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Posted on Mon, Aug. 02, 2004
Eternal Reefs
One company mixes cremated remains into a special concrete ball that becomes part of an ocean reef.
Eternal Reefs
Eternal Reefs“It's this sense you're a part of something that is making a significant contribution to the future and your life has some ongoing purpose,” said George Frankel, co-founder of Eternal Reefs.

Nurturing nature, even in death

The Kansas City Star

Anne Bolton can't wait for her next vacation, when she and her husband will drive 1,066 miles to see the place she'd like to be buried.

Even in death, life is full of choices.

“I like options,” she said. “And Americans love options.”

Bolton, 57, will trek from her home near Wichita to South Carolina to see a 33-acre nature preserve of woods and meadows, streams and rocks and burial plots spaced 30 per acre. The industry calls them green graves —no harmful embalming fluids, no vaults. The caskets, if they're used at all, are made of soft pine or even cardboard, always biodegradable. Grave markers blend in — an engraved rock or a native plant.

Bolton's ideal way to be buried is part of a growing trend of unique and personal funerals, many of which benefit the environment.

Another company offers a twist on the burial at sea, mixing cremated remains into a concrete ball that becomes part of a living reef.

“People in general are looking for ways to personalize funerals and celebrate lives in different ways,” said Robert Vandenbergh, past president of the National Funeral Directors Association and a funeral director in Michigan. “It's the final statement about someone's life and how they want to be remembered, and I think we're going to see more and more of that.”

Vandenbergh said traditional funeral homes also embrace the trend. At the funeral of one man who was a butcher, the service included a reconstructed butcher shop complete with tools, a butcher's block, signs and pictures. At another service 40 pumpkins were set up for a woman who had grown pumpkins for the neighborhood kids.

Funerals should reflect the person they honor, says Billy Campbell, founder of Memorial Ecosystems and creator of the South Carolina nature preserve.

“I've been to an awful lot of funerals where you leave and it just was not anything like what that person was like,” he said.

His company's preserve appeals to a variety of people of different faiths who want “a very traditional dust-to-dust approach,” he says.

“It's this idea of having a positive exchange between natural and human communities and knowing that something good can happen when you die, and you can leave a legacy.”

Such burials mean the money you spend on your burial goes to protecting native lands and species. Supporters say the graves are a more spiritual, serene place to visit.

The average cost of a burial with Memorial Ecosystems is $1,950 for burial plot, $250 for opening and closing of the grave and $25 for a stone to mark the plot. Conventional burials vary in price above and below that amount. The cost also does not include funeral services.

A second 33-acre preserve is planned for San Francisco this fall, and Memorial Ecosystems hopes to eventually open nature preserves in every state, said Kimberley Campbell, the company's vice president. If Memorial Ecosystems comes to Kansas, Bolton is hoping to be buried in a prairie.

While natural burial is expanding on land, another company is making forays into the ocean.

Some scuba diving college friends were concerned about deteriorating coral reefs and started building special concrete reefs to help replace them. One of their fathers asked that his cremated remains be put in one of the reefs so he could be part of the ocean life. That was the beginning of Eternal Reefs.

Remains are mixed into a hollow concrete ball and placed in the ocean at a specific latitude and longitude. Families often participate as the ball is built and placed. After about three months the reefs begin to grow sponges or coral until they become fully functioning reefs that benefit marine life. The company has placed more than 200 such reef balls in the ocean.

“The response has been overwhelming,” said George Frankel, co-founder of the company. “As word gets out more and more, interest is just growing dynamically.”

The cost ranges between $995 and $4,995, depending on the size. The price tag includes the cost of casting, transportation and placing the reef at the bottom of the ocean. It does not cover the cost of a funeral service or for a family to participate in the placement.

“People like the concept of giving back and being involved in something that continues to move forward,” Frankel said. “It's this sense you're a part of something that is making a significant contribution to the future and your life has some ongoing purpose.”

Amos Family Funeral Home in Kansas City provides information about Eternal Reefs to clients. “The way we look at it, if it's out there somewhere, we want to have that available for people who might be interested,” Gregg Amos, president, says. People like Bolton are happy about the growing range of options.

“My body's going to decay anyway, and I told my husband ‘just put me in my favorite T-shirt and jeans and some of my favorite things that will rot away — like definitely chocolate — and I'll be set,'” Bolton said. “Who could argue against this? It's giving back to the land, and we've got to start taking care of our grandchildren.”

To reach Sarah McCann, send e-mail to

To learn more

• Memorial Ecosystems: Burials in a nature preserve.

• Eternal Reefs: Burials in ocean reefs.

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