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More Montanans are considering 'green burials'

A shovel in a shallow grave.
photographer/Getty Images/iStockphoto
A grave being dug.

Some Montana residents are exploring ways to make death more eco-friendly. It’s known as a green burial. That means no headstones, no coffins and no embalming.

Jo Gmazel and her husband Matt Bartley often talked about death, but the conversations were lighthearted and full of 'what ifs.'

"And one of the things that he had always said was, when he died, just wrap him in a white sheet and leave him in the woods," Gmazel says.

When they were in their forties, Bartley died in a boating accident. It took two years before his remains were found in a wooded area along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

"And the sheriff just said, you know, I want to do the right thing and it seems to me that the right thing would be to leave him, you know, just to let him rest in peace. And I said, absolutely, it would have been his wish."

The decision to leave her husband’s remains in the woods catalyzed Gmazel’s interest in what would eventually happen to her own body. She began to explore green burial practices.

A green burial aims for the complete decomposition of the body as soon as possible rather than preserving the body with chemicals and barriers. That means no headstones, no coffins and no embalming.

In Montana, green burials can occur on privately owned land or in one of a few registered green public cemeteries.

"There absolutely is an emotional connection,"Gmazel says," but, beyond that, it also speaks to my desire to have a lighter footprint on the planet and have, just, a more gentle ending."

It’s unclear how many Montanans choose green burials, but a 2022 survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association found that about 60% of respondents were considering a green funeral option, up from about 50% in 2019.

Dokken-Nelson Funeral Home in Bozeman is the only funeral home in Montana certified by the Green Burial Council, which advocates for national green burial standards.

Manager and funeral director Stephanie Peterson says she regularly gets questions about the service.

"As time goes on, I think more and more people are interested in, kind of, being a little kinder to the earth and what they want to do to have the least of an impact as possible, and green burial is actually even better for the environment than cremation," Peterson says.

Green burial advocates say the process produces fewer fossil fuels than cremation and uses fewer resources, like cement, hardwood and water, that go into the preparation and upkeep of a burial in a cemetery. The Green Burial Council estimates that the United States funeral industry uses 1.6 million tons of concrete, 20 million board feet of hardwood and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid every year

Peterson believes that Montana’s large outdoor culture drives interest in green burials.

"We see a lot of people out hiking, you know, loving the land, fishing, camping, doing all sorts of things like that, so I think it’s probably an emotional way to continue that in their passing and respect how they were in life through their, you know, final disposition."

A study from the University of North Carolina found that people considered simplicity, financial cost, becoming part of nature and environmental sustainability when choosing a green burial. They often didn’t consider religion and cultural tradition important to their decision.

Missoula Cemetery superintendent Brett Gilman says other decisions about death are often rooted in tradition, and cultural shifts in how people believe they should be buried could be slow to change.

"A lot of the older generation were raised that way," Gilman says. "That’s how their family was buried, that’s how they want to be buried. And I would say the second contributing factor is religion."

Matt Bartley died in 2003 and his body was left to rest where he died on the banks of a river he loved to raft. Jo Gmazel finds comfort in that.

Gmazel continues to explore options for her own burial some day, but she is sure of one thing: much like her husband, she wants an end that honors simplicity and natural connections.

"It seems to me that that’s exactly the kind of thing that I want is a hole in the ground. You’re lowered in without a casket. You’re just lowered in with ropes, and you’re buried, and the earth takes you back."

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