Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Let’s talk about death. More specifically, what should happen to our bodies after we die. It’s an important conversation that most people probably aren’t having at the dinner table.
When death inevitably comes, those who opt for a traditional in-ground burial may find it’s more complicated and expensive than they might think.
In today’s modern funeral industry, families face costs ranging from $7,000 to $10,000, according to parting.com, a funeral home comparison website.
Lee Webster, director of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy and a board member at the Green Burial Council, said the modern funeral industry, where body preparations and burials are handled by corporate-run funeral homes, exploits grief and perpetuates the “helpless mourner” myth.
The Green Burial Council advocates for more sustainable, affordable “death care,” Webster said. It certifies green mortuaries and funeral homes throughout North America, including Kraft-Sussman Funeral & Cremation Services in Las Vegas.
“People don’t realize [modern funerals] are made up like a Hallmark holiday,” she said.
But morticians and “death positive” advocates are promoting practices from a time before modern embalming and expensive oak caskets.
“We are going back to basics,” Lee said. “Something simple and meaningful.”
Something more environmentally friendly and affordable.
Green burials in Las Vegas
Laura Sussman, co-owner of Kraft-Sussman Funeral & Cremation Services, said one of the first things she and her business partner Wendy Kraft considered when opening their mortuary was how to be more environmentally friendly. Green burials are possible in Nevada as long as the families of the deceased follow the proper protocol.
If a person dies outside of hospice care, the police need to be notified immediately so they can call a coroner or medical examiner to pronounce the person dead, Sussman said. The coroner then calls a funeral home to transport the body to the coroner’s office or a funeral home for further inspection. Sussman said families have the right to choose any funeral home they desire.
If a family opts out of embalming, they must decide quickly because Nevada Revised Statutes require that bodies not refrigerated or kept in a cool place within 72 hours must be embalmed.
“Bring the body into care as soon as possible after death,” Sussman said. “We leave the body cool so it doesn’t decompose at a fast rate.”
To ensure a green burial, Kraft-Sussman utilizes GBC-approved caskets, urns and shrouds that are plant-based and biodegradable.
Currently, there are no official eco-friendly cemeteries in Southern Nevada.
“The problem in Las Vegas is that cemeteries require a concrete liner,” she said. “What we suggest is to take the bottom off the liner, so the casket sits over the earth and the casket and body can decompose. As the community looks at options for the future, I hope we will consider a green cemetery,” Sussman said.
The toll of American embalming
The cocktail of chemicals used during embalming has raised concerns among environmentalists. Embalming involves the process of draining blood from the body and pumping a mixture of formaldehyde, phenol, methanol and glycerin into the arteries to delay the rate of decomposition.
The practice was popularized during the Civil War when an unprecedented number of soldiers—many of whom were far from home—were killed in battle, prompting the need to preserve their bodies while being transported back to their families, Webster said. “The father of American embalming,” Dr. Thomas Holmes, was said to have embalmed more than 4,000 Union soldiers. At the time, embalming was still in its early stages of development.
Today, the practice has been perfected to preserve bodies longer, but some advocates argue against it, concerned that the chemicals can leak into the groundwater and that the chemicals also pose a risk to embalmers themselves. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, formaldehyde is genotoxic and can cause cancer if inhaled.
Embalming, while offered and oftentimes required by most funeral homes, is not actually required by law. Sussman noted that the notion that embalming is required is a common misconception.
Cremation: Another more eco-friendly option
According to the Cremation Association of North America, more than 70% of Nevadans opt to be cremated.
Sussman said this is most likely because of the transient nature of the population.
“Most people aren’t from here,” she said. “They aren’t going to be visited by loved ones if they’re buried here, and it’s expensive to send a body back to another place.”
It’s also a less expensive option, she said. According to DFS Memorials, a network of local funeral and cremation providers, a direct cremation in Las Vegas costs about $795 and up.
Sussman said her business offers traditional cremation services and aquamation—the process of using water flow, temperature and alkalinity to speed up natural decomposition. She said Kraft-Sussman is the first mortuary in Nevada to provide this service.
Sussman said aquamation uses a tenth of the carbon footprint of cremation and is “much better for the environment.”
“By the time the process is done, the remains are neutralized,” she said.
The popularity of more eco-friendly burials extends beyond those who just want to be environmentally conscious. There has also been a movement to include families in the burial process.
“We always offer them the option to come in and bathe the body,” Sussman said. “I don’t think there is any better way to honor the memory of someone who has been important to you than to be involved in caring for them in their final moment,” she said.
Sometimes it can even help with the family’s healing process, she added.
Sarah Chavez hopes to change the way we think about death. A leader in the “death positive” movement, she is executive director of the Order of the Good Death, an LA-based organization that embraces human mortality and natural burial practices. “We talk about death and treat death very similar to the way we view sex,” she said. “There is a lot of silence and shame, and it’s not something we talk about openly. There’s a lot of mystery and myths around both subjects.”
Chavez said death positivity explores mortality without attaching shame to it. She added that a lot of the things that accompany a traditional American burial aren’t actually necessary or required by law and are instead pushed by the funeral industry.
Things like embalming, caskets and concrete vaults really offer no benefit to public safety and simply inflate the cost of burying the dead, Troop said.
“If those things are helpful to someone and that’s what they want, that’s great for them as long as they know there are many other choices,” she said.
This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.