In most traditional cemeteries, bodies are embalmed, then placed in a heavy casket and then that’s in a concrete liner. Patrick Hagerty, who died last summer of brain cancer, didn’t want that. With his broth-er he decided he wanted to be buried in the green section of Mount Calvary Cemetery in Southwest Portland. His sister Theresa Hagerty described the site as rustic, beautiful and in keeping with what her brother wanted. (Courtesy Mount Calvary)
In most traditional cemeteries, bodies are embalmed, then placed in a heavy casket and then that’s in a concrete liner. Patrick Hagerty, who died last summer of brain cancer, didn’t want that. With his broth-er he decided he wanted to be buried in the green section of Mount Calvary Cemetery in Southwest Portland. His sister Theresa Hagerty described the site as rustic, beautiful and in keeping with what her brother wanted. (Courtesy Mount Calvary)

When Donald Fournier died a few years ago, Msgr. Patrick Brennan celebrated his funeral Mass at St. Mary Cathedral.

“None of his friends from Knights of Columbus or his singles group would have guessed that it was a green funeral,” says his daughter, Elizabeth Fournier, director of Cornerstone Funeral Home in Boring and author of “The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need to Plan an Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial.”

The coffin, although it was a simple, biodegradable wood, was beautiful, and he wasn’t embalmed. He was buried at a Catholic cemetery without a grave liner, that is, a concrete vault that keeps the ground from settling above the grave.

This summer, Father Rick Paperini discovered that he too was celebrating Mass at a green funeral. His friend Patrick Hagerty, 58, died of brain cancer July 16. “I didn’t even think it would be legal,” said Father Paperini, of the lack of embalming and the wicker coffin that went straight into the earth without a concrete liner in a part of Mount Calvary that the priest, pastor of St. Philip Neri, hadn’t known existed.

“It looked like it was part of the forest,” he said. “I was happy for Patrick because I knew how much he wanted to be buried that way. It was very much in tune with the laws of nature.”

It was also in tune with Catholic tradition. St. John Paul II, when he was 58 and recently elected pope, wrote that he wanted to be buried “in the bare earth, not a tomb.”

Pope Francis has spoken strongly about living modestly and protecting the environment.

“It feels natural, like the right thing to do,” says Fournier. “Before the modern funeral world, this is what Catholics did.”

Fournier, who caters to all kinds of grieving families, says green burials are only about 10 percent of her business. “I don’t push environmental concepts on anyone,” she says. “I’m reverent about whatever families want. This is my ministry.”

A trend?

Fournier may see more green burials in the future.

Earlier this year, the National Funeral Directors Association released the results of a survey that showed 53.8 percent of Americans considering a green burial, and 72 percent of cemeteries noting an increase in demand for green burials.

The trend should ease costs on the planet and on people’s wallets.

According to the Green Burial Council, every year Americans put 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel into the ground with modern burials.

Standard modern funerals cost in the neighborhood of $7,000 to $10,000, depending on who is doing the tallying. That figure includes embalming, other preparation of the body, a metal casket, a grave liner, flowers, clothes, the funeral home’s arrangements and viewing, the church service, grave plot, head-stone and graveside services.

Fournier, a lifelong Catholic and St. Mary’s Academy alumna, sees the trend away from those costs and toward green funerals as in sync with her faith. She quotes Father Charles Morris as saying that Jesus was laid to rest in a shroud, without embalming. Father Morris oversees Mount Carmel Cemetery in Wyandotte, Michigan, the first U.S. Catholic cemetery to offer a green option.

Theresa Hagerty wasn’t surprised that her brother wanted a green burial. What surprised her was that Mount Calvary had a place for him. “Patrick and another brother picked out the spot,” she said. “I thought it was beautiful, and keeping with his wishes. It’s a secluded spot, in a grove of trees on the side of a hill. A quiet place in the woods.”

Mount Calvary is one of about a dozen cemeteries in Oregon that have a place for green burials. Others include Riverview in Portland, Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Junction City, Mountain View in Ash-land and Gibson in Estacada.

Tigard beginnings

Fournier, who grew up in St. Anthony Parish in Tigard, thinks she may have been destined to enter the funeral business. She lost her mother and two grandparents — who lived with her family — before she was 10. “I stood out,” she winces. “I’d come to school without a lunch, and the nuns would feed me.”

Other children at St. Anthony School began coming to her when they were confronted with loss, “whether it was a gerbil or their grandmother. I was the go-to girl on death.”

She frequently visited her mother’s grave at St. Anthony Cemetery. “It was important to me to have a place to go, where I could talk with her.”

Her father quickly remarried, and Fournier suspects she didn’t have the opportunity to grieve in the way she needed to. “I’d go to funerals of people I didn’t know,” she says. “And I played funeral a lot. I wasn’t aware that I was processing.”

The reasons why

Fournier sees the Trappist and Benedictine monks as being perfect examples of living and dying modestly.

Despite Catholic teachings on humility, simplicity and death, faith isn’t high on the list of reasons why people choose to go green for funerals.

Some families tell her it felt like the right thing to do, and that they would have chosen it even if it had been more expensive than modern funerals.

Others choose green funerals because they are more affordable.

A third group choosing green burials are people who, for lack of a better description, are part of the do-it-yourself movement, who feel that it makes the various life transitions more meaningful. These families prefer to wash their loved one’s body themselves, choose the clothes and make the coffin or shroud (or at least buy it themselves).

Fournier has worked with families who buried their loved ones in the sheets or quilts off their own bed.

They may also dig the grave themselves, on private land. That is doable in many rural parts of the state on properties larger than an acre. “People say, ‘Dad loved that tree,’ and want him there, or ‘These were Mom’s prize roses,’” said Fournier.

Cremation

The green burial trend is growing, but cremation has become more than a trend. In 2016, cremations overtook entombment and burial for the first time. According to the Cremation Association of North America, the cremation rate was 3.56 percent in 1960. It had risen to 48.6 percent in 2015 and is expected to be 54.3 percent in 2020.

Cremation isn’t, however, green. Each cremation emits as much carbon dioxide as a 1,000-mile car trip.

Water cremation, or aquamation, uses only a tenth of the energy, but Catholic theologians don’t all agree it is acceptable. The process involves placing a corpse in a solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent alkali, sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, and heating under pressure. This causes fast decomposition, with all the liquids flushed down the drain and leaving only bone and metal — which are ground just as the remains of a cremation are ground.

Aquamation is more expensive than cremation. Oregon is one of 14 states where it’s legal. When it was proposed in New York, the Catholic Conference there condemned it, saying it didn’t sufficiently respect the body or resurrection of the dead.

Tradition

In contrast, Fournier believes green burial offers an avenue for families to talk about resurrection and to connect with older traditions.

She sees three main reasons Catholics would choose green funerals: the environment, the economics of modesty and simplicity, and being true to faith traditions. “This isn’t a fad,” she says. “It’s back to what we did over 2,000 years.”