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Funerals: From Green to Bling
Published Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The funeral industry may be among the oldest professions, but it’s far from dead. Even when it comes to how we bury and mourn people, technology has transformed the process. Clients expect a range of options from viewing services through Skype to incorporating ashes into keepsakes and making burials more eco-friendly.

Green funerals are hardly a new concept, as burial requirements of the Jewish and Muslim faiths have traditionally been “green,” says Arthur O. “Buddy” Phaneuf, president of Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium, with two locations in Manchester as well as Boscawen and Littleton, and president of the Cremation Society of NH. What’s changed is that many people now requesting green funerals are not doing so for religious reasons but rather as  personal preferences.

“It’s an old concept. It’s the media that’s portrayed this as something new,” says Mark Cournoyer, funeral director and president of Cournoyer Funeral Home and Cremation Center in Jaffrey and president of the NH Funeral Directors Association.

So what does a green burial entail? It means not embalming the body with formaldehyde and other hazardous chemicals that can seep into the ground, and using simple caskets made of biodegradable materials with little or no metal. “Formaldehyde-free embalming has taken off,” Cournoyer says. In NH, embalming is required for an open casket viewing for more than 24 hours after death, Phaneuf says.

Traditionally, green burials do not use headstones or vaults, but most cemeteries require a cement vault for the casket to sit in, says Phaneuf, who has been a member of the Green Burial Alliance for more than a decade. “You can still have green burial in cemetery that requires vault. It can have holes that allow direct contact with earth that satisfy the rules of cemetery but allow for a green burial,” he says, adding a new Quaker cemetery in Jaffrey allows for green burials as does a section of a Richmond cemetery.

Phaneuf says some people want a green burial because they think it’s less expensive. A green burial runs about $2,000, Phaneuf says, and that’s without the fees for the cemetery. A true green casket can cost about $1,300, he says. Traditional caskets cost hundreds of dollars to more than $5,000. “True green caskets have no metal. They use wooden dowels. The extra work—there is more workmanship that goes into these caskets and that means a higher price,” Cournoyer says. Phaneuf offers caskets made of sustainable willow branch that is woven into a casket, without metal, that can biodegrade. There are also eco-friendly urns made of clay or cornstarch.

Trendier than green burials is personalization. If dad was a biker, afford him the ever after in an urn made from a Harley gas tank, or if mom loved baseball, let her rest in peace in a Red Sox themed coffin. Cournoyer even has customized hearses, such as an old army truck that can be used for military services as well as a hearse pulled by motorcycles. “There’s so many ways to reflect the interests people had through their lives,” Cournoyer says.

People also want to customize cremations. “People are very creative in what they would like to use for urns,” Cournoyer says. “Folks are bringing in items that are more special to the person who has died. My personal favorite is a Snoopy cookie jar.”

Expectations for funeral services continue to increase with many expecting food and beverage to be available. To meet that need, Phaneuf converted space at one of his Manchester locations into a café to serve families, and he notes some families are requesting that site because of the café.

Technology has also transformed the services with more people compiling slide shows and requesting Wi-Fi, according to Phaneuf.

And more people are requesting keepsakes such as pendants and jewelry. “We thumbprint every person who passes away and that is stored in an electronic vault offsite,” says Phaneuf. He also works with a company that creates jewelry from thumbprints. The funeral home also offers lockets that can hold cremated remains, and, Phaneuf says, there’s one company that will incorporate ashes into glass objects. He even invested in an onsite laser-engraving machine because demand for personalized urns was so high.

Phaneuf is also on the advisory board of directors of Tribute, which creates online obituaries where people can add stories, pictures and videos. “It becomes a living tribute that grows,” Phaneuf says.

And that’s not the only way funerals have become more high tech. Proving that, yes, there is an app for everything, the Cremation Society of NH recently launched a free app that provides quick access to information regarding what to do when death occurs, the cremation process, packages and services available, products and pricing, how to write obituaries, and more. 

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