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Environmentally friendly, even in death

Ronald T. Lomanto of Clarence loved the outdoors. His wife Lynn described him as a woodsman, a hunter, a fisherman.

When it came to any discussion about his final resting place, he was something else: a realist.

"'I'm going in the ground. Why do you have to spend six or seven thousand dollars on me?' " she recalled her husband saying before his death March 6, 2018.

For people like the late Mr. Lomanto, a green burial was the ultimate option. With a growing number of people looking to find ways to positively impact on the environment, it could also be an ideal solution.

Green, or natural, burial promotes uniting the body with the environment after death. It usually means placing the body in a biodegradable container, such as a wooden or cardboard box, or a shroud, and placing it directly in the ground without a vault.

It's not just for the guy who drives an electric car, switches to LED light bulbs, and avoids eating meat and dairy products and flying in airplanes to reduce his carbon footprint. Advocates say it's a natural way to conserve resources, even in death.

Families save on the cost of a vault and an expensive treated hardwood or metal casket, a large headstone and embalming.

"More people simply want to go out as environmentally friendly and affordable and authentic," said Lee Webster, who heads up education efforts for the Green Burial Council, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for natural death care, as well as certifies cemeteries and funeral directors. "If they considered themselves to be environmentally conscious, then it's very hard to go with something like cremation, which has a very heavy carbon footprint."

The median cost for a funeral with viewing and burial in the United States in 2017 was $8,755, including about $3,100 for a metal casket and embalming, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. That does not include the cost of a vault, which most cemeteries require to prevent grave subsidence and help with lawn maintenance.

Natural cemeteries also tend to have natural vegetation, including wild flowers and grasses which are cut once or twice a year. This year, Queen of Heaven cut the grass at its St. Francis of Assisi Natural Burial Garden throughout the summer because there were not as many black-eyed Susans or other wildflowers growing, according to Chip Mussen, director of sales and marketing for Catholic Cemeteries. The Town of Lockport cemetery plans to reseed the entire section next spring, he said.

St. Francis Natural Burial Garden did not seek certification from the Green Burial Council because the council eschews embalming and cremation, both of which the cemetery allows.

A Forest Lawn spokesman said it allows green burials, although it does not have a separate section.

"While our experience with them has largely been a function of religious practices among members of the Conservative Jewish or Muslim communities, the choice of green burial is available to anyone who desires that option," spokesman Mark DePalma said.

There are different shades of green. Actor Luke Perry was buried in a "mushroom suit" with mushroom spores and microorganisms to aid decomposition, and Washington became the first state this year to allow composting of human bodies.

Gregory Wood, co-owner of Wattengel Funeral Home of North Tonawanda, started looking into green burials about 10 years ago, and the funeral home is certified by the Green Burial Council. He bought some green embalming chemicals but it took some time for the idea to spread in Western New York.

"I got certified, and there we sat," he said. "I would occasionally get a phone call or email, and now, I swear, every week I’m getting at least one email or phone call."

He has never used the natural chemicals, but he also bought a large refrigeration unit. He has looked into wicker caskets, but "the shipping was as much as the casket," he said. He recommends a plain pine box like those used in Jewish burials. Wood also has vessels for cremains made out of plain pottery and sand on display.

"I can help you to think about a greener funeral. You want to forget the embalming, you want to have a super simple casket," Wood said.

Although there is one Green Council Burial-certified funeral home in the Buffalo area, there are five certified funeral homes in the Rochester area. The closest certified cemetery is in Rochester, where there are three.

Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve in Newfield, N.Y. was the first certified green cemetery in New York when it buried its first person about 13 years ago. Today there are nine.

"As a movement, it certainly is getting much more popular," said Herb Engman, a member of the board of trustees who also keeps paths mowed at the cemetery.

But it is self-regulated industry on the environmental aspects, and some burials are greener than others.

"There aren't any laws or regulations. It's basically the Wild West on who claims to be green," Engman said.

The Greensprings burial ground is 14 acres of a 130-acre nature preserve near Ithaca. The central New York cemetery encourages survivors to be involved in the process, from acting as pallbearers, to lowering the body into the grave and shoveling dirt on the grave. There are no headstones in the field. Graves are marked with small flat stones from the region.

"People participate much more fully in the green burial than in the conventional burial," Engman said.

Webster said the burial council recommends burying the body at 3.5 feet to 4 feet deep, where there are more microbes. Dirt is mounded on the grave, and settles as the body decomposes.

"This is the way things have always been done, the natural, normal way," Webster said. "Mother Nature takes care of business."

It's also for someone who loves the outdoors, like Ronald T. Lomanto of Clarence.

"I think it's a great idea," his wife said. "It's a natural thing."

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