By Mackenzie Martin

The death care industry has undergone a lot of changes in recent years and it’s more than just that formal burials are down and cremations are up.

In the first of a two part series about death care in the Northwoods, we’ll hear about green funerals and how the job of a local funeral director has changed. WXPR’s Mackenzie Martin reports.

So it turns out, there are a lot of options when you’re planning a funeral, a lot more than there were 20 or 25 years ago.

Mike Bolger – of Bolger Funeral Home and Cremation Services in Minocqua and Woodruff – is the 4th generation of Funeral Directors in his family. His great grandfather started the business in 1896. In 1905 when Wisconsin started issuing licenses, his great grandfather and his two brothers were the 4th, 5th, and 6th licenses in the state.

A lot has changed since then. Bolger used to show up in a suit and tie with a hearse everytime he picked up a body, but today, his clothes are more casual and you’ll see him driving around town with just a van. In addition, in the last 10 years or so, he started hearing people – mostly those 50 and under – ask about “green funerals.”

“It’s the kids that are coming in,” Bolger says. “They’re hearing about the green movement, climate change, being environmentally friendly. And we have product on display so when they’re looking at it, they’re like well, this isn’t what mom and dad would take, but this is what I want.”

The idea behind green funerals is to simply bury the body in a more environmentally friendly way. You forgo embalming – which uses toxic chemicals – and cremations – which release pollution back into the environment – for a biodegradable coffin or shroud. You also skip the concrete burial vault. The goal is the body’s natural return to the soil. That being said, many people choose greener products, but don’t go for the full green burial. Bolger invested in green funeral products about five years ago.

At Bolger’s Funeral Home, there is a wall called “The Natural Choice.” On it are biodegradable urns, like one made of seasalt. You can put the ashes in the urn and drop it into a lake and it’ll sink to the bottom and dissolve.

We should be clear that Bolger isn’t the only funeral home in the Northwoods that offers greener products, he just happens to have a page dedicated to them on his website and is who we ended up talking to for this story.

Other products include suits made of mushrooms and other microorganisms that break down the body and transfer nutrients to the soil after a green burial.

There is also a type of green cremation called alkaline hydrolysis that isn’t legal yet in Wisconsin. Even if it was legal, it could cost a provider hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy their first unit.

Even with all of the products that are legal in Wisconsin, one couldn’t have an official green burial in the Northwoods, because there aren’t any officially green cemeteries. You’d either have to transport the body down to southern Wisconsin, or you’d have to bury the body on your own property. And all of that involves a lot of paperwork. The paperwork is something a funeral director could walk you through, though in Wisconsin, you’re not legally bound to hire one. A lot of these rules vary from state to state.

“Nationwide, it is definitely on the rise and people are being more cognisant of what to do with the body afterwards,” Bolger says. “More or less in the Northwoods, it’s in its infancy right now. So I really have not done a green funeral. We have sold some green product.”

In addition to the environmental friendly aspect and simplicity of green funerals, there’s another reason people are being drawn to them. They’re cheaper, just like cremation was when it came on the scene. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, funerals with viewing and burial typically come in at a little over $7,000. It costs on average $1,000 more if you include a concrete vault – something typically required by cemeteries. A green funeral or a simple cremation on the other hand can cost just a few thousand dollars. And it’s changing the death care industry.

“There are people where if you don’t talk about it, it won’t happen,” Bolger says. “And that’s what happened with cremation. If you don’t talk about cremation, if you don’t price cremation… If you don’t show urns, then families won’t pick cremation. Well, I think they’re starting to find out that, you know, you have to serve the public and what they might want.”

The National Funeral Directors Association says that over half of Americans are cremated, but Bolger thinks the number is closer to 80% in the Northwoods because families up here are so scattered throughout the country. With cheaper options out there in addition to cremation like green funerals and home funerals, he says his job has evolved a lot over the years and continues to evolve… but he’s okay with it.

“You might say, more or less, that I’m kind of a rebel when it comes to funeral service,” Bolger says. “And I think there are just too many funeral directors that are stuck in the past. We have to evolve and give families what they want. As far as if they want to have a home funeral, I’m certainly going to help them. I think some funeral directors look at it from a monetary standpoint, but it’s not really about that. It’s about helping families through a tough time and giving them the options to meet their needs that are going to help them through that.”

Bolger says with any funeral home, you should always be able to call and get some information at no obligation.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.

For more information on green funerals:

For more information on funeral laws in Wisconsin:

For more national funeral statistics:

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