Seven years ago Jack Davenport, co-owner of Davenport Family Funeral Homes and Crematory, was approached with what seemed to be an unusual request.
A family trying to grant the last wishes of a loved one wanted the body buried in a biodegradable casket to allow for natural decomposition.
Davenport, 53, was able to accommodate the family, and in the process launched a new line of business that caters to environmentally conscious families. His firm now offers biodegradable caskets and shrouds, which are typically a linen cloth used to wrap the body of the deceased.
“I do this because the environmental, green movement is growing,” Davenport said. “Some families don’t want cremation. They want a burial … their mentality is that what comes from the earth will have to return back to it.”
Green burials aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by cremations and toxic chemicals used for embalming a body. And as consumers become more conscious about the products and services they use, Illinois funeral homes are ramping up their green burial services to a small but growing client base interested in reducing their carbon footprint, even in death.
Several funeral homes in the state offer services in which the body is buried in the ground in biodegradable materials like willow, seagrass or bamboo. Other green options include biodegradable urns and a water-based alternative to cremation called alkaline hydrolysis.
According to a 2019 survey from the National Funeral Directors Association, less than 20 percent of funeral homes across the country performed green funeral services in the past year. And some funeral homes are limited by state laws in what they can offer. But demand for green funeral services is growing, so much so that the funeral directors group now offers a green funeral practice certificate.
Davenport, who has funeral homes in the Chicago suburbs of Barrington, Lake Zurich and Crystal Lake, Ill., said his firm has performed about eight green burials so far this year.
“By and large it’s a request by the deceased,” Davenport said. “It’s something that’s preplanned by families.”
Proximity has helped Davenport in his effort to offer green burials. Davenport said his funeral homes are only a few miles away from Windridge Memorial Park and Nature Sanctuary, a cemetery in Cary, Ill., that has a nature trail dedicated to natural burials.
The 48-acre cemetery has been offering natural burial sites along the trail for a number of years, Windridge family service manager Kelly Lawyer said. The cemetery is plotting an additional 400 natural gravesites at a different location on the property, Lawyer said.
Illinois state law does not require bodies to be buried in caskets, although cemeteries typically require gravesites to have some type of reinforced concrete box — either a vault or a grave liner — to keep the ground level and prevent settling. A handful of cemeteries are willing to waive the vault requirement and allow natural burials, at least on a portion of their properties.
It’s unclear exactly how many many Illinois cemeteries reserve sections for natural burials, but Lawyer said she knows of at least four, including one in Springfield and another in Vernon Hills, Ill.
Marion Friel, owner of Green Burials of Love in Chicago, said she also uses Windridge for green burials, a service she has been offering since 2010.
Last year Friel helped Cheryl Barnes, of Chicago, set up a green burial for her 66-year-old sister, who died of uterine cancer on Dec. 28. Barnes said she was able to honor her sister’s last request, which was “to be put in a bag and then be put in the ground under a tree.”
Barnes said her sister was wrapped in a light shroud and buried next to a tree near a hill at the Windridge nature trail.
“I thought I had to settle for a second-rate of what my sister wanted,” Barnes said. “But I was able to give my sister exactly what she wanted.”
The overall cost to Barnes was about $6,000, with the majority of the expenses coming from the burial, she said.
According to the funeral directors group, the cost of a traditional funeral service and a burial can go up to $9,000 for the entire service. Green burials tend to be less expensive because the process removes embalming chemicals and vaults to allow the body to naturally decay. But additional services like the ceremony can sometimes offset any savings, Friel said.
The availability of green burial options varies by state and locality.
Traci Macz, owner of Irvin Macz and Day Macz Funeral Homes in Sandoval, Ill., doesn’t offer natural burials yet. Macz said she’s been working with local leaders to reserve a section in the city-operated Sandoval Cemetery for green burials. Currently, she educates families about other green options available to them like less harmful embalming fluids or biodegradable urns.
“For us, having two young sons, we have to set the bar and educate consumers on what is available to them,” Macz said. “That why it was important for us to get the green funeral practice certificate from the National Funeral Directors Association.”
Jimmy Olson, owner of Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wis., said state law wouldn’t allow his funeral home to accommodate a family’s request to perform alkaline hydrolysis, a water-based cremation process that breaks down the body to liquid and bone using water and either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide.
The relatively new process is sometimes referred to as flameless cremation, resomation and aquamation.
“It’s so new. We are all trying to find a way to explain it and offer it to consumers,” Kurt Soffee, a funeral home director in Murray, Utah and a spokesman for the national funeral directors group, said of the process.
Several states, like Wisconsin, do not yet permit alkaline hydrolysis. Olson said he found a funeral home in Minnesota that was able to accommodate the family’s request.
“I’ve spent the last year working with (Wisconsin) state Sen. Patty Schachtner to pass a bill that will allow for alkaline hydrolysis,” Olson said.
Although Illinois has allowed alkaline hydrolysis since 2012, only a handful of funeral homes have the equipment to perform it.
Matt Baskerville, who owns four funeral homes under the names Reeves and Baskerville in Illinois, said he began offering the service to clients shortly after it became legal in the state.
Baskerville, who refers to the process as flameless cremation, said it’s a much greener option because it does not burn fossil fuels or release emissions. The funeral home charges about $3,000 for alkaline hydrolysis, which is a little more than cremation services because the firm has to use another company to perform the process, Baskerville said.
“I think there are so many different forms of green funerals. Many shades of green,” Baskerville said. “A natural funeral can involve no harmful embalming products or using biodegradable caskets, or it can also include purchasing locally owned flowers. People are more conscious of this today.”
Barnes, who visited her sister’s gravesite a couple of weeks ago at the Windridge cemetery, said she hopes more people will consider the greener options.
“My sister, at the time, she did not want to be embalmed or put in a box,” Barnes said. “I hope people realize all they’re doing is putting chemicals into the ground when the body is filled with embalming fluids.”