Outlook 2021: Amsterdam funeral director betting that sustainable death care — ‘green burials’ — will gain favor

Erin Salie with Betz, Rossi, Bellinger & Stewart Family Funeral Homes
Erin Salie with Betz, Rossi, Bellinger & Stewart Family Funeral Homes

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook 

Casket burials have increased deforestation and led to soil contaminated with toxic preservatives. Meanwhile, the average cremation releases an average of 534 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Erin Salie doesn’t prefer either option. She wants to have a natural burial at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, should a spot remain by that time.

“Personally, I find the idea of having a natural burial and returning to the earth — I find that much more comforting than the idea of being buried embalmed, buried in a casket and then being buried in a vault,” Salie said. “I want to be part of the earth, not separated from it.”

Vale Cemetery, Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery, Fultonville Natural Burial Ground and St. Peter’s Cemetery are the only active Christian gravesites within a 50-mile radius of Albany to allow Salie’s burial preferences: decayable material encasing an unstuffed and preservative-free corpse.

It’s an interment option Salie, 28, aims to promote as a licensed funeral director for Amsterdam-based Betz, Rossi, Bellinger & Stewart Family Funeral Homes. She plans for BRB to eventually become the second funeral home in the Mohawk Valley to become Green Burial Council-certified.

“Being that I got into the idea of being a funeral director to educate people and make funerals less scary, [green burials] are just something I’ve been really passionate about,” Salie said.

Salie became a certified Green Burial Practitioner in December. To earn the title, she completed a three-month course from GBC on arranging, documenting and performing eco-friendly funerals. Her business recently purchased multiple wicker and seagrass caskets, as well as degradable shrouds.

The director is confident both investments will increasingly pay off and mirror shifting public attitudes on environmental sustainability. With demand currently low, BRB has considered hosting seminars and tabling around eco-conscious crowds at farmers’ markets to spread awareness.

‘Going through the motions’

BRB serves a majority conservative, Catholic crowd, typically disinterested in green burials. Within such audiences, Salie believes mortality fears often prevent families from discussing sustainable funeral arrangements, which results in a generational loop of unquestioned practices. Open dialogue can break this environmentally hazardous cycle, the director explained.

“We have a very traditional community, very Catholic, and it’s very hard to get people to consider anything other than what they’re used to,” Salie said. “It’s going through the motions for generations.”

She also blames industry negligence for steering families away from sustainable death care. Traditional funeral homes often overlook green burials even though families might be open to suggestions, Salie said.

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While the Centers for Disease Control denies public health benefits associated with the practice, the opposite belief has carried on through decades of mortuary miseducation. “I personally think it’s the funeral director’s responsibility to educate the public about it as an option,” Salie said. “Otherwise, who knows how long until it catches on?”

Commoners were naturally laid to rest for much of human history due to economical, technological and religious limitations. Early teachings in Islam and Orthodox Judaism call postmortem preservation blasphemous, while Christian scripture neither encourages nor discourages its morality. Europeans in the 1800s accepted embalming as a show of respect and a method to be buried farther away than ever before via train. The procedure finally took hold in the United States after fluids were used to preserve infantry fatalities during the Civil War.

Another major change, Formaldehyde, a chemical discovered by German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann in 1867, soon replaced arsenic as a longer-lasting and less toxic agent. While less toxic, the material still threatens morticians in the death-care industry.

Beyond professional consequences, conventional arrangements eat up an array of resources: 20 million board feet of hardwoods, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel, a joint study from Cornell University and Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve found.

Salie maintained that she doesn’t “begrudge” conventional Christian cemeteries for requiring vaults to prevent cave-ins, but instead wishes industry practitioners made clear the environmental ramifications of choosing such plots in advance.

“It’s really unfortunate that people aren’t being made aware of [green burials], and therefore they’re not being given ample time to prepare for it.”

After a green burial is arranged, corpses are immediately placed in a cooler or topped with ice packs to decelerate decay. Unlike conventional burials, BRB has a two-day window to complete interment.

For customers, the cost of a natural burial on average falls between cremation and embalming, roughly $2,000 to $3,000 with a burial plot included.

Embalming alone typically costs below $1,000, but other expenses associated with the procedure can total beyond $3,000, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

While discussing options, Salie doesn’t push green burials on mourners.

“I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who chooses a conventional burial or even cremation, which is not great for the environment either,” Salie said. “I don’t judge people how they want to memorialize their loved one.”

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