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Environmentalist Targets Funeral Industry To Decrease 'Final Footprint'

EL GRANADA (CBS 5) - If you've spent your life treading lightly on the environment, you'll probably want to give some thought to the impact of your death. Many Californians are going with burials - with a twist - so they can remain green to the grave.

Jane Hillhouse shook her head at the enormity of the comparison.

"That's what blew me away when I started investigating," she said. "We bury a Golden Gate Bridge every year in steel."

All that steel goes into the ground every year in North America alone, plus enough concrete to build a highway between New York and Detroit - And it's all in caskets and burial vaults.

"Why not be buried in a natural state where you can go back to the earth?" Hillhouse asked.

Hillhouse has spent a lot of time researching the ecological impact of death, and she doesn't see cremation as any better than a metal-laden coffin.

"It's hugely energy intensive, the burning," she explained.

Cremations can also release pollutants into the air - the most worrisome of which may be mercury from the dental work of the deceased. But Hillhouse has an alternative. Her company, Final Footprint, sells biodegradable coffins from her home in El Granada. They're crafted from rattan, willow, bamboo, sea grass, or banana leaf.

"They're hugely better because they are made from sustainably raised products," Hillhouse said, showing off a display of caskets that look much like large baskets.

The eco-friendly aspect is what appealed to Janet Cobb of Berkeley, when the time came to arrange her mother's funeral.

"She grew up in Nebraska - Monroe, Nebraska - Farm country," Cobb remembered, pointing out her mother in an old family photo.

Nothing seemed more appropriate for this one-time farm girl's final resting place than a ecologically friendly casket. Cobb chose sea grass.

"It came in a muslin case and it was absolutely beautiful," she said.

The funeral industry is big business. Wood and metal caskets cost thousands. The eco-caskets cost about $1,000 or less. But Cobb said her choice shocked the funeral director.

"They said, 'Now what about the casket?'," Cobb Recalled. "I said, 'Well, I have it in my car.' And I thought really he was going to faint."

Cobb also elected to go without embalming.

"The idea of not putting formaldehyde and all these things into the ground - I mean, I don't know who's thinking that we're going to be getting up to dance or something," she added with a wry smile.

More people are going the same ecological way: Jane Hillhouse's business has doubled in the last 2 years. She says it's about changing a mindset.

"People want to be remembered in a very grand way when they're dead and I think we green people don't feel that way. We feel we've done what we can for the world and that we just return to the earth."

The eco-caskets are welcome at most cemeteries. For those who want to be even closer to nature, and go without a casket at all, there are a growing number of "natural burial sites" in California.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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