Washougal considers allowing ‘green burials’

Nov. 10 seminar to gauge interest

timestamp icon
category icon News
Clark County Cemetery District No. 1 Commissioner William Zalpys walks past natural burial sites at the Fern Prairie Cemetery. He said it takes one to two years for the graves, framed by untreated wood, to settle into the ground.

As Washougal explores the idea of allowing “green burials,” in the Washougal Memorial Cemetery, advocates say there are environmental and financial benefits to natural burials.

Brad McMasters’ mother, Nancy Aguirre, of Vancouver, who died at the age of 67 in October 2010, indicated to him that she wanted a natural burial in Western Washington.

“We were fortunate to have my mother on hospice care for a few months, which gave us time to thoughtfully discuss options with her,” McMasters said. “Had it been up to me I would’ve had her cremated and buried in the family plot on my father’s side of the family in Western Idaho.”

“It was her own contemplation and research, that she determined she wanted it to be natural,” he added. “It sounded cozy to her, and she thought it seemed better for the environment than a traditional burial.”

McMasters said there was not a lot of information about natural burials in 2010. After visiting a dry, rustic, natural burial area that was not easy to get to in Goldendale, Washington, he contacted Chris Dierickx, owner of Straub’s Funeral Home & Columbia River Cremation, in Camas, and Dierickx told McMasters about natural burials at Fern Prairie Cemetery, north of Camas.

While realizing that natural burials are better for the environment because they do not involve embalming fluids, McMasters said he plans to be cremated and his urn will share a burial plot with a loved one.

Aguirre’s family has planted seasonal flowers on her grave site.

McMasters said his mother was buried wrapped in her favorite down comforter.

“Because of relatively early admission into hospice care, we were able to thoughtfully discuss end of life options with her,” he said. “Now we have the gift of never second-guessing whether we made the right decisions for her.”

Gretel Bohn, the funeral director of Brown’s Funeral Home, in Camas, said a green burial involves a biodegradable covering — such as soft wood, wicker or a cloth shroud — for the body.

“Everything returns to the earth over the course of years,” she said.

Dierickx said most of the local families that are choosing the “green burial” option are selecting a cloth covered fiberboard casket that is lowered into a grave.

William Zalpys, a Clark County Cemetery District No. 1 commissioner, said there have been 89 natural burials since 2008 at the Fern Prairie Cemetery.

During a recent visit to the cemetery, he pointed out an area where one spouse had a traditional burial with a liner and a casket, and the other spouse had a natural burial.

Zalpys said a natural burial is how many burials took place prior to 1941.

“Our natural burials are in containers that quickly decompose and do not hold up to the weight of the soil, thus settling quickly,” he said.

Nick Brown, a former manager of Brown’s Funeral Home, in Camas, said the original purpose of a natural burial was “to not put a bunch of pollution into the ground, with embalming chemicals.”

Brown, now the owner of All County Cremation and Burial Services in Vancouver, said natural burials are very popular and common in Europe.

“It’s just a natural process, taking the body and placing it into the ground,” Brown said. “They did not have vaults and liners on the Oregon Trail.”

Natural burials are much more affordable than traditional burials that involve caskets placed in concrete or plastic liners, Brown said, with the savings being “thousands of dollars.”

Pamela Wilson, of Camas, credits Brown with providing information about all of the burial options after her sister, Victoria Greene, died at the age of 56 in May 2009.

“She did not want to be cremated,” Wilson said. “The family said a natural burial would be simple in a beautiful setting.”

Wilson has planted 56 daffodil bulbs on her sister’s grave at the Fern Prairie Cemetery. Her family has purchased four plots next to Greene’s natural burial site, under an oak tree.

Wilson, her husband and her brother made the burial arrangements.

“We feel we made the right decision,” Wilson said. “There are horses nearby. That environment is so peaceful. I drop off flowers and water them in the summertime. It is a precious time with my 2-year-old grandson. At Christmas, we put a Christmas tree there as a memorial for my sister.”

Elizabeth Fournier, owner of Cornerstone Funeral Services, in Boring, Oregon, will talk about “green burials,” from 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Nov. 10, in the Washougal Community Center, 1681 “C” St., Washougal.

Her presentation will include information about what a green burial is and how people can go about having one.

Fournier, the West Coast representative and board member at The Centre for Natural Burial, said “green burials” were considered traditional 150 years ago.

“Natural burials occurred in the church yard and the backyard, before the funeral industry became as big as it is,” Fournier said.

She said she probably takes care of one or two green burials a month.

“The cremation rate is nearly 80 percent in Oregon,” Fournier said. “Most of my business is cremations. You can’t survive as just a green funeral parlor.”

She predicts there will be more natural burials as conversations occur with baby boomers.

Washougal Parks and Cemetery Program Manager Suzanne Grover said the city has been looking at diversification of its services at the cemetery.

She credits Dean Porter, a city maintenance worker, for looking at ways to create new and improve existing services.

Grover said she was focusing on the potential of allowing full-casket family crypts in a currently undeveloped section south of “Q” Street and east of 32nd Street.

“The idea of having such diversity so close together was interesting and fit into our plan of having upright markers only on the south side of Q street and flat markers on the north side,” she said. “Green burials would be in Section 4, north of Q Street and east of 32nd Street.

Grover said there must be a demand for green burials, since the Fern Prairie Cemetery provides them.

“Gathering more information will allow us the opportunity to see how interested Washougal residents really are,” she said