Eco-friendly green burials become more popular in Arizona, the U.S.

Sunwest Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematory in El Mirage began offering green burials in 2009. Since then, it has filled 14 of 24 plots. (Photo by Ben Brown/Cronkite News)

An alternative, environmentally-focused way of interment is picking up popularity across the United States.

Registered “green burial” sites have grown from one in 2006 to more than 300 across 41 states in the U.S. and six provinces in Canada.

In Arizona, two mortuaries and one funeral home – owned by Heritage Mortuary – are approved by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit group that has established standards for eco-friendly “death care.” A funeral home does not need to be registered with the group to provide green burials.

Although experts said green burials are a more popular trend in the Pacific Northwest, it’s gaining more acceptance in the Southwest.

Green burials can be done in a variety of ways. Generally, workers will place the deceased in a biodegradable container, such as a cardboard box, instead of a traditional coffin.

The bodies are not embalmed, and they are not clothed with any material that is not biodegradable, such as rubber shoes or metal buckles. Alternatively, workers can shroud the bodies in different types of greenery to help the breakdown process.

At Sunwest Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematory in El Mirage, the green burial sites are marked with a small tag instead of a tombstone.

“It’s a choice that people are making,” said Bill Gabriel, the funeral home director and embalmer at Sunwest. “Unlike a traditional burial or cremation, this probably has the least effect on the environment, and it’ s a natural way of going back to the Earth.”

In a traditional wood coffin, a human body can take up to 50 years to decompose, according to

Gabriel said Sunwest Funeral in El Mirage began offering green burials in 2009. Since then, it has filled 14 of 24 plots.

“I don’t think – as an industry – you can ignore that there are people that are interested in this,” Gabriel said. “I would assume that other places would pick up on it and get interested in it. It may take a while. You’re talking about something that started in 2006, and look how it’s grown. It’s something fairly new. It’ll probably be a situation much like cremation has been. Cremation started off really slow, and sometimes the industry itself fights with itself on things.”

Although the Green Burial Council only lists three Arizona sites, more are considering providing the service. Peter Callaghan, general manager at Evergreen Mortuary and Cemetery in Tucson, said they have considered offering green burials for about a year.

“People are becoming more and more aware of all types of things – the need not to waste products and wood and different things like that,” Callaghan said. “I think it could be a growing trend.”

Trend slow, but growing

Gabriel said he visited a friend who owns a cemetery in Washington. The friend told him green burials have “taken off up there much faster than it has here (in Arizona).”

But Gabriel said it is picking up in Arizona because “we have a lot of transplanted people in Arizona.”

One challenge is adjusting for Arizona’s desert landscape, he said.

Green burial caskets costs about the same as traditional coffins and caskets. Nature Casket, a provider approved by Green Burial Council, offers caskets from $600 to $1,000. They also offer urns up to $225.

However, some green burials can cost less because they don’t involve embalming or concrete vaults, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Some people have questioned whether green burials may expose diseases of viruses as the body degrades. Jessica Rigler, chief for the bureau of epidemiology and disease control at the Arizona Department of Health Services, said there is no need for unease. She said the risks for infectious disease is “low to zero.”

“Once a body is no longer living, it’s a very short time (until) the bacteria and viruses also can’t survive anymore,” she said. “The risk of infection is really quite low from a dead body.”

Why choose a green burial?

Instead of a tombstone, Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay’s mother, Robin Kissinger, has a tree growing where she was buried in Phoenix.

“We wanted her body to nourish the earth below that tree,” Kissinger-Virizlay said. “She was shrouded really beautifully, put in a biodegradable kind of box because you still need to have something around the body, but it was open faced. They laid a beautiful palm fronds over the body, and then we got to bury her.

“Now, I go visit a living tree rather than a dead tombstone. It means so much.”

Dianna Repp, an anthropology professor at Pima Community College, started studying green burials as it became more popular.

“It also becomes a nexus for the values that people have (such as) their relationship with nature and their relationship with each other and with a higher power if they believe in a deity of some kind,” she said.

Kissinger-Virizlay’s mom found out about green burial through a friend, and when she was diagnosed with cancer, she began to do research on how she wanted to be laid to rest.

“My mom knew what she wanted, and she went for it,” Kissinger-Virizlay said. “It was her decision, and I wanted to honor that.”

Kissinger-Virizlay said she would consider a green burial.

“I don’t want to add to the already polluted environment,” she said. “I don’t want to be preserved in chemicals that I wouldn’t want touching me when I was alive.”

Gabriel attributes green burials’ growth in popularity to the fact that people like Kissinger-Virizlay are more aware of their environmental impact. He said that offering green burial in Arizona has been well received by people who may not know much about it. When they find out they can have a green burial done in Arizona, they are pleasantly surprised.

“They think it’s great,” Gabriel said. “The fact that they can do something like this here where they didn’t think it was available – they like it a lot under the circumstances considering what they’re going through.”

Repp said green burials, though it may be a growing trend, is a sort of throwback-method of interment.

“When we look at this idea of green burial, I think the first thing to do is step back and realize that for a long time in human history, that’s what burials really were,” Repp said. “Bodies were placed into the ground. Sometimes, there were coffins or caskets or things like that, but generally, the body goes into the ground.”

Repp said a big reason why people choose a green burial is the thought that people can give back to the Earth and nourish its soil after dying.

“Most people talk about (how) we do the funerals for the living,” she said. “I think that when we honor the wishes of the dead, that also helps us in our grieving process and in our honoring and memorializing of people. Those values continue to be brought forward that people had.”

Gabriel said they plan to add more plots for green burial to accommodate for people like Kissinger-Vizirlay.

“In my opinion, I don’t need to have a marker for myself after I’m gone,” she said. “If I did my job in life, then people will remember me, and I don’t need any other thing to do it for me. That tree will live much longer. Tombstones can be broken. The tree could get cut down, but ultimately, it’s contributing to a living cycle rather than getting caught up in the idea of something ending. I like it.”

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