Place co-creation in death care: Opportunities to overcome obstacles to green burial in the United States

Doctoral Candidate Name: 
Hannah Palko
Geography and Urban Regional Analysis

Green burial places are cemeteries and funeral homes that embrace green burial practices by providing green burial funeral services and educating their clients about green burial options. A green burial place within a cemetery may be a part or whole cemetery that is dedicated to following green burial protocol. Green burial involves the use of biodegradable containers rather than steel or hardwood caskets. The decedent is not embalmed and is buried directly in the ground instead of within a burial vault. The grave is typically more shallow than contemporary burials; this encourages natural decomposition of the body. Green burial places within cemeteries are designated areas where green burials can happen and can contribute to the overall ecological well-being of the land.

Although not new in concept, green burial places are not as abundant or accessible as green burial advocates such as the Green Burial Council, International 501(c)(3) non-profit would like. Compared to contemporary burial in the United States, green burial has greater ecological and social benefits, as it reduces resource consumption standard to contemporary burial and supports regulatory and social ecosystem services. However, there are many funeral homes and cemeteries who do not currently provide green burial. Therefore, this dissertation asks and answers the overarching question: What are the opportunities for successful green burial placemaking that address the obstacles faced and anticipated by death care professionals?

This dissertation uses qualitative methods, specifically grounded theory methods, to answer the overarching question. I do this via three lines of inquiry: 1) examining obstacles to green burial placemaking that are presented by a sample of funeral directors from across the United States (§5.1 - §5.3), 2) Analyzing current death care consumers’ awareness of and attitudes towards green burial (§5.3 - §5.4), and 3) Uncovering the opportunities that successful green burial placemakers employed to successful create green burial places (§5.5 - §5.7).

The key methods used in this study are semi-structured interviews and online surveys, which have produced robust qualitative data. Semi-structured interviews were used to ascertain the perspectives and experiences of funeral industry professionals who have successfully started and continue to operate a green cemetery. The purpose of these interviews is to provide an understanding of the local and regional obstacles to green burial provision that death care providers anticipated, faced, and overcame. A total of nine interviews were conducted, and ten people were interviewed. In one case, the semi-structured interview involved two interviewees. The interviewees represented green burial cemeteries across the Mid-Atlantic States of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Two questionnaires were developed to understand obstacles at a national level. The first questionnaire was targeted towards funeral directors; the questions were targeted to understand funeral directors’ level of knowledge about green burial, their willingness to provide green burial to their families, and the obstacles that they anticipate or currently face when considering whether to provide green burial. The second questionnaire, informed by both the interviews and the responses from the funeral directors, was directed at death care consumers—adults in the United States, eighteen years or older. The purpose of this survey was to explore one specific obstacle that death care providers have identified: there is not a market for green burial, i.e. no one knows about green burial and therefore no one asks for green burial. The consumer survey in the proposed research asks consumers to explain what they would like to have happen to their body after death. Consumers are then presented with the definition of green burial and asked if this is something that they would be interested in. Responses are again analyzed using grounded theory methods.

The grounded theory that emerges from the proposed research will make contributions on two fronts. First, the knowledge will directly benefit the Green Burial Council International 501(c)3, a non-profit whose mission is to make green burial more accessible via educational outreach to both death care providers and consumers. As a member of the board of directors, I am committed to making practical use of the knowledge uncovered in this research. Second, this research will contribute to the scholarly pursuit present and legitimized by Palko (2021) to understand the relationships between death care decision-making and ecological and social consciousness.

Defense Date and Time: 
Friday, July 1, 2022 - 10:00am
Defense Location:
Committee Chair's Name: 
Dr. Wei-Ning Xiang
Committee Members: 
Dr. Heather Smith, Dr. Sara Gagne, and Dr. Susan Harden