The funeral business is changing, not just with U.S. consumers choosing cremation over traditional burial, but with more cost and service information available online, a potential federal rule mandating the posting of such prices and the beginnings in East Central Illinois of a move toward “green” or “natural” burial.

That there is consumer interest in options beyond the default of a full body visitation and burial was made clear last week at the annual meeting of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Champaign County. Dozens of people, many of them with white hair or balding, heard a panel discussion at the Champaign Public Library of what to do when a loved one passes away.

But there also were discussions and pamphlets about hospice care, cremation and natural burials, where a cleaned and dressed body is wrapped in a shroud or a biodegradable casket and lowered into a simple grave without a concrete vault.

Informing people of the costs and options of death care is important, said Phyllis Croisant, president of the local funeral consumers group.

“Our mission is educating and encouraging people to do pre-planning for end of life,” she said.

Her group does an annual survey, reported online at funerals

champaigncounty.org/survey-results/ that shows the fees charged by local funeral homes for various services, such as embalming, a visitation, the funeral ceremony and other items, not including the cost of a casket. The survey also includes prices for cremation, which is now more popular nationally than casket burial, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

The local Funeral Consumers Alliance also does a separate survey of costs and requirements for burials at about a dozen local cemeteries.

“Even within Champaign-Urbana, where there are many funeral homes, there is a vast difference in cost for the exact same service,” Croisant said. “And people who don’t pre-plan end up having to make a decision when they’re in a hurry and when there are time constraints, they’re distraught because of the death and emotionally not equipped to make the decisions.

“It’s a very large financial decision. You wouldn’t buy a car without comparison shopping. Why would you go to a funeral home without comparison shopping when the average cost of a funeral is going to be $10,000 or more?”

The Federal Trade Commission is considering whether to require funeral homes to post online a list of their fees for various services. Most local funeral homes provide a clear list online of their prices, the local funeral consumers group found. But some did not.

Meanwhile, the natural-burial alternative is just catching on in East Central Illinois — and the rest of the country, where only about 5 percent of burials are green, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

There’s only one exclusively natural cemetery in Illinois — about 250 miles away, at the Casper Creek Natural Cemetery near Galena. But at least one local cemetery has set aside an area for green burials, and a local conservation group is studying establishing its own natural cemetery.

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Sunset Memorial Park in Danville recently established its natural-burial area, called The Meadow, said Keri Darby, director of cemetery operations. It is located at the back of the cemetery, screened by shrubs and trees. A small pavilion has been built nearby where a simple committal service can be held.

“Four people are buried there, and a few others have prearranged it,” she said. “We do have a lot of interest in it, especially in the Champaign area.”

Sunset sells wicker and bamboo caskets for natural burials as well as a burlap shroud, all of which biodegrade along with the body.

“We also do cremation there with biodegradable urns,” Darby said. “If someone is being cremated and they want to use our natural-burial section, we offer that as well.”

Burial sites can go unmarked or can use an engraved granite stone that looks like a boulder, she said.

“Some people in the funeral industry, they’re not all gung-ho for it,” Darby admitted. “But it is something that families wanted, and we wanted to offer the service to them. It’s become more well known — maybe not loved by everyone — but the people who want it know they want it.”

Grand Prairie Friends, an Urbana-based volunteer conservation organization, has appointed an exploratory committee to look into establishing a conservation cemetery somewhere within its seven-county area of East Central Illinois.

“What we’re talking about is a conservation cemetery where green burials are done and everything is organic and nontoxic as much as possible,” said Karen Andsager, who is heading the exploratory committee. “Then after the cemetery is full, it’s allowed to return to its native habitat.”

The group is looking for a parcel of at least 20 acres that is not in a floodplain.

“We would prefer that it be next to property we already own” — in either Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, Vermilion, Douglas, Coles or Shelby counties — Andsager said. “The land we already own is already nature preserves or land and water preserves, and that land can’t be used as a cemetery. Finding the right piece of property is probably going to take a while.”

“The beauty of this project,” said Sarah Livesay, executive director of the Grand Prairie Friends, “is that it hits an entirely new audience, those people who may not even be conservation-minded but they may be drawn to be buried in a sustainable way. Or maybe they want to be buried in a beautiful space. At the end of the day, this is better for the earth, and that’s what we care about. Our mission is stewardship and sustainability of the earth.

“It’s a really beautiful way of saying that if we’re environmental stewards, then that doesn’t stop the day we die. We’re supposed to be good stewards all the way to the end. This is our way to really live and die our mission.”

Tom Kacich’s column appears Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at kacich@news-gazette.com.

Columnist

Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is tkacich@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).

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