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Thursday, April 29,2010

Dust to Dust

By Elizabeth Miller
Local man makes coffins out of beetle-kill pine for green burials

When Luc Nadeau pulls out a fresh piece of wood, roughly the size for a coffin lid, he gives it a quick inspection. He notes the knots, the blue, purple and occasional orange stains left from the pine bark beetle that killed the tree, the pocks and holes from the second round of beetles that passed through the wood. He checks his measurements in a notebook he keeps near his work table, marks out the measurements to preserve the most aesthetically pleasing of the stains and knots, and cuts.

The sound of the handsaw and the smell of sawdust fill the alley behind the garage he uses as a base for Nature’s Casket.

Nadeau crafts and sells caskets made of sustainably harvested pine beetlekill wood. The caskets are designed for use as part of a movement for green burials, a burial without embalming, in a biodegradable container or shroud made of non-toxic materials, designed to use less energy and emit less carbon. Green burials provide a way for people who have lived in an environmentally conscious way to see to it that their burial does not add carbon or toxins to the environment.

Nadeau runs Nature’s Casket alongside several other green businesses.

Those businesses include PaintScape, an environmentally friendly paint business, Evolve Electrics, a company that sells electric vehicle components and has done a few conversions from gas to electric, and RecycledGreetingCards.com.

Which business he devotes his day to depends on the season — summers are better for painting. Cooler weather is better suited to projects like casket building.

But even on a spring afternoon, he wears evidence of his multi-tasking — his clothes are spattered with paint, then become dusted in sawdust.

The first casket from Nature’s Casket sold in the summer of 2009 to a man who bought it for his father, who was buried in Crestone Cemetery. Nadeau’s idea for the business was sparked five years earlier, but at the time, his online research on environmentally friendly burials showed that there was more interest in the U.K. than in the U.S. So he waited until U.S. cemeteries started making space for natural burials.

A 2007 Funeral and Burial Planners Survey from the AARP showed that 86 percent of respondents, all over the age of 50, had not heard of a green burial option. But 21 percent of them were very interested or interested in a more environmentally friendly burial.

“The first thing everybody asks is why I got into the business,” he says. “I don’t know what made me think caskets would have been a good thing to do.”

The carpentry for caskets is pretty straightforward, he says, and he enjoys working with the wood, which he describes as having “good character.” But it was the search for another green business, and the pine beetle epidemic, that really set him in this direction.

“When I heard about the pine beetle epidemic — especially the fact that it’s turning the wood blue and changing the grain from what probably would have been a low-grade wood to something I think is a lot more appealing — I just knew something had to be done,” he says.

Nadeau works to use that wood in a way that decreases carbon emissions. He also offsets shipping and harvesting by donating $10 for each casket sold to the Colorado Carbon Fund. The Carbon Fund gave Nature’s Casket a negative carbon footprint, giving it a greenhouse gas footprint of -69.3kg of carbon dioxide per casket.

“My business actually takes carbon out and puts it in the ground,” he says.

The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Fe, encourages sustainable death care and the use of burial to protect natural areas. The organization maintains standards for burial grounds and green burial businesses in an effort to commit cemetery operators and business owners to transparency, accountability and some third-party oversight. Nature’s Casket is listed as one of their approved providers.

Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, says of Nadeau: “He’s a shining example of how this should be done.”

Some burial grounds on the approved list have very strict requirements for all the materials used in burials, and Sehee says Nadeau worked to swap out stains and glues to meet these burial grounds’ standards.

Sehee attended the International Cremation Cemetery Funeral Association’s annual conference in early March, and his booth faced one that had one of Nadeau’s caskets on display.

“It’s really beautiful,” he says. “It doesn’t look like anything people have ever seen. … His caskets are really rough-looking — there’s no lining, but there’s this rugged beauty to it.”

In the context of a green burial, he says, caskets are supposed to function more like baskets — temporary holding structures. But people have become accustomed to more ornate caskets, he says, noting, “We’ve been burying furniture for a long time.”

In the U.S. every year, according to Sehee, enough concrete is buried as vaults that support the ground to build a two-lane highway from New York City to Detroit. Enough metal is buried to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge.

A conventional burial also requires embalming, and the fluid used to embalm is carcinogenic — a health consideration for funeral workers. Wood used in conventional coffins is treated with toxic chemicals and often isn’t sustainably harvested.

“There’s nothing that stands out as the one thing that’s bad,” Nadeau says. “I think it’s really more of a cumulative thing from an environmental standpoint.”

A green burial skips the chemical embalming and the treated-wood coffins. A conservation burial — a more involved green burial — will even preserve the landscape in its natural state, rather than converting it to a neatly manicured lawn. Nature’s Casket coffins aren’t built to last, he says. They’re built to decay with the body as quickly as possible.

“I think what we’re discovering is that Americans just don’t understand their options,” Sehee says. “Most think they have to have embalming to have a funeral.”

But, he says, that standard has been pushed by funeral homes for health and aesthetic reasons, and no state law requires it.

Nadeau says he thinks people just don’t know enough about conventional burials to feel motivated to look for other options. “If they knew everything that happens with it,” he says, “it’s not the way they would want to be buried.”

His business comes from two types of people, divided roughly in half, perhaps with a little overlap: “the people interested in being as green as possible — going out without a big footprint, and those who just want a simple pine box.”

Usually he gets the call for an order from a family member. Once, he says, a man called and said he liked the caskets, and wanted to know if Nadeau could make an emblem of a chickadee for the coffin lid. A month later his wife called to place the order after the man had died.

“That’s one that kind of gets to you a little bit,” he says.

The most tragic one, he says, was a 14-year-old girl who died in a skiing accident. Her family purchased an unassembled casket, then decorated and assembled it together.

“I don’t know if there could be a much more life-affirming process,” he says. “In a way I feel … Honored isn’t the right word.”

Nadeau is working with a group that’s trying to create a green burial ground in Boulder County. Karen Van Buren, who runs Natural Transitions, an organization that helps people manage home funerals and home burials, met Nadeau when he attended one of the early planning meetings. She now regularly refers people interested in green burials to Nadeau.

“Families just really think his caskets are beautiful,” she says. “And they feel good about buying them because they come from a good source.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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