Caitlyn Hauke, PhD
Board of Directors
Green Burial Council International
On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Green Burial Council International, I am excited to introduce John Niedfeldt-Thomas, who joined us in June as Chief Association Executive (CAE).
As many of you know, the Green Burial Council (GBC) is composed of two nonprofit entities. Both are governed by volunteer boards of directors and are very much “working boards.” Together, along with many other volunteers, we work to advance the movement toward more sustainable burial practices, and support those who are actively engaged in green burial activities.
The Green Burial Council International (GBC3), a 501(c)(3) organization, educates the public, and end-of-life and death care volunteers and professionals. The Green Burial Council, Inc. (GBC6), a 501(c)(6) organization, develops and maintains certification standards for, and oversees certification of, cemeteries, funeral homes, and product providers.
While the GBC6 has had paid staff in the past, and is now ably supported by Gretchen Spletzer, John, as the Chief Association Executive, is the first paid staff for the GBC3. He is currently working with us half-time, with a mutual goal of growing the resources necessary to support a move to full-time. As CAE, John is leading the organization's operations and working in partnership with the board to achieve the organization’s mission.
John and I had a conversation to help you get to know him, and what he brings to this position, to share with our community of supporters.
We are so excited that you have joined the Green Burial Council! There is a lot of interest in green burial, and there were a lot of applicants for the position. What captured your interest?
Two things really appealed to me from the start. First, I have a strong personal interest in advanced care planning and end of life issues, including ethical use of resources.
Second, my background matched up well with what the GBC was looking for. Professionally I am experienced in organizational management, developing and leading administrative and technology systems, and serving on and working with boards of directors. I have developed marketing, communication, and fundraising strategies and content, and managed their print and electronic distribution channels. Finally, I have successfully increased resources for organizations of all sizes, developing, advising, and leading fundraising and earned revenue programs and operations.
Our search committee felt that while you don’t come from a death care background, your knowledge of end-of-life issues was a good fit. How did that interest develop?
I worked in healthcare philanthropy and raised funds to support research, medical education and training, purchase equipment, and improve facilities. I learned so much from the physicians and their grateful patients, who had lifesaving outcomes that were never possible before.
Early in that work I had a physician mentor who led a hospital ethics committee. Through our relationship I learned more and more about how many people in an extraordinarily serious or complex health crisis and had not had conversations with their loved ones about what they would want in such a situation or created a record of those choices.
I later read a powerful book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Dr. Atul Gawande. In it, he makes the compelling case that the job of medical professionals is not to ensure health and survival but to “enable well-being.” He encourages and guides medical professionals and the public about how to have conversations about options and choices, to strive for the life we want while we are alive.
The work of the GBC3, creating awareness of greener options for our bodies after death, is so clearly to me a natural extension of those same conversations.
What are your impressions of the GBC after being on board for a few months?
The GBC is a great organization doing important work! In early June I connected with leaders from both boards, as well as some long-time volunteers and past board members. Everyone was gracious and welcoming, sharing their connection to this work and the GBC. Gretchen was especially helpful in educating me about the certification process, how the GBC6 works with and supports certified providers, and those exploring or in the process of doing so.
The GBC has been instrumental in educating the public about green burial options, how to have those conversations and certifying and supporting providers, yet there is much more to do!
What do you hope that you and the GBC have accomplished by the end of your first year, and longer-term?
As a volunteer-led, and small but strong nonprofit organization, different people using different systems have been part of getting the work done. I will be standardizing the organization’s administrative and technology systems for managing events, volunteers, and fundraising and ensuring the GBC is communicating as efficiently and effectively as possible with existing and potential supporters. Growing the resource base is critical to achieving the GBC’s goals and I will execute a fundraising plan to secure those resources.
Long-term, a question I asked Darrell Hill (GBC3 Past-President) during the interview process, was foundational for me. To explore the business side of the green burial market, I asked “hypothetically, if 100,000 more people in the U.S. wanted a green burial next year, than did this year, do the places, providers and products exist for that to be a reality?”.
Darrell responded that there is a “movement creating a market.” Research shows that more than 50% of the American public is interested in green burial options, but most don’t know the questions to ask, or to whom. Other barriers to realizing more green burials are that cemetery laws are not consistent, and the conventional burial market is what is familiar to most people.
The work of the GBC (and other green burial advocates) will result in more people asking the right questions, of the right people, and making the choice to have a green burial. Laws limiting green burial will be changed, and more green burial spaces, providers, and products will exist. Conventional death care providers will offer more green options, because their families are requesting it, and because they will better understand the benefits.
That is a future that we can all be proud to have played a part in creating! One last question—what do you say when someone asks you why they should choose a green burial?
The answer is, to me, about choice and values. We deserve to know our options, and to make choices about how we want to live, how we want to die, and what should happen with our body after death. We can act according to our values while we are alive, and we can plan for our death and beyond to reflect those values.
Whether you call it conservation, environmentalism, or something else, there is a growing understanding that human activity is damaging the world in which we live and conventional burial practices and cremation are contributors. In the U.S. alone, more than 5 million gallons of embalming fluid are used each year, exposing funeral home workers to toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. More than 30 million board feet of wood, about 4 million acres of forest, are buried in caskets every year. More than 100,000 tons of steel are used in caskets and vaults, and more than 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete. Cremation releases carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other heavy metals into the air.
Choosing a green burial provides a final resting place for your body, one that you and your loved ones will know represents your values.
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