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Central Standard

Changes Abound In The Funeral Industry, But Kansas City Lags Behind

Andrea Tudhope
Highland Cemetery, a small plot in Prairie Village, Kansas, is one of only a handful of cemeteries in and around the metropolitan area that offers green burial. Others can be found in Lansing, Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, and Columbia, Missouri.

On a recent episode of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me, Peter Sagal and his guests joked about a new opportunity afforded to those near death.

Thanks to AIM Holographics, you can now leave behind a holographic eulogy for your loved ones.

You can now, effectively, speak at your own funeral. 

This isn't the only development transforming death and the death care industry. Over the past few decades, the trend of "green burials" has been picking up all across the nation.

"Green burial is essentially the burial of an unembalmed body in a vaultless grave that's situated in a natural setting, allowing the body to decay and rejoin the elements," Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters, told KCUR's Gina Kaufmann on Central Standard.

It's becoming a popular option, but this is only the beginning of a movement, and not everyone is up to speed.

"Kansas City is kind of a different community when it comes to changes in the funeral industry," said Brandon Shlitzer, funeral director at Muehlebach Funeral Care in Kansas City, Missouri.

According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Kansas City, only three cemeteries surrounding the metropolitan area offer green funeral services: Mount Muncie Cemetery in Lansing, Kansas, Green Acres in Columbia, Missouri, and Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas, which became the first natural cemetery in Kansas in 2008.

Other smaller cemeteries closer to the metro area are beginning to offer green burials, like Highland Cemetery in Prairie Village, Kansas. Though Muehlebach provides a few options, Shlitzer says there's just not much demand here.

There is demand, however, for simple and easy burial and funeral services.

"This is kind of hard to say and fathom, but some people just see death as an inconvenience," Shlitzer said. "People don't want to deal with having to make all these arrangements, they just want it to be done. That's where the shift is going."

Along those lines, both Shlitzer and Eric Montegna, funeral director at Meierhoffer Funeral Home & Crematory in St. Joseph, Missouri, cite a 35 percent rise in cremation rates in greater Kansas City.

"Tradition is an important part of death," Montegna said. "But what's important now is to honor and live the traditions that were important in your family and community. Whether you're buried, cremated or choose another option is becoming less important."

Furthermore, green burial is not exactly unorthodox. In fact, Harris says, for the first 150 years of this country's history, green burial was the default burial method.

People died at home, family and friends cared for the dead at home, and typically, they were buried at or near the home in a plain pine box — no metal vaults or chemical preservation. It was during the Civil War that surgeons began embalming the bodies of those who died on the battlefield for the train ride back home.

Unlike holographic eulogies, green burial is neither an entirely new nor a technologically advanced phenomenon. By comparison to typical burial practices, this approach is practical and grounded, and Harris believes that it both allows for simpler funeral services, and a celebration and honoring of life.

"Death is hard, but [the idea of] returning to a natural environment where your body is reincorporated into the natural elements, where one is visibly able to see the effect of your remains nourishing an environment. You could really live on, a part of you could nurture nature," Harris said. "Death is a part of life and life is a part of death. I think that's terribly affirming and, in an odd way, very inspiring."

Andrea Tudhope is a freelance contributor for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @adtudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.