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Colorado Families Share Process Of How New Legal 'Green Funerals' Work

LAFAYETTE, Colo. (CBS4) - Less than a month after Colorado became the second state to legalize body composting as a funeral service, interest continues to grow in alternative options for families looking to leave their loved ones at peace with the earth in an environmentally conscious method.

"It just felt really right for me and for my son Graham," said Michele Bourgeois, the mother of Graham Hebert. Her son died at the beginning of the year. "He transitioned in water, he loved water, it felt very gentle to me."

He fell through Blue Heron Lake on New Year's Day. Family and friends as well as a search and rescue team with dogs spent 38 days before finding his body. The sudden loss of her son did not prepare her for the decision she had to make for his funeral. She did not feel like a traditional burial was right, the thought of her son in a box inside of another box did not sit well with her.

hebert flyer pic
Graham Hebert (credit: Michele Bourgeois)

"His spiritual essence and his love are always right there and that will never change," she told CBS4. "This process has brought blessings that I realized can coexist."

She remembers her son as a soulful and spiritual person. Someone who was thoughtful and also in the moment, so a water cremation felt like the appropriate option. Even though he lost his life in water, his mother says Hebert loved the water and it was the right transition for him to in his spiritual path.

"Becoming informed when we are thoughtful is important, people are very vulnerable when they lose a loved one. You don't expect it. Even if you know it's coming, it's still a shock," Bourgeois said. "I like the idea of water, it feels natural, it feels gentle."

For a water cremation, the body is placed in a vessel like a bathtub with dimensions of two feet by two feet by seven feet. Warm water and natural chemicals are added as the body is slowly rocked in 15 second integrals a few degrees in either direction. The process can last 90 minutes to two hours until the cremated bone remains are returned to the family. The liquid essence of the body as well as the nutrients and the minerals help farms to graze fields for alfalfa or flowers. A portion of the liquid can also be returned to the family, Bourgeois used some of the liquid for her son's memorial tree.

"We're focused on decisions that families can make and offerings that we can extend to them that put earth first," said Seth Viddal, an owning partner of The Natural Funeral. "The body is actually converted into something that is a gift when returned back to the earth."

Viddal experienced several deaths in his family with loved ones close to him. He wanted to work in this field after that and has used his background in construction to help this business navigate the innovative side of funeral services, including body composting. The loss of his mother and a younger brother help him to understand what families face when they ask for these services. He wishes he knew more about these options for his family and hopes more people will be informed before that day comes for them.

"I was led by the heart into this field," he said. "When they walk in our door and they've spent their life hiking in nature, composting in their backyard, recycling their soda cans, and really trying to do what's right for the planet in their living decisions, it makes sense to them to consider what's right for the planet in my death decisions."

Charles Luna says his wife, Shelia, was one of the original environmentally conscious people to live in any community they called home. She was ahead of the curve, well before the movement became popular. As a thought leader, clinical herbalist, and nutritionist, he was not surprised when she mentioned a natural burial. But even that concept of occupying space did not seem right to her, nor did a flame cremation polluting the air and using energy. A water cremation interested her and the couple had the chance to talk about it while she was at the hospital getting treated for terminal cancer. He believes it was the perfect culmination for her system of values, and the process was what she would have wanted and it pleased their family.

(credit: CBS)

Even though they had time to discuss a funeral, Luna could not have prepared for losing his wife when she was 52. He hopes more families have this conversation earlier so they become more aware of all the options available.

"Shelia would very much have wanted to give back to the earth certainly until the very end and I feel like, yes, she absolutely got the chance to do that," Luna told CBS4. "It can certainly fulfill the values that you had in life and make it sort of, as you close as you possibly can, this sort of glorious celebration of someone's life."

Body composting became legal in Colorado on Sept. 7 and The Natural Funeral had their first family begin this process on Sept. 22. It will take between five to six months for the body to convert into a soil. While the business offers a more traditional burial and a flame cremation service, an option that continues to become more popular, they are finding an increasing curiosity in their services that offer a lower carbon footprint. Viddal says it matches the lifestyle many people have pursued their whole lives, especially in Colorado.

"Their eyes light up and they say, 'I've lived my life as an environmentalist, as an activist, it only makes sense for me to make a decision right now that similarly values the planet,'" Viddal said of some of his clients. "This isn't the flip of a switch and all of a sudden, my loved one's body has disappeared, this is a natural, a biologically managed natural process that's going to take several months and I can relate to that. "

While water cremation allows for a process some prefer, others see body composting as a journey for their loved one. He compares this decision to that of becoming an organ donor. The cost can come close to the more traditional services, water cremation at $3900 versus $2200 for a flame cremation. Body composting has a higher cost because of the time commitment required, $7900. But a traditional burial can be $2900 plus the plot of land requires several thousand dollars in addition at locations around the metro area.

"It is so exciting to be in an ancient field and providing for families what's been necessary for thousands of years but to actually be on the cutting edge or the tip of the spear in how we deliver those services to families," Viddal said. "It's a blessing to sit across from someone who can integrate the knowledge that their loved one's body is going to be converted into something that is a loving gift back to the earth."

body composting
(credit: CBS)

The chance to be innovators and help people during such a dark time has influenced their approach even to the setup inside their business. They try to add light to the room as much as possible and provide urns from local artists to help brighten the experience. This not only includes their office but the chapel they have at the same location. They look to cooperate with other funeral home firms as they help others learn about body composting as a service. Viddal says they visited Washington state and learned from three other firms there before developing their method in Colorado. The Natural Funeral also offers body care services, which let family members wash and dress their loved ones.

"That very understanding begins in them a process of healing, a process of understanding that their loved one is active in the cycle of life, even though they have died, they are active in the cycle of life," he said.

Luna says it is important for people to have a full understanding of these options and to make their wishes known. He says these more sustainable services do not have to be separated from spiritual beliefs and traditional aspects of a funeral. He says their family got to include those elements but above all, he is grateful for the role he played in his wife's final act.

"I got to help, with her, plan out what this going to be, so with her I got to write that last chapter," he said.

Bourgeois said she also felt a spiritual and divine connection for her son through water cremation. The body care experience was also important to her as one last time with her son before she says his spirit transitioned. His memory lives on in many ways for her, she bikes 30 miles on trips in honor of his age of 30. She will do one for each of the 38 days they were looking for him. She has already completed nine rides so far. Biking through bridges and tunnels feels symbolic for her. The healing process continues for her, Bourgeois says this experience has shown her that deep sadness and longing for a loved one can take place at the same time she remembers the bright light her son was in her life. On her bike rides, she wears a jersey that includes words from a poem her son wrote before he passed.

"I'm lost and gone but I am here now. Where are you? Have we crossed the same ground," she recited of her son's poem. "Think of me and I'll think of you. Together we'll be in a place we once knew."


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