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Green burials? Parties in lieu of funerals? Old traditions die hard in the funeral industry

Funeral industry in Colorado embraces new trends
Posted at 9:38 PM, Oct 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-01 14:45:15-04

DENVER — You might be surprised at the options available to you after you die.

New trends are catching on, which include everything from green burials to parties in lieu of funerals.

“People are definitely seeking alternatives that look more like the parties they wanted to have,” said Shannon Martin, funeral home manager at Olinger Crown Hill Mortuary and Funeral Home.

Saying goodbye is often, and appropriately, a somber event. But for some, this is no longer your grandmother’s funeral service.

“We compost bodies,” said Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose. “Composting actually breaks down bones quite well. It sounds sort of zombie apocalypse, a little bit.”

Water cremation is also an option.

“It uses 90% less energy than a fire cremation would,” said Emily Nelson, founder and CEO of Be A Tree Cremation.

Dying today looks different for many than it did just a few years ago.

“The consumer, the patron family today, is looking at less carbon footprint,” said Matt Whaley, regional marketing director for Olinger funeral homes and mortuaries. “So, I think those are viable options.”

When someone dies today, there are now eco-friendlier ways to reach a final resting place.

“I think after the last year and a half that we’ve lived through, so many people have experienced loss, and death is so much more in our face,” said Be A Tree community liaison Sheree Browne. “People are wanting to have some semblance of control.”

Be A Tree’s process is essentially the opposite of traditional cremation by fire.

“It’s our water cremation system, or alkaline hydrolysis,” Nelson said. “Mostly, it’s the water doing the work. The water circulating and breaking everything down over the course of several hours, just like natural decomposition. It’s going to take a little longer, about 18 hours from start to finish. In the end, the liquid is transferred to a flower farm as organic fertilizer. So, the liquid byproduct that's left at the end of the process is very nutrient rich. We call that liquid tree tea.”

“There’s limitless fulfillment that comes from this type of work for me,” Browne said. “Seeing the bright side of things.”

The residual dirt left over is given to the families.

“Because you’re still getting an urn back with the cremation remains inside, you can still use that cemetery plot that you may have purchased years ago,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. That’s the beauty of finding alternatives.”

At Recompose, the process of human decomposition is also called natural organic reduction.

“Recompose is a form, a new option for ecological death care,” Spade said.

Recompose currently has facilities in Washington state, but is expanding to Colorado in the near future. We caught up with Spade on a recent trip to Colorado as she was scouting potential locations in the Centennial State.

“It’s not that complicated, actually, if you think about what's happening all over the world right now in forests, for example,” Spade said. “As dead organic material, leaves and sticks, are decomposing and creating soil. That's really what’s happening in our process. That's composting.”

Recompose has created a futuristic, eye-catching, honeycomb of white vessels that house bodies anywhere from 4-6 weeks.

Bodies go in and one month later, dirt comes out.

“Each person's body gets to stay in that vessel for about a month,” Spade said. “We lay the body on top of a mixture of woodchips, alfalfa and straw, and then cover it with more of the same. So, you're kind of cocooned in that vessel for that month-long period. Over that time, your body decomposes, microbes break everything down, including the plant material, and at the end, you have this beautiful nutrient rich soil. Your family can decide to take that soil home and grow a tree or put it on your garden.”

Colorado is just the third state in the nation to legalize natural organic reduction.

There are also changing trends in funeral services and celebrations of life.

“We get energized by being able to offer different experiences,” Martin said.

At Olinger’s Crown Hill location in Wheat Ridge, they permanently removed the pews from the old chapel three years ago and put in tables and chairs.

“We absolutely love to see innovation,” Martin said. “We love to see new things, try new things. Sometimes that inspiration comes from families saying this is what we want.”

Martin sees this as a modern, contemporary take on the old school funeral.

“Part of it is maybe the Colorado factor in that we’re just a little more casual here than maybe the East Coast,” Martin said. “It doesn’t mean we still don’t have sadness, but it’s inter-mixed with people sharing stories and laughing.”

Whaley says it’s a hit.

“The tables and chairs represent community where people can sit around the table and share stories,” Whaley said.

Crown Hill also has an enclosed pavilion with huge windows offering lots of light.

“We're open to different ideas and evolution and innovation to different disposition modes,” Whaley said. “Yeah, we're always open to looking at different ways to innovate.”

There have also been questions about cemeteries, both public and military, like Ft. Logan, potentially running out of space. But the reality is, this national treasure has purchased open space right next door that gives it another 30-plus years for burials.

“The best part about working in the National Cemetery Administration is that it’s an opportunity to continue that service of being a part of something larger than myself,” Ft. Logan assistant director Edward Lyons said.

For Lyons, this is personal. He lost his hand in combat in Afghanistan.

“During an ambush, myself and my team leader were struck by an improvised explosives device,” Lyons said. “It’s a way for me to kind of heal from my own losses as well through helping families. I would consider it more of an empathy directly related to that military service.”

While cemeteries like Arlington National are running out of space, Ft. Logan’s expansion on 50 acres should give it another three decades of life. They average about 19 burials a day, including eligible dependents.

Because of that demand, they’re also adding more space throughout the Rocky Mountain region with a number of rural, satellite cemeteries.

“One is just outside Billings, Montana,” Lyons said. “For the less populated areas so that they have a place to receive those veteran burial benefits. We just opened a new national cemetery as a part of that rural initiative up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as well. Currently, VA cemeteries contain 22,500 acres of which 13,000 acres are yet undeveloped.”

The same is true of public cemeteries.

“Well, we have about 30 acres back here that’s undeveloped,” said Kendra Briggs, the first female president and CEO of Fairmount Cemetery. “We’re the largest arboretum in Denver.”

Briggs says "the back 40" buys them time for more burials.

“We have enough room for another 120 years or so,” Briggs said.

Fairmount also has the luxury of closing little used roads.

“This is a road that we recently closed last year,” Briggs said pointing out a newly sodded green space. “It created 480 more spaces.”

As for the "back 40," it will stay rugged and more natural.

“The vision here is to keep it a Colorado landscape,” Briggs said. “And perhaps offer those alternative burials that appear to be catching on. It’ll give some more green burial options when that becomes more popular.”

That brings us back to this ashes to ashes, dust to dust story of humans made of the Earth wanting to return to the Earth.

“We wanted to make sure they had an option that would be in alignment with their values of taking care of the Earth,” Nelson said.

“We are all going to die someday,” Spade said. “We have to do something with that body.”

Recompose will cost you just over $5,000.

Be A Tree’s water cremation is about $2,200.

“Our two goals are to help people live on through nature after they die and also to reduce the environmental impact of the funeral industry,” Nelson said.

“It’s really beautiful and powerful work,” Browne said.

“A lot of people, when they learn about it, are really intrigued and would say that they would consider it,” Nelson said.

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