By DANIELLE S. TEPPER
You’ve heard the old adage “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but Nicos (Nick) Elias is taking that a step further by being the premier funeral home in the Lehigh Valley to offer eco-friendly burial options.
“The whole concept is going back to the earth naturally,” explained Elias. With “green” efforts becoming a more trendy means of doing just about anything these days, it seems only natural to apply such efforts to something so, well, natural.
Elias’ mother took him to a funeral home when he was a kid and he was transfixed, he said. “I thought it was unique and different.” He grew up in Allentown and wound up in the family printing business. “My heart wasn’t in it,” he said. “I basically just sat and ran a machine all day.”
He reached age 35 and realized he had a decision to make: “Do I take over the family business or do I go back to school? The director of the Funeral Service Education program at NCC convinced me to give it a try even though I thought it was too late in life.”
The two-year program is one of only two in the state. The other is in Pittsburgh. “I was lucky it was close by,” said Elias. He graduated in 2000 with his Associate’s degree (he also has a Bachelor’s in Social Science from Muhlenberg College) and began working with some of the big funeral homes in town to get some experience. He knew, however, that he’d want to eventually operate his own business.
“I like being my own boss,” he explained. Finding a funeral home for sale proved a bit difficult though, as most of them stay in the family for years, according to Elias. Instead, a realtor convinced him to take a look at the historic General Trexler Estate, the former location of Marilyn Custom Shop.
“I didn’t really want to be downtown, because there are a lot of others in the area,” said Elias. “But the property is nice and the building is laid out well.” He opened in 2008, right around the time the economy took a tumble. People compared prices then more than ever before, which Elias says actually helped him in the long run.
“I made sure I had fair prices and treated people well and I went from there,” he said.
Even though other area funeral homes will probably provide “green” services if asked, no one promotes it quite like Elias does.
“A new start-up is rare,” Elias explained. “So I thought, ‘What am I going to do to set myself apart from the competition and be different?’ It’s a cause I believe in, so I started advertising eco-friendly burials.”
So what is an eco-friendly burial exactly? Elias says he is asked that question fairly often. “There’s no embalming, so there’s no chemicals going in the ground,” Elias explained. “We use biodegradable caskets that are either all wood construction, no screws or metal, or we have wicker or bamboo.”
Elias says eco-friendly burials are a specialty and Allentown is a traditional area. However, he’s found success in doing what he does.
“People don’t respond to it right away, mostly because they’re not sure what it is,” he explained. “They’re afraid the caskets are cardboard boxes or something. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. The people who have done it, it was something that they really wanted and the families appreciated that.”
The cost of a green funeral is actually about 30% less than a regular burial or cremation (which Elias also offers), but they still remain a neglected service. Elias does maybe four a year. He’s hopeful though: “I don’t think it’s going away,” he said. “It’s good for the environment and people care about that.”
For more information on Elias’ green funerals, visit www.eliasfuneralhome.com. Information on eco-friendly products can be found at www.passagesinternational.com. Those looking for a green cemetery can visit Green Meadow at Fountain Hill Cemetery: www.greenmeadowpa.org. Established in 2012, it is the only green cemetery in the Lehigh Valley.