the number of people going out on the water and the type of boat required. Sometimes we’ll go out with just the family, sometimes with a small group of up to 30 or 40.”

The captain also said he thought that some people find cemeteries to be a dark place. “When you do the burial at sea, you’re out there in a beautiful, open setting. It helps you to release bad emotions and say a joyful goodbye.” And while keeping things green isn’t necessarily the mission, the company can supply a biodegradable urn, “or you can get one from the crematorium. You can then lower the urn into the water or do an ash scattering.”

There is a debate in the Kelly family as to whether burials are for the deceased or those left behind. I don’t know which side will win out after Azelda goes, so I checked out the green-burial option at San Diego Funeral Services (619-280-0101; sandiegofuneralservice.com). Toni Valenzuela said her business offers mortuary services and that she prefers to use the term “natural” instead of “green.”

“There are a lot of technical things involved with the term ‘green,’ and the fact is that there is no place in San Diego where you can have a truly green burial. Some places, such as the El Cajon cemetery, don’t require a lead-lined casket. But you’re still putting the body into a cement-lined underground vault.

“What we do,” she continued, “is help to do the mortuary services in a more natural way. We start by assisting the family with the after-death care of the body — how to wash and preserve it.” The cost for their services is $1495 to $2800.

Next I spoke with Valenzuela’s assistant, Bobby. “There are several things you can do to make things more natural,” he explained. “You can use a natural solution to embalm the body, or you can do no embalming and opt for a direct burial. The Muslims, for instance, must be buried within 24 hours of death, so they might choose direct burial. Or you can use dry ice to keep things preserved and have a home funeral — the old-school tradition. Those are coming back.”

The natural options extend to caskets. “Some people want a plain pine box. Others choose a wicker casket or a cloth-covered cardboard box.” Valenzuela sensed my incredulity. “It’s made from paper in its most natural state,” she assured me, “and the sides and bottom can hold up to 495 pounds.”

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