A woman stared into the empty pine coffin, eyeing the rough-hewn shroud inside with apprehension.
"Well, it's got burlap, and that makes me itch," she said. She immediately realized what an odd thing it was to say about a wrapping for a lifeless body, but she repeated it anyway. "It does. It makes me itch."
Keith Riddle, the funeral home director, assured the woman that the shroud wasn't necessary. He understood her concern. In looking at burial options, "we still think about the way we are right now, and what bothers us, and what we like," he says.
Working at the J. Henry Stuhr Funeral Chapel in Mt. Pleasant, Riddle has gotten a lot of special requests, including one from a woman who wanted her husband's ashes poured into the waterworks at the treatment plant where he had worked. Some requests are beyond the pale, but other wishes, particularly from people who want to carry out their environmentalist tendencies after death, are now within his power to grant. A pine casket, padded with shredded newsprint and a cotton liner, is one of the green-burial options Riddle now offers.
In January, J. Henry Stuhr Funeral Chapels and Crematories became the first funeral service provider in South Carolina to be certified by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that encourages eco-friendly alternatives to modern interment practices. To get a three-leaf rating (the highest given by the GBC), a company must meet certain requirements, from including biodegradable burial containers in the coffin catalog to offering customers the option of skipping embalmment. These days, when people come to talk with Riddle about burial plans, their options range from elaborate polished walnut caskets to unvarnished pine boxes, linen shrouds, and sea-salt urns that dissolve within hours after being dropped into the ocean.
What's so wrong with ordinary burials? The essential argument is that they are throwing away limited resources. Tara McCoy, the director of marketing at the Greenhaven Preserve green burial ground in Eastover, S.C., makes her case with some weighty statistics: U.S. cemeteries bury 1.6 million tons of concrete every year, enough to build a two-lane highway halfway across the country. They also bury 90,000 tons of steel in caskets, enough to build the Golden Gate Bridge.
As for the no-embalmment policy, proponents point to the harmful effects of formaldehyde, one of the most common ingredients in embalming fluid. Although there is no evidence to show that it can leach into groundwater supplies, it is a known carcinogen, presenting a danger to morticians who work with it daily.
For now, there are no green-burial cemeteries in the Charleston area, so families wishing to inter their loved ones vault-free must travel nearly two hours inland to Greenhaven Preserve, which is one of only two GBC-approved sites in the state (the other is Ramsey Creek Preserve in the Upstate town of Westminster). South Carolina law does not require vaults or embalmment, but most cemeteries have rules governing the types of burials they will allow. Carolina Memorial Park, on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston, requires vaults for all burials, a rule that a company spokesperson says is meant to ensure that grave sites do not shift around as a result of earth backfill and the movement of heavy equipment.
J. Henry Stuhr's decision to offer green burials sets it apart in the Charleston funeral industry, but Riddle insists that what the 147-year-old, family-owned company is offering is nothing new.
"It really is going back to what used to be done years and years ago," Riddle says. "It's just taking away a lot of the trappings and the expectations that a lot of us in Western society have associated with funerals."
Like most of the people opting for green burial through J. Henry Stuhr, Sherry Owensby-Sikes chose the arrangements in advance for herself, not for a deceased family member. Her convictions about burial practices go back to the years she spent as a child on her grandfather's farm in Alabama, where she first saw and thought about the death of animals.
Growing up, the task of mending fences along the property line often fell to her, and as she walked the fields, she took note of the places where her family had buried animals — the dogs in gunny sacks, the cattle straight in the ground. "I noticed that where the animals were buried, that things seemed to grow really well around that," she says.
Owensby-Sikes, a Lutheran chaplain in Mt. Pleasant, had once found poetic justice in the idea of cremation, which would return her to the dust from whence she came as quickly as possible. But about three years ago, after considering the pollutants released into the air as a result of the cremation process, she started searching for alternatives.
After speaking with Riddle, she arrived at a plan for an efficient, low-impact burial: She will be wrapped in white cotton cloth and placed on a pine board, and her surviving friends and family will use linen straps to lower her into a hole in the ground at Greenhaven Preserve. Greenhaven encourages family involvement and even allows guests to shovel the dirt back in if they so choose. She appreciates the company's willingness to let families get their hands dirty.
"I think we've sterilized death a lot," she says. "We seldom use the word 'death' or 'died.' We say that the person 'passed.' Ages pass. People die ... It's a natural process, and to me, this makes a statement about its being a natural process and our returning to the earth from which we were created."