COLMA — Funeral Director Joe Stinson cradled a simple urn crafted out of sand.

Brown, smooth, and light in weight, the vessel when full of ashes will sink into the ocean and won't leave a trace of debris.

It's biodegradable, and a part of a slow growing movement dedicated to green death care.

The trend is symbolic as more families find comfort in choosing to let loved ones return the Earth naturally.

"That is how most humans have cared for (their) dead for thousands of years," said Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council. "People want the ending of life ritual to get in sync with the natural cycle. It provides a great deal of solace."

Stinson and his business partner Pamela Taylor are both grief counselors and own Colma Cremation and Funeral Services.

The 9-year-old business is one of few funeral homes in the country that opts not to use metal caskets and does not perform embalming, which halts the decomposition process with formaldehyde.

Not only is it invasive, said Stinson, but the chemical will eventually seep into the ground once the body starts to decompose.

He said families are relieved to hear that embalming is not required by law.

According to a 2007 poll by the American Association for Retired Persons, 21 percent of people over 50 are interested in eco-friendly funeral services.

Likewise, American Cemetery Magazine reported recently that 43 percent of Americans over 50 are interested in green burial.

"There's a peacefulness to it," Stinson said Friday. "The idea is (loved ones) have spent a lifetime, let them rest."

Sehee lauds Stinson for focusing on green burial, and getting families comfortable with refrigeration or dry ice.

Sehee, formerly of Marin County and now based in Santa Fe, N.M., said there are 12 exclusively green cemeteries in the nation.

There are 50 funeral homes that offer a green funeral package in the Green Burial Council's network.

To make it easier for people to get what they want, the Green Burial Council works with funeral directors.

Sehee said many of them are uncomfortable with leaving out the embalming process.

"They don't know what to do otherwise," he said.

Embalming became the cornerstone of death care during the Civil War when the Union Army was trying to transport slain solders back to their families, Sehee said.

Using arsenic to embalm a body became a solution. Inevitably, embalming fluid became standard at mortuary schools, he added.

In the 1960s, cremation became another option for families.

Now, there's green burial.

"Some people in the industry propped up this idea that embalming was necessary to stop airborne pathogens, but there was no evidence to back that up," Sehee said.

Another issue that hasn't been explored is to what extent are the chemicals and heavy metals from the coffins leeching into the ground water.

Larry Sharkey of San Ramon has worked for more than 25 years in the cemetery industry. During those years, he's worked as a burial supervisor in Colma.

Sharkey said the heavy accumulation of biological fluids and chemicals will become a serious environmental problem.

"We must start looking at cemeteries from a standpoint of resources and environmental concern," he said. "The problem is, no one has spent money to do the kind of research that proves there is a concern."

Roger Appleby, general manager of Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, has looked into sectioning off a portion of land for green burial.

Holy Cross has 200-acres of developed land. Currently, 100 acres are empty.

However, there is a reluctance to follow the trend.

Appleby is worried about liabilities.

First, safeguards have to be made to make sure someone who died from a communicable disease won't be buried in the green section.

Second, people could trip on the grounds. Regular cemeteries use precast concrete vaults to hold the shape of the grave. The vaults wouldn't be allowed in a green cemetery.

"We don't like to be the first kid on the block," Appleby said. "We want to make sure it's not a fad starting under the guise of green only to be a liability. But we're keeping an open mind to it."