If you read “How We’re Green Part 1” and you were left wanting more information on how Elemental acts to make the funeral industry more environmentally-friendly, you’ve come to the right place! This is where we’re going into detail on green funeral. If you are looking for answers that are less technical, you might want to head back to Part 1. Things are about to get seriously in-depth. I’m going to cover:
- Carbon accounting
- Carbon sequestration/offsets
- Funeral products
- Business decisions
I will attempt brevity so that we don’t poke holes in the horse by beating it, since it’s been dead since Part 1.
Carbon accounting is a career in and of itself. The concept of carbon accounting, credits, offsets and sequestration gets so mind numbingly arcane that the casual reader would either fall asleep or become an Elemental client, and I don’t want either of those things. The short version is this:
- You burn carbon stuff (gas, diesel, wood, etc.) and it puts out a given (known) amount of carbon.
- You find a way to take that given (known) amount out of the air.
How do you do this?
What we do at Elemental is pretty simple… We work with Forterra’s C3 program to identify our “footprint” – the sum of all of the carbon producing activities that are involved in our operation. In our case, we draw the footprint line around those items that we control and what we cannot mitigate or remove, like the miles driven in the van that we use to transfer bodies into our care and the cremation process. But we also use lights and computers and heat and AC and….
The complexity of carbon accounting boils down to how you draw the boundaries.
This is where it gets convoluted. We don’t own or operate the office space that we lease (pay the electric bill directly), so in carbon accounting, this isn’t on our balance sheet. Think about it this way: You pay to go to a gym and you use their machines and their lights, and after your workout, I say “what is your carbon footprint?” Do you calculate these things into the amount of energy used in your day? No. Why not? What if you’re gym pays to offset their carbon footprint? You can’t double the offset. The carbon goes into the air once. You can’t take it out twice.
Or thought of another way: If your friend pays the bill at the restaurant for your dinner, you can’t pay for your dinner again because you think it’s “more right” to do so.
When it comes to carbon, there are a few things we can do to make Elemental closer to neutral. Technically speaking, there is no way to be “neutral” if you have outputs, but I’m not going to go there in this post. (For those that are true carbon accounting people, you can stop reading right now. I’m trying to explain this as an intro, not to give the full detail of Scope 1,2,3 accounting and mitigation processes.) What we can do is attempt to “offset” what we produce by investing in tree plantings that have a known carbon uptake that matches what we produce. We can also do it by investing in technology that will prevent the output of carbon in the future. As an example, In the case of Elemental, in our 2013 projections we stated:
What is your annual carbon footprint?
1.8 short tons in administration and 14.118 in crematory operations = 15.92 tons
What method did you use to calculate your carbon footprint?
Carbon calculator on Native Energy & computations on crematory from BEF. Cremation computed: 35 therms per case. With our average case volume extrapolated from 2012 data, 2100 therms per year (Natural Gas: 13.446 lbs CO2 per therm) = 28,236lbs = 14.11 tons
Forterra then goes to their little magic Elfin carbon accountant under the mushroom in the Ho National Rainforest and they provide them with recycled punchcards with the carbon data for tree plantings and I pay them for whatever they plant in urban reforestation projects.
See. Totally easy!
I know you all love hearing about the embalming component of green funeral homes, so here we go. Part of the reason everyone loves embalming as a flashpoint is that it’s a mysterious and divisive process that no one gives straight answers to. Well… this post is as straight an answer as I can give for the mystery. Now for the environmental stuff.
If you’re into MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) reading, embalming fluid is a knockout, so get ready for some real excitement:
Class : Arterial Embalming Chemical, Mixture
DOT/UN Hazard Classification: Other Regulated Substances, Liquid, NOS (Contains Formaldehyde), 9, NA 3082, PG III, Ltd. Qty.
II. HAZARDOUS INGREDIENTS:
Common Name Chemical Family CAS# Wt % Exposure Limit
Formaldehyde Aldehyde 50-00-0 21 0.75 ppm (OSHA TWA); 0.3 ppm Ceiling (ACGIH)
2 ppm (OSHA STEL)
Potential Cancer Hazard per NTP & OSHA
Suspected Human Carcinogen per ACGIH
Known carcinogen per IARC
And on, and on…riveting.
The point is that nothing that’s good for you has a MSDS associated with it. Whole Foods has never provided an MSDS for the bulk quinoa. And the reality is that the “green embalming fluid” is a lot better, but it too has an MSDS, so I’m going to suggest that you skip chugging a pint just to prove that you’re totally down with the safe stuff.
If we were pumping embalming juice into every person that died and either cremate or bury them, we would be putting vats of these chemicals into our air and water. In fact, that’s exactly what traditional funeral homes are doing right now. Remember, when you put a dead person in the ground, AT SOME POINT, they will leach that stuff into the ground and subsequently the water table. Depending on the vault, casket, irrigation, soil composition, slope and rainfall it may be hundreds of years, or weeks, but it’s going to get there. If we cremate, it will be in the air in hours.
Those are the facts. “Fact” means that they aren’t up for debate.
The debate and controversy resides in whether or not it is causing harm. Here, we don’t have many facts. Can we look at the contents of a given embalming fluid, calculate the volumes, estimate the dispersion rate, and extrapolate the potential harms and then measure the quantity found in drinking water and salmon?
Sure, we can.
But no one has. I doubt anyone will. And it doesn’t really matter.
WHAT?! WHY?! This is important! We should know what hell we are dumping on our planet!!
Is it really? I would argue that it isn’t important, and I’ll tell you why. At Elemental, we have done a lot of visitations (that’s the service that you use embalming for) and in the past two years we have had a grand total of ZERO embalmings; we have stayed within compliance for state regulations with each and every one of them. By refrigerating and the use of dry ice, it is possible to have a perfectly acceptable and safe visitation. Not only that, but the families we’ve served have been very pleased with the fact that mom didn’t look like she was “sleeping.”
Consider this – if every funeral home in North America operated with these policies and norms and had to perform an embalming for the reasons outlined in the “Embalming Green” post, the amount of embalming fluid used in this country would be statistically insignificant.
Elemental is green when it comes to embalming because we haven’t had to do it, and if we do have to do one, we will use the less harmful green equivalent.
Funeral products consist of caskets, urns, keepsakes, and stationary – each of these items is available in an array of “green” options. The key to selecting eco-friendly funeral products is to investigate what they are made of, where they are made, and how they get here. The urns we select, for example, are generally made from sustainable sources. Pine, bamboo, recycled materials, etc., and they are often shipped using UPS Carbon Neutral shipping. We look to find local artisans that will provide top quality products using materials that take into account the impact on our environment.
We go one better though. We routinely practice funeral home heresy – we ask families to find items that have meaning to them that will work as an urn, or find a family member that can make one for them.
The same goes for caskets, shrouds, and stationary. The horror!
The reality is that many people don’t have the resources to do this, or choose not to. Having the funeral home provide environmentally-friendly options at a reasonable price is often enough, especially if the products are high quality. Some people believe these items are a waste of money, but many others appreciate finding the right sustainable urn, casket, shroud, or stationary that adds symbolic meaning to their loved one’s funeral.
Which brings us to our final, and probably least interesting, point. The geeks love some carbon, the deathies fawn over funerary practices, and everyone loves to buy stuff, but only an MBA can get off on process and procedure of corporate culture.
When I started Elemental, I started it with the intent of growth. I intend to take it to other markets, expand offerings, increase volume, and otherwise take over the known world with ecologically sound funeral practices. Let it be known that world domination will come in the form of tree hugging funeral practitioners.
To that end, one needs to plan and set to creating an environment where success has a chance and failure is expected. Expected, because it is a breeding ground for learning. The environment and culture that builds a solid company is also where you foster the relationships and ideology that will either coincide with the values that are espoused for a journey of success, or clash with them and end in failure.
Elemental operates on Elkinton’s “Triple Bottom Line” as outlined in Part 1 of this blog post, and that is the value set in which the decisions are made. I too, am a student of Demming and Juran (important management theory people), and happen to have a deep affection for TQM “Toyota Model”, LEAN, and Six Sigma (important management strategies). If you can see me wiggling with geekdom right now, you’re going to roll your eyes when I tell you that if you want to know the way to my soul, you need look no further than Dr. Goldratt and the Theory of Constraints (hey, are you still awake?). If you are a management student, then these are shorthand for you to know where I find the efficiencies that lead to greening up the funeral business.
For those of you that find this self-aggrandizing horsewaste enough to bring hives, here’s the short version: I enjoy finding better ways to operate a business. These ways are highlighted in management theories that are long standing management practices that seek through accounting, communication, culture, and process to minimize waste and increase output (productivity/profit). It is in the minimizing of waste that you see a company become more green. It is in culture and balance that you find profit. Profit in our society has come to have a negative connotation, and it certainly does in the funeral business when viewed by the public. But remember, profit can also be the benefit that is left over in a community when everyone at the table has had the opportunity to become involved in a process.
If you’ve made it all the way through this post, you are a truly special individual, and for that I offer my deepest gratitude for sticking with me as I explain to you one of my deepest passions – the continual improvement of a business that seeks to foster the healing process – both in families and in our planet. And if you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below – I love to talk shop!