SALT LAKE CITY — As people feel like they don't fit the mold for traditional funeral and burial services, they are opting for alternatives they find more meaningful — some even turning their remains into diamonds, trees or coral reefs.
"It's the last decision you make on your own. Why not make it meaningful?" said Darren Crouch, who sells biodegradable funeral products.
Among hundreds of funeral product and service provider booths — caskets, hearses, financial services, etc. — set up in the Salt Palace Convention Center on Wednesday for the 2018 National Funeral Directors Association International Convention and Expo, there were also options for directors who want to provide unique, alternative or eco-friendly memorial service options to their customers.
Passages International Inc. makes eco-friendly caskets and biodegradable urns for those who want a more sustainable and significant memorial service for themselves or their loved ones.
"There's a lot of waste," said Crouch, president and co-founder of Passages, about traditional burial services' use of wood, steel and concrete. "It's very unsustainable."
Crouch's company makes woven caskets out of fast-growing, fair trade, sustainable bamboo.
He said people tend to choose these because they are sustainable, but also as an alternative to heavy, expensive steel and wood caskets.
And many use them for cremation — a more respectful alternative to the cardboard boxes sometimes used.
He also adds that nontraditional "green funerals" allow for more participation than the usual service.
"When somebody dies, the funeral director whisks the body away, they prepare the body, they embalm the body, then you see the body at the service for an hour or so, then the body's buried and you're done," Crouch said. "It almost robs people of a chance to really grieve and actually register that person has passed away."
Green funerals give families the chance to participate more in the memorial process. They are also in designated areas of existing cemeteries, or completely separate areas where no burial vaults are used.
For those who choose cremation, Passages offers methods that are even less traditional and more interactive, including biodegradable urns to be put in the water — from plain rectangular shapes to seashells and sea turtles.
These paper-based products float for several minutes, then sink and begin to biodegrade, Crouch said.
He also sells urns made of unfired clay or salt that dissolve completely within a few hours.
Another alternative eco-friendly "funeral at sea" method on display Wednesday was Steve Berkoff's Memorial Reefs International.
Memorial Reefs allows cremated remains to be encased in a concrete "reef ball" and placed on an ocean floor about 20 feet deep, where it becomes part of the habitat.
"Fish move in right away," Berkoff said. "We've had fish move in literally while the divers are setting the ball."
The reef balls are made of concrete at a pH level that matches the ocean water, and the texture and reef-like shape allows coral polyps to attach, Berkoff said.
The company has three locations in Mexico where it takes people to place their loved ones' reef balls in dedicated memorial gardens. There is one in Italy as well, and Berkoff plans to offer locations in Bermuda and the Philippines soon.
Family of the deceased can even go back to visit the memorial gardens using GPS coordinates.
The same is true for tree pods — biodegradable urns that turn cremated remains into trees, made and sold by Passages and other exhibitors at the expo Wednesday.
Crouch said the pods he sells can be planted with a GPS tracker so people can return to see the tree that marks their loved one's resting place.
Jim Olson, a funeral director from Wisconsin and a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association, explained that the increasingly popular tree pods use calcium phosphate from the cremated remains as nutrients, so the body physically becomes part of the tree.
Olson encourages green practices among his colleagues and his own funeral home.
"This is simply going back to the way it used to be," he said, explaining that embalming began during the Civil War when soldiers' bodies would have to be transported long distances to their families.
Crouch believes people are embracing the old adage of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" with alternative, green burial methods.
Swiss diamond maker Algordanza displayed a unique way of memorializing a loved one. The company takes carbon from cremated remains and puts it into a machine that applies high pressure and temperature, turning it into a diamond.
Vice President Christina Martoia said Algordanza can also make "memorial diamonds" of those who wish to be buried instead of cremated, using a piece of their hair instead.
The expo also featured therapy dogs, which Olson said are increasing in popularity.
Olson said Oliver, the therapy dog at his own funeral home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is a great help to grieving loved ones when they have to come in and make funeral plans. Oliver also helps him too sometimes, he said, when he's had an emotionally taxing day helping grieving families.