Eco-Friendly Funerals with Passages International’s Darren Crouch

October 15, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Darren Crouch. He’s the co-founder and President of Passages International. Welcome to Green is Good, Darren. DARREN CROUCH: Thank you very much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Darren. Before we get talking about all the important and cool things you’re doing at Passages International, I’d love you to share the Darren Crouch story. Tell us a little bit about the journey leading up to co-founding and becoming the President of Passages International. DARREN CROUCH: Sure. Well, I was born in the northwest of rainy England, and shortly thereafter moved to the Caribbean for a few years with my parents when I was one or two. But I spent most of my formative years in southern Africa. I lived in Botswana for nine years and Lesotho for three years and Swaziland for a couple of years, and back in the ’70s and the ’80s that area was pretty much third world, and so we were used to power outages, water shortages. Although parts of that area are very rich in minerals and raw materials, water was always an issue, particularly in Botswana. That really stuck with me growing up, to really be conscious of our resources and conserve as much as we could. When I graduated high school, I moved back to England in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and went to college there. From college, did an externship here in New Mexico, where I met my wife. My wife’s family are second-generation funeral directors, so that is where the connection, and that was the introduction to me of the funeral industry back in the late ’90s. That’s my story in a nutshell. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s a great story. For our listeners out there that want to follow along and see all the great things Darren is doing at Passages International, please go on his website, as I am right now. It’s passagesinternational.com. Darren, we’re going to be talking about greening the funeral industry and making your last decision a green one. Can you please start from square one, though, with us and our listeners, and share what does today in 2014 a green funeral look like? DARREN CROUCH: Well, I think just like everything else, there are many shades of green, but typically, when you talk about a green funeral, it generally will not involve embalming, which is basically removing the fluids of your body and replacing them with formaldehyde. It will not involve a traditional casket, i.e. metal or wood. It will not involve a concrete vault, which usually is placed in the ground around the casket to protect it. It will not involve a traditional granite headstone, that type of thing. It’s a much more sustainable way primarily of being buried, and the idea, obviously, is that your idea is not preserved, rather it goes back into the environment and helps sustain life for the future. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. Give a little of history, Darren, because I don’t know much about this at all. What was being done 200 years ago in our country? Was that how people were buried then, and embalming is something that has evolved over time, and now we’re going to go back and do it the way it was sustainably 200 years ago? Explain a little bit the history of funerals and how people were buried 200-250 years ago in the United States and other places in the world, and how embalming took over, and now you’re taking us back to a simpler and more sustainable way of making our final decisions really green and sustainable ones. DARREN CROUCH: Sure. I mean, I think like many parts of the world, a couple hundred years ago, there was no embalming. A body was buried in the ground sometimes, in a simple box sometimes, just directly in the ground, and the body returned to the Earth. I think where embalming really became popular and became more of the norm was during the Civil War, when soldiers from the North would be killed in the battlefields in the South, and there was really no way to get them home. In those days, I think it was like ice in railcars, and that obviously was not a very good way to do it, when you’re taking an individual thousands of miles. The process came about during the Civil War and became pretty common then. I think after the Civil War, it just became more or less the norm. I mean, embalming goes back to Egyptian times, obviously, but in most parts of the world, it certainly is not the norm. That’s the case to this day. And so what we’re saying is there has to be a simpler, more sustainable way to do this, and a more meaningful way, in many cases, to return our loved ones to the Earth. We don’t need to be preserving people’s bodies. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. You started Passages International back in 1999 or so. 15 years in business, although it’s relatively short in many ways, it’s still a long time to be evolving a business, and especially since the sustainability revolution has taken off and has so much velocity now, the intersection of your business thriving and the green revolution now in overdrive, what have you seen in terms of the greening and the acceptance and the adoption of what you’re trying to accomplish? How has that evolved? Explain the last 15 years a little bit for our listeners. DARREN CROUCH: Well, I guess a couple of comments. One is that most people experience a death every seven years, luckily. We don’t want to be dealing with it very often, right? But because people deal with this so infrequently, they’re not exposed to a lot of the trends and what’s going on. For example, if you go to the grocery store, you’re going to notice all the organic produce or all the sustainable products that are now available. But when you go to a funeral once every seven years — and that’s when most people go when a death occurs to a funeral home — you’re not exposed to very much information. Our company has grown significantly and grows every year, but I think one of the things that has held us back a little bit is the fact that people know they can go to the Toyota dealership and buy a Toyota Prius. They know they can go the grocery store and buy organic produce. They know they can buy carbon offsets when they fly on an airplane. But they don’t know when a loved one suddenly dies, that they can make decisions that will green that process. It doesn’t have to be no embalming, wrapping the body in a shroud in a hand-dug grave in a field. That would sort of be the greenest extreme. There are many shades of green. People can make many decisions that will make the process much greener and more sustainable, and often are less expensive. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We love giving solutions to our listeners out there. Can you share some of the shades of green and examples of how our listeners can green their funeral or their loved one’s funeral, now that you’ve created and produced and that your great company, Passages International, is promoting? DARREN CROUCH: Sure. I think the first thing to do is when a death occurs, most people are going to go to a funeral home. They’re professionals; they deal with this all the time. They can provide a lot of guidance and a lot of the merchandise that you’re going to need to accomplish some of these things. But I think the first decision to decide on is do you want to be buried or do you want to be cremated? Depending on which road you go down, there are different decisions you can make to green that process. Obviously, we talked a little bit about a green funeral or a green burial in terms of burying the actual body in the ground without embalming, using a wicker casket or a shroud vs. some of the other things we discussed earlier. But there’s also cremation. Cremation is debate about how green the process itself is, in terms of the burning of fossil fuels to cremate the body, the release of mercury into the environment, and so there are some issues there. But once the body has been cremated, there are certainly decisions that can be made to green the process. For example, when people think of cremation, they think of scattering and they think of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Forty percent of people that get cremated want to scatter, and a large percentage of those people want to do it in or over water, so a lot of people will charter boats or go out on their boat or go to the beach, and they’ll scatter. We provide a lot of products that will allow you to do that without the cremated remains blowing in your face or blowing over everyone who’s there. Because often when you’re at the beach, as you know, or on a boat, it’s going to be windy. So, we have a lot of products that are designed to be placed into the water and will biodegrade either quickly or naturally over time, depending on the product that you select. You go back to the process of cremation itself, in parts of Europe where crematories are often owned and operated by city councils, they use the excess heat that is generated from the cremation process to melt snow on sidewalks, to heat public pools. So, when you start looking at it like that, you can say, “OK, yes, they’re burning fossil fuels, but they’re using that energy to heat pools and melt snow.” There’s always tradeoffs, right? I mean, really, if we get right down to it and we talk about green funerals, the only thing that will be truly green in the funeral realm would be if somebody walked out into the woods, they fell down dead, and we left them there. But that’s not practical, right? If we go and we drive out there in a vehicle and pick him up, somebody can make the argument that you burned fossil fuels to go out there and get him. If we refrigerate that body from the time they died until the family has gotten together three days later, then that’s burning fossil fuels. So, we use the greener. What we’re trying to say is there are greener options that you can select, and if you want to just do a very light shade of green, for example, select a willow casket and be buried in the cemetery plot that you bought 15 years ago next to your husband. That’s greener than burying you in a stainless steel metal casket or a hardwood casket. It may not be green enough to some people. It may be too green for other people. What we’re trying to say is we’re not going to judge you based on how green you’re going to be. If you make any decision moving towards being greener, that’s a step in the right direction. If everyone did it, it would make a huge impact. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined us, we’ve got Darren Crouch with us today. He’s the co-founder and President of Passages International. You can check out all of his great work and the work and the service that they’re doing at www.passagesinternational.com. I’m on your website now, Darren, and you guys have everything, eco-friendly caskets, biodegradable urns, scattering tubes, keepsakes and remembrances that are green, and stationery. Talk a little bit about the sustainability revolution and also the buy local revolution. Are some of your clients or potential clients also asking for not only more sustainable products for their final decisions, but also locally-produced and grown products? DARREN CROUCH: People are definitely looking for sustainability. All the products we create are made from sustainable materials. We don’t cut down trees. Any product that we import, we try to import nested, so that the carbon footprint is really small. For example, we have multiple sizes of our wicker casket, so we might have two adult sizes. The smaller one nests inside the big one. We may also have three or four children’s sizes, and those go inside there. So, when you calculate the actual carbon footprint, it’s very, very small. We do also appreciate that there are going to be some people that are not interested in that, so we do produce some products locally. The shell urn that we produce is made from recycled paper, and the paper itself we get from a company that makes paper plates and paper cups, so it’s food grade non-toxic paper. If you can imagine, when they stamp out all those circles to make the cups and the plates, we take that scrap paper, we blend it up, and we mold it in a mold, the shape of the shell, and we paint it and we do everything that we need to do to it to make it work in the water. That’s a product that we source the paper from Wisconsin and then we produce it 100% here in New Mexico, so we’re all conscious of that. Wherever we can, we’re always looking for local. I guess for some of your listeners, local is relative. People think 2.6 million people die every year. That’s really a relatively small market. It’s not practical to create caskets and urns in every single little hamlet or town across the country. Some of these towns have 10 deaths a year. I mean, unless we would go back to the old days, where the cabinetmaker was the guy who made the caskets. Death is sort of a serious business. There are not many people out there that have the stomach to deal with some of the things that a funeral director has to deal with. You look at the industry, and there are some people that want to do this on their own, and that’s certainly possible, but for the vast majority of the general public, they’re not going to want to handle a deceased body, so that’s where you’d leave it up to professionals. You’d communicate to the professionals or the funeral directors exactly what services and products you want, and they’ll give you guidance based on what the local regulations are, the condition the body is in. There are millions of different variables. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Darren, the issue when our guests come on and we continue the journey of sustainability is cost and ROI vs. the legacy brands and the legacy costs. Is greening our caskets and urns more costly than historical prices of urns and caskets, or is it reasonably priced and acceptable for everybody nowadays and adoptable by everybody? DARREN CROUCH: Well, I think if you were to ask 100 people what they would expect to pay for an urn or a casket and then tell them what they would have to pay for an eco-friendly casket or a biodegradable urn, they would be surprised. I think, generally speaking, the majority of the products that we sell, if you were to walk into a funeral home, they’re going to be on the lower end of the price spectrum, mid to low end. You might go to a funeral home and you might see urns — when I say urns, I’m talking about wood, metal, marble, what you’d consider a traditional urn — you’re going to see urns from $100-$150 to up to $1,000 or more. When you look at a lot of the products that we sell, some of them are going to retail for under $100 and you probably will not find one for over $400 or $500, so they’re on the lower end of the spectrum. The same thing is true of caskets. If you go to a funeral home and look at the casket prices, you’re going to see metal caskets for $1,000 to $6,000 or $7,000. Our wicker and bamboo caskets are going to sell probably for $1,500 to $2,000. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. For our listeners out there that want to simplify their funeral and green it, if they’re hearing this show or reading about this show and your great new company — this is the first time it’s ever been on Green is Good — Passages International, and this is the first time they’re being even inspired by and educated by the opportunities and possibilities out there. How do they now get your products and services if they’re living in an area that doesn’t typically have these kind of things at the funeral homes? Do they contact you directly, or do they ask the funeral director in their area to contact you to get some of your great products and services? DARREN CROUCH: Yeah. I mean, I think the first step is to think about what they would want for their funeral, and discuss it with their families. The second step would be to contact their local funeral home. I think one of the mistakes a lot of people make is they don’t communicate their wishes to their family. A really good way to get what you want is to prearrange it. You would do that through the funeral home. So, you go to the funeral home, you tell them what you want, you tell them you want a Passages casket or a biodegradable urn or whatever it is you want. You explain the services, how you’d like to see your funeral service or memorial service be conducted, where you’d want it conducted. Do you want it at the church, do you want it at the funeral home, or do you want it at the yacht club? You tell the funeral director what you want, and it’s going to be their job to make it happen. In terms of actually getting product from us, we’re a wholesale company and we sell only to funeral homes. So, my advice for families is look on our website, see what you want, and go to the funeral home and ask for it by name. That’s probably the best way to do it. Funeral homes have our number. If they don’t, it’s very easy to look up on our website, and they can contact us and order it for the family. The beauty of that is that when, for example, if a family is buying an urn, the funeral director will put the cremation remains into the urn for the family, and it will all be ready, vs. someone in a family having to do that themselves. That will be all be part of the service that the funeral home will provide. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. That’s great. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Darren’s great work and his great company, Passages International, or to green your funeral or to have a more sustainable end, please go to www.passagesinternational.com. It’s a great website, tons of information, and we can all make the world a better place. Thank you, Darren, for inspiring us all to make our last decision a green one. You are truly living proof that green is good.