Green Burials for a Green Earth

by Nora Cedarwind Young

As consumers, we read labels, are influenced by packaging, care about farming techniques and trade practices of the products we choose. We reuse or recycle our product containers. The principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle can be appropriately applied to death and funeral choices. Eco-friendly options protect natural resources and can reduce costs. A family pet, buried in the yard under the apple tree, has been given an Eco-friendly funeral. While I am not advocating for everyone to consider your backyard for your burial plot, I am advocating that people consider greener options if burial is the decision for you.

Each year in the United States we bury:

  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, which includes formaldehyde
  • 180,544,000 pounds of steel, in caskets
  • 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze in caskets
  • 30 million board feet of hardwoods, including exotic woods, in caskets
  • 3,272,000,000 pounds of reinforced concrete vaults
  • 28,000,000 pounds of steel in vaults

(Statistics compiled by Mary Woodsen, VP Pre-Posthumous Society of Ithaca, New York, and a science writer at Cornell University).

Europe has embraced the Green Burial movement, as open space is precious. With the advent of GPS technology, burials without headstones or the use of toxic chemicals are commonplace. Greenways, parks, and playgrounds are being created for use for future generations to both be able to pay homage to their beloved dead, as well as continue to enjoy the beauty of the natural earth. Not only does this concept help the environment and provide open space for future generations, but also the present day benefits of trail systems, the chance to see the wonder of wildlife or just quiet contemplation can be realized. In our next newsletter I will share more about Green Burials and why there is a growing popularity of this green choice. In closing, I’ll leave you with these thoughts:

“On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than in death. Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest, the archenemy of life, etc. But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blending and continuousness of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in the woods, plains and mountains and streams of her blessed star, and they will learn ‘that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.’ All is divine harmony.”

— Funeral Consumers Newsletter Summer 2006

Green Burials Nationwide

Until the last 100 years in America, people died at home. Family prepared the body and viewing and burial occurred on the family land. Death, if not a welcome visitor, was a familiar one. The Civil War changed everything when others were paid to “undertake” the job of transporting bodies of soldier’s back home, utilizing formaldehyde for embalming. Society soon adopted the attitude that caring for the ill at home was too taxing, and moved them into hospitals to die. Thus, the family affair was now handed over to others, and a profitable industry was born.

“People think we’re not emotionally capable, let alone physically capable, of carrying this out,” says Jerri Lyons. “We’re afraid of the unknown until we’ve been exposed to it and have seen that it isn’t frightening.” Home preparation of the deceased, without an undertaker’s involvement, is legal in every state but four. Lyons’ book Creating Home Funerals and Lisa Carlson’s Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love, provide detailed instructions on after-death care.

An alternative death movement is forming across the nation, one that leaves the funeral industry out of the picture altogether. Proponents of home funerals and “green burials” (wherein bodies are interred in natural environments and in that way promote decomposition and chemical free processes), insist that this country’s “death denying tradition” is not merely costly, but corrosive to body and spirit, to land and communities.

Fear and doubt crept into the space left when we handed death to others and our helplessness supports the multibillion-dollar death care industry. As more people reclaim the practical, calm, and ritual actions of caring for our own dead, healing happens.

Jessica Mitford wrote The American Way of Death, an 1963 expose against the funeral industry. Revised in 1998, Mitford found that though consumers had put the brakes on burials, they were still being taken for a ride. “Cremation, once the best hope for a low-cost, simple getaway, has become increasingly expensive,” she wrote. “Morticians are fast developing techniques for upgrading the procedure into a full figure funeral.”

Baby boomers wrote marriage vows, demanded home births and hospices, and now they are burying parents and considering their final arrangements. They’re looking for alternatives to being pumped with chemicals that demean the body and degrade the earth. They are protesting caskets that cost as much as cars.

John Sehee, former Jesuit minister, owner of Fernwood (the nation’s second “green” cemetery) says, “Universally, almost all Americans are dissatisfied with death-care options. It’s religious traditionalists, it’s conservatives, it’s outdoor enthusiasts. Evangelical Christians love the shroud burial concepts. It’s been a part of the Jewish tradition, the Bahai tradition. It’s the way most cultures buried their own until a century ago.”