By Steven P Johnson
GAINESVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - After a two-year battle with cancer, Joseph Fitzgerald was determined to leave his final resting place to Mother Nature.
On a quiet February day in rural Florida, Fitzgerald's body was carried through the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery on a bamboo stretcher made by family members.
In an ecologically approved "green burial," he was laid to rest on a plot of land surrounded by oak trees and Spanish moss he picked out just months before his passing in a grave that was dug by hand just two days prior.
Green burial options have become a small but growing trend in the U.S. funeral industry, with an increasing number of funeral homes offering eco-friendly services and about 30 green cemeteries across the country, according to the Green Burial Council, or GBC, a non-profit organization operating in the United States, Canada and Australia.
The most recent survey conducted by funeral industry publishers Kates-Boylston Publications in 2008 found that 43 percent of respondents said that they would consider a green burial. That was a significant increase from the 21 percent who expressed curiosity about green burials in an AARP study conducted the previous year.
"There is a movement toward it, but it's gaining traction very slowly," said Jim Ford, vice president of operations at Neptune Society, the largest cremation-only funeral company in the United States. The firm also offers green burials at sea on a reef off Miami.
At Prairie Creek, there have been 43 whole body natural burials, 14 cremated remains burials and 10 pet burials since it opened in late July of 2010, with another 197 future burial bookings.
"It's so much more natural and simple," said David Gold, 64, a dental hygienist who plans to be buried at Prairie Creek. "It's harmonious. It puts things (funeral plans) back in people's control."
Freddie Johnson, the executive director of Conservation Burial, the non-profit organization that runs Prairie Creek, says he has noticed an increase in interest.
"The biggest hurdle is getting the awareness of these choices and having choices in the proximity of where people are," he said.
People who choose green burials don't use concrete vaults, traditional coffins with metalwork or any embalming chemicals. Instead, the body is wrapped in biodegradable shrouds or placed in a pine coffin and laid to rest where it can decompose and become part of the earth.
Other options are available for green caskets, often called ecoffins. These coffins can be made of bamboo, pine, woven willow, recycled cardboard and even cord from dried banana plants. They range in cost from $500 to $1,000, depending on the material.
It is estimated that more than 60,000 tons of steel and 4.8 million gallons of embalming fluid are buried each year. That is enough steel to build eight Eiffel Towers and fill eight Olympic size swimming pools, according to Mary Woodsen, a science researcher and writer for Cornell University and research director for the GBC.
At a half-dozen fully certified "conservation cemeteries" around the country, the GBC performs ecological surveys of the grounds and sets rules that include hand-digging the grave site, markers, replacement of the same soil removed and no vault or cement grave liners. Only biodegradable material is allowed to be buried with the body.
"Even the grave sites themselves have no conventional memorial stones," said Johnson. "What you see is nature."
Green burials can be less expensive than conventional funerals, where costs can run between $6,000 and $10,000, because they do not incur the costs of embalming and metal caskets.
But a green burial is still a more expensive option than cremation, which remains the fastest-growing funeral preference. In 2011, cremation was chosen instead of burial in 42 percent of U.S. deaths, up from 30 percent in 2003, according to the Cremation Association of North America. It predicts the cremation rate will jump to nearly 56 percent by 2025.
In a green burial ceremony at Prairie Creek, Johnson attends to every detail to ensure it is environmentally friendly. From removing all non-biodegradable objects to placing a branch in an open grave site to allow critters an escape before the soil is replanted, the result is a cemetery that resembles a typical Florida hiking trail more than a final resting place.
At the Fitzgerald burial, the family asked the funeral director to place the ashes of their deceased son, Kyle, in the pillow that was to be buried with his father.
"There is a real sense that 'from dust you were made, from dust you will return,'" said Michael Fitzgerald, Joseph's brother.
Fitzgerald chose to be buried in a University of Michigan shroud, a final gesture to his devotion to all things Michigan football, which began after his father took him to his first game when he was in middle school.
After friends and family members shared memories, they said their final goodbyes with shovel in hand, replacing the dirt that was recently removed and creating a mound that will, over time, settle back to its original form.
(Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by David Adams, Arlene Getz and Dan Grebler)