Environmentalism Goes Beyond the Grave

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Berkeley residents are known for being environmentally conscious, and last weekend, they had the opportunity to learn how to continue this passion while six feet under.

With a display of banana-leaf caskets and urns made of pumpkin gourds, a funeral fair held at Berkeley's Grace North Church hoped to educate people on eco-friendly burial options.

According to Liz O'Connell-Gates, one of the organizers of the event, the funeral fair was meant to show people that it is still possible to be environmentally conscious even in death.

"I think people found it was very educational," she said. "I think that along the way I became educated about green funerals­-I had never thought about it before."

Ann Arnold, a member of the Board of Trustees for Grace North Church and co-organizer of the fair, said the idea of a funeral fair came to her nine months ago while brainstorming a way to get the community to rent the church.

"We were trying to have more people come into the church and have their ceremonies there," Arnold said. "(A friend) said, 'You don't want weddings, do funerals; they're much more fun,' so I said, 'Let's have a funeral then.'"

After nine months of preparation, the funeral fair featured stone-carvers, hat-makers and a choir to help set an upbeat rather than somber mood, O'Connell-Gates said.

One of the vendors at the fair, Jane Hillhouse, owner of Final Footprint, displayed her biodegradable caskets and urns.

Her caskets, made out of bamboo, banana leaf and cardboard, may not seem traditional but have become fashionable in recent years, Hillhouse said.

"They're very, very handsome," Hillhouse said. "David Carradine was buried in one of my caskets. They are very pretty caskets."

Fernwood Cemetery, located in Mill Valley across the bay, is one of the few cemeteries in the United States that has dedicated a portion of its land to green burials. Approximately 150 to 200 of the burials at the site are green burials.

Kathy Curry, the manager of Fernwood, said green burials are not only good for the environment but they are also considerably cheaper than a typical metal-plated casket.

"We've had people buried in pine boxes, cardboard or in a fabric shroud," Curry said. "Compared to the traditional burial ... it is less expensive."

Some burials, which include the cost of paperwork filing, ditch digging and space reservation, can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars. According to Curry, the minimum cost for a green burial is $7,500.

Considering the success of the fair, O'Connell-Gates said she hopes to do another fair in the future so that more people can know about eco-friendly burial alternatives.

"It was a really good educational opportunity," O'Connell-Gates said. "People have found it is better to go into the ground and have a positive final footprint."


Contact Kelly Strickland at [email protected]

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