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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

For some people, a green burial is their culminating climate-sensitive act

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Forest Home Cemetery
Visiting Forest Home Cemetery's green burial area convinced retired teacher Katharyn Kominiarek she'd like to help "push up the daisies" one day.
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Susan Bence
Debra Marcus Watton is president of Goodman Bensman Funeral Home. Her dog Junie is trained and certified to provide support to grieving families.

Sitting in her office in Whitefish Bay, Debra Marcus Watton says the concept of a green burial is in keeping with Jewish practices, “because we believe in modesty and simplicity and a natural return to the earth,” Watton says.

Watton is president of Goodman-Bensman Funeral Home. It historically served Jewish families, but Watton says today it serves everyone.

“So in the Jewish faith, like the green burial, we use a biodegradable casket. We use traditional white linen shrouds. We try to avoid any cosmeticizing or anything artificial or unnatural in the burial of our loved ones,” Watton says.

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Goodman-Bensman Funeral Home
This simple unvarnished pine box is a customary choice for Jewish burials.

Simplicity is just what retired teacher Katharyn Kominiarek wants when she dies, but settling on a green burial was a journey.

She knew what she didn’t want. “I knew that I didn’t want to be buried like my parents are, with the vault and the casket,” Kominiarek says.

She says cremation seemed her most logical choice. But gradually, she picked up bits of information about green burials, starting a decade ago.

“My partner and I went to a farmers market and one of the exhibits was on green burial so we brought home a few brochures, looked at them, and didn’t do anything more about it,” Kominiarek explains.

Five years later, she attended the green burial of a friend’s husband. But it took a field trip to make up Kominiarek ‘s mind.

Susan Bence
Katharyn Kominiarek (left) and partner Sharon Sullivan decided on green burials.

She toured Forest Home Cemetery, expecting to be wowed by its majestic trees and Milwaukee dignitaries’ memorials, until "the gentleman talked about the green burial space,” Kominiarek says.

The group toured a simple prairie tucked in a more remote corner of the cemetery.

“it was beginning summertime, so the prairie flowers were starting to come up, I couldn’t think of a more beautiful (place). Within a couple of months, we purchased sites there,” Kominiarek says.

Forest Home Sales Manager Kevin Rutherford, the gentleman who led Kominiarek’s tour, showed WUWM the green burial area that Forest Home calls Prairie Rest.

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Susan Bence
Kevin Rutherford says spring and summer will bring the return of prairie splendor to Forest Homes' green burial area.

“It stretches all the way out to those trees over there,” Rutherford says.

Instead of individual headstones, a list of names and dates of those buried here are etched on boulders at the prairie’s edge. Families are provided GPS coordinates, so they know exactly where their loved one is.

Although traditional burials and cremations still far outnumber green burials here, Rutherford says he receives daily inquiries about “green.”

“I think a lot of people are signing up because they understand the embalming process, the chemicals that go in you. That’s one big factor. Another one is the saving. You’re going to eliminate a lot of costs, (an) expensive waterproof casket, a vault,” Rutherford explains.

He points to a nearby headstone. “That’s about $5,000,” Rutherford says.

Susan Bence
Jeff Kleczka says although a small fraction of their clients have chosen green burial, he's committed to offer the option.

Jeff Kleczka says he started exploring green burials when Forest Home opened its green burial section.

Kleczka and his brother co-own Prasser-Kleczka Funeral Homes in Bay View.

"My brother and I recognized very quickly that this is something that would appeal to people who are looking for a more natural, more simple way to leave the earth,” Kleczka says.

Kleczka says they’re proud to provide the option, and share it with every family they work with. Are Kleczka’s clients responding?

“For 2021, green burial accounted for just under two percent of families that we helped. I had said to my brother back in 2009 when we started marketing green burial, if it was one percent of our business, I would consider it wildly successful.” Kleczka adds, “it has just taken a little bit longer for that to take hold.”

Kleczka believes one factor is that only a handful Wisconsin cemeteries set aside space for green burial.

He admires people who make green burial their final act. “It’s the type of disposition for a person to make a statement about how they felt about the world rather than just themselves,” Kleczka says.

Retired teacher Katharyn Kominiarek says she and her partner are happy with their choice.

“Right away, I realized this is perfect,” she says simply.

After she’s gone, Kominiarek wants her friends and family to celebrate her life with a glass of champagne. That’s part of her plan too.

Susan Bence speaks with Edward Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council, about the benefits of green burials and what to know if you're planning one.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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