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Green burials save money, but some wonder at what cost

Anastasia Beltsios’ grave resides in the Green Burial section at Eternal Rest Memories Park & Funeral Home in Dunedin.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Anastasia Beltsios’ grave resides in the Green Burial section at Eternal Rest Memories Park & Funeral Home in Dunedin.

DUNEDIN — After their mother, Anastasia, died in 2012 at the age of 67, brothers Tom and Anthony Beltsios couldn't afford a traditional burial. So they found a less expensive alternative — a "green burial" that didn't use embalming or a casket.

A few months later, Tom Beltsios was working in his auto repair shop when a man he knew walked in. The man started talking about his mother's recent death and her peculiar burial. Tom noted it was the same cemetery as he'd buried his mom in.

The man explained that because his family had little money, his mother had been inhumed atop another woman. Then the man mentioned the name of the stranger buried in the grave: Anastasia

Said Beltsios: "That's my mom."

• • •

U.S. patent No. 7,636,991 B1 is described by its owner as ingenious: "A green burial system for burying plural remains in a single grave site, the burying being done in an ecological, respectful and economic manner."

In 1998 the first "green cemetery" in North America opened in South Carolina. The idea was to eschew formaldehyde and concrete caskets — in the United States we bury 1.6 million tons of concrete each year, and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid (which contains the carcinogen formaldehyde), according to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that encourages environmentally friendly end-of-life options.

Under the green method, instead of the dead being timelessly entombed in their tuxedos, the bodies are allowed to decompose into the earth. The dead are not remembered by headstones or markers, but by the natural surroundings they rest beneath.

In 2009, Charles Scalisi III, owner of Eternal Rest Memories Park & Funeral Home in Dunedin, patented his own take on a green burial.

The patent called for a single grave site with an upper and lower region divided by a non-biodegradable separator placed at 6 feet below the earth. An electronic sphere is set beside the remains. Because there is no headstone, this device transmits the location of the dead back to a responder so family members can find the site and visit. The deceased is not embalmed, and is wrapped only in a biodegradable shroud and laid inside a pine box, "to include that special touch of dignity," the Eternal Rest website reads.

Another person is then buried atop the first. Scalisi's plans even call for "a plurality of biodegradable urns" that can be placed above the two pine boxes. This is, presumably, to most efficiently use the land — or to most effectively capitalize on it.

If a family who owns the top plot desires, they can plant a tree above, topping off the grave site with the most green of panaches.

When their mother died, the Beltsios brothers had never heard of, and would not have been interested in, Scalisi's green ideas.

• • •

Tom Beltsios' work at the garage and his brother Anthony's work as a store stocker left them with little savings. Anastasia's church, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, passed the plate for the brothers but they still fell short. The church's then-father recommended a cheaper alternative.

The day before the dirt covered their mother, Anthony Beltsios, 49, signed a contract with Eternal Rest Funeral Home. The agreement included a green burial, death certificate and casket for $1,014 and a grave site for $2,000.

The service was quick; besides the brothers and a priest, only three others attended. Their mother was lowered into the ground, and later Tom Beltsios, 48, crafted a plywood cross and said he got Scalisi's permission to stick it above the grave. He did this because the only marker denoting her spot was a 6- by 6-inch stone square. Two lines divided the square — the brothers never asked what it meant.

Looking back, the brothers said they never thought to ask if someone would be buried above their mother because they had never heard of what the industry terms "double-tiered" graves.

After Tom Beltsios learned of the burial arrangement, he and his brother filed a lawsuit against Eternal Rest Funeral Home in November claiming the funeral home didn't tell them about it.

Scalisi initially invited a reporter to see his patented burial technique first hand, saying it was exciting and unique and he had nothing to hide. But his lawyer, Howard Scholl, later counseled against it.

Scholl said the contract the Beltsios brothers signed was clear about the arrangement.

"It might not be as clear as a big bright sign, but it does talk about the green burial and the plot placement," Scholl said.

• • •

A double-tiered, or double-depth grave, is not uncommon. Robert Fells, executive director and an attorney for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association in Sterling, Va., even purchased a triple-tiered plot for his mother and father. But stashing a stranger above a family member?

"I've been here over 31 years and this is the first time I've heard of that," Fells said.

Neither had Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group, who has written a book on the history and methods of interring the dead.

The determining factor in the brothers' lawsuit, Slocum and Fells said, is the contract Anthony Beltsios signed, and determining if the brothers were truly unaware of the stacked grave arrangement.

At the request of the Tampa Bay Times, Slocum looked over the Eternal Rest website and complimented Scalisi for displaying his pricing up-front. Slocum also noticed the moderate cost of Scalisi's green burial, mentioning that many funeral homes charge boutique prices for the service, even though it requires less work. Eternal Rest's website also lists separate prices for top and bottom spaces. But it could not be determined if this pricing list was present two years ago when the Beltsios brothers buried their mom.

When it came to the contract the brothers signed, Slocum found it cryptic.

"I can't find anything in there that would indicate a double-depth grave," he wrote in an email after reviewing it.

Typically, a person makes funeral arrangements a couple times in their life, Fells said. So who would think to ask if a stranger might be buried atop their mother?

Tom Beltsios said he heard the mother of the man he spoke to at the mechanic shop was removed. If true, he said, there will have been three desecrations of Anastasia's grave: First, when workers broke ground to bury another woman above her; second, when they removed the stranger; and third, when they will have Anastasia's remains removed to a new cemetery

"Under the circumstances we just don't feel comfortable in that cemetery any more," Anthony said.

But because of the green burial, without the aid of formaldehyde or a casket, the brothers wonder if even that's possible.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Weston Phippen can be reached at wphippen@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

Green burials save money, but some wonder at what cost 03/29/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 29, 2014 10:38pm]

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