Green Burials: Going Gently Into The Good Earth

When we pass, our bodies can feed the land beneath wildflowers, trees and grasses, giving a home to birds, butterflies and other native wildlife.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

After you have passed on, what will your carbon footprint look like? If you feel a sense of hopelessness at the thought, it’s not too late to leave a legacy of healing the earth. In fact, some of us may treat the earth better after we’re gone. Green burials are gaining ground in the deathcare industry, literally. Portions of existing cemeteries and entire natural areas are respectfully celebrating the life that our physical bodies can support by eliminating toxic products and encouraging native landscaping. The reasons for a green burial involve practical, financial, environmental and deeply personal decisions.

Practical and Financial Reasons For Green Burials

Believe it or not, there is nothing illegal about burying a body underground without a casket. Green burials are defined by what they do and don’t allow. They do allow a body to be placed directly in the ground, wrapped in a cloth or in a casket made from biodegradable materials, such as wicker or pine. Choosing a simple, natural container can save an average of $2,000 and does not affect the cost of the burial itself. They don’t use:

  • embalming fluids
  • concrete vaults
  • caskets made of heavy metal or non-natural materials

Here’s a breakdown of how opting for a green burial can ease your financial and environmental burden:

Foregoing Embalming

According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, no states legally require embalming, which is the chemical process of preserving the body’s appearance with formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol and other solvents, so that looks presentable for a few days. Embalming temporarily delays the inevitable, and costs around $500 to $800, with additional $200 to $300 for cosmetics and hairstyling. Embalming is common in the U.S. and Canada but rare in other countries. Choosing not to embalm will not affect public health.

Opting Out Of Concrete Vaults

Vaults or grave liners are basically heavy-duty caskets for the casket, which some cemeteries require so that their grounds stay level. Usually made of concrete, steel, bronz, or composite plastic, they are built to last 100 years or longer and cost around $1,000.

Cremation Considerations

While cremation may seem like an obvious choice because it doesn’t occupy the land and uses less resources, it has its drawbacks. Crematories burn fossil fuels and produce harmful emissions, such as carbon monoxide and mercury.While cremation may seem like an obvious choice because it doesn’t occupy the land and uses less resources, it has its drawbacks. Crematories burn fossil fuels and produce harmful emissions, such as carbon monoxide and mercury.

Subscribe now

More Sustainable Choices For Burial Grounds

Even the cost of flowers can go towards a more sustainable future. Rather than (or in addition to) a large spray of roses and carnations that wilt within a week, if groundskeeping crews approve, loved ones can invest in planting perennials that will bloom every year.

The Natural Burial Association of Canada points out, “What makes a natural burial different from a financial perspective, is that the costs are better allocated, with money carrying on the legacy of the deceased by protecting green space instead of the mark-up on expensive, unnecessary materials and procedures.”

Environmental Solutions For Funerals

With all these expensive measures on the standard funeral checklist, we go to great lengths to keep the human body from mixing with the earth. Meanwhile, cemeteries are running out of space and toxins are leaching into soil and groundwater as vaults, caskets and embalmed bodies decompose.

Those who are considering an environmentally conscious alternative have a wide spectrum to choose from. A great starting point is checking out the The Green Burial Council, which provides a system for rating funeral homes, cemeteries and products on their environmental impact. It ranges from simply allowing a shroud instead of a casket to planting and maintaining a native ecosystem indefinitely. The highest-rated facilities surpass most city parks in environmental stewardship.

A cemetery designated as “natural” must:

  • conduct an ecological assessment of their site
  • implement an integrated pest control management system, using chemical pesticides only as a last resort
  • use excavation techniques that minimize impact on soil and plant biodiversity

A cemetery designated as “conservation” must:

  • meet all of the natural requirements
  • establish longer-term protection through a governmental agency or nonprofit conservation organization

While in other countries green burials are nothing new, the first green cemetery in the U.S., Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, opened less than 20 years ago. Since then, the list of providers who accommodate natural burials has grown to more than 340 in North America. The Green Burial Council can help you locate a service provider or product near you.

The Chemicals In Our Cemeteries

Is it possible we’ve actually been protecting the soil and groundwater from our bodies’ chemical cocktails? Consider the lingering traces of prescription medications, heavy metals, pesticides, preservatives and more, and imagine an entire cemetery full of these, adding more with each burial. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 265 environmental chemicals residing in our bodies.

If you are convinced that a body has a higher purpose to serve than polluting, then you may want to hear what artist Jae Rhim Lee has to say. She designs and sells suits that incubate fungi, which will decompose and “clean up” toxins from bodies, called Infinity Burial. In her July 2011 TED talk, she further delves into the mushroom breeding process and models a prototype of her Mushroom Death Suit, which harbors fungal spores that will do what comes naturally: proliferate, spread, consume and process decomposing organic material.

“Accepting death means accepting that we are physical beings who are intimately connected to the environment, as the research on environmental toxins confirms,” Lee says in her presentation. “And the saying goes, we came from dust and will return to dust. And once we understand that we’re connected to the environment, we see that the survival of our species depends on the survival of the planet. I believe this is the beginning of true environmental responsibility.”

Confronting Your Personal Burial Wishes

While Lee’s approach and product may seem outrageous, it is a conversation starter. Of course, none of the green burial alternatives you choose will happen without your loved ones’ understanding, acceptance and/or agreement to carry out your wishes. This necessitates conversations that can be difficult, which we may tend to avoid. However, opening up a dialogue about your own mortality, the next phase of your earthly body and your commitment to caring for the earth could actually lighten up the topic. Removing the fear and ambiguity about what happens to a body after death can be a relief.

It is clearly not only a personal choice, but also a cultural one. Traditions and expectations vary by family, nation and religion. The funeral industry in North America appears to be expanding their horizons so that options are available for any process that is environmentally sound and legal, in addition to carrying on with embalming, concrete vaults and cremations. As with any market, the availability of products shifts in response to consumer pressure. It truly is a grassroots movement that is bringing green burials to the mainstream.

If you are unsure about whether a green burial would be right for you or your loved one, consider that our standard practice of memorializing our dearly departed by lining them up in rows with rectangular headstones as identification is a relic of the Civil War. Before that, it was normal to bury loved ones in their favorite natural area or on family property, where they would become part of the landscape, with a subtle reminder in the form of a sign on a tree or a natural stone marker. Imagine visiting your loved ones’ final resting place as a joyful nature park rather than a morose line of graves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *