FEATURE ARTICLE - JULY/AUGUST 2008
Greening Your Final Arrangements
Conventional cemeteries represent a narrow, inflexible use of land. Learn about your choices.
Kristi Minahan plans to protect the environment her whole life—and
beyond. As a water resources management specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Kristi spends her days protecting her state’s land and water. Though she hopes she has many healthy years ahead, the sudden death of a relative a few years ago
got her thinking about what she
would want when her own time
It can be difficult to contemplate our own end. In the last hundred years, standard US funeral care practices have come to involve the use of toxic embalming chemicals and the burying of impermeable, finished wood, metal, and concrete along with the deceased, often in heavily fertilized cemetery grounds. But studies show that, when asked to think about it, the great majority of Americans want something closer to what Minahan wants: a natural return to the Earth.
The embalming process puts mortuary workers at risk both because formaldehyde is a recognized carcinogen, according to the state of California and the World Health Organization, and because the blood displaced by the embalming process may expose these workers to pathogens. Embalming effluent and organic matter extracted during the process are all washed down the drain as wastewater. And some of the estimated 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid buried annually in the US seeps into groundwater, potentially entering local water supplies.
“The box is pretty, the lawns are neat, and nature can’t get a word in edgewise,” writes Cynthia Beal in Be a Tree: the Natural Burial Guide for Turning Yourself into a Forest (coming Fall 2009 from New Society Publishers).
In most conventional funerals, the casket itself is not even placed directly into the ground. To prevent uneven grounds that are hard to mow, many cemeteries now have rigid cement liners in every new grave into which a casket is placed. Mary Woodsen of the Commemorative Nature Preserves of New York has estimated that US cemeteries inter more than 1.5 million tons of reinforced concrete, more than a million tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and 30 million board feet of hardwoods every year.
The plot of land has a singular use, as large headstones break up the space and mark it as primarily a burial ground, and visitors typically come to the site only a few times a year. The area will never be viable green space that supports naturally existing plant and animal life. Neither will it be a shared community area that supports both land and people.
Those who want an ally in avoiding embalming can now turn to the Green Burial Council, the first nationwide clearinghouse for greener burial products and services. You can find a list of funeral providers certified by the Green Burial Council as offering burial options without chemicals on the Council’s Web site, or find guidance for ensuring a formaldehyde-free burial from Crossings: Caring for Our Own at Death, a home funeral resource center.
Green businesses, and several casket makers approved by the Green Burial Council, sell beautiful, simple, biodegradable caskets, shrouds, and urns made from recycled or renewable materials. For example, Colorful Coffins, Natural Burial Company, and Passages International offer caskets made of woven willow branches, plain pine wood, painted cardboard, cane, bamboo, or seagrass, and Natural Burial Company offers an Ecopod, a seed-shaped casket made of recycled paper incorporating mulberry leaves and silk.
Rather than attempt to seal off natural processes, all of these greener burial products invite nature in, and are designed to assist rather than impede a body’s return to the Earth.
Within the coming year, the Green Burial Council will finalize standards for “greener” cremation facilities that are more energy efficient, mitigate any mercury emissions, and offset their carbon footprint. And the green businesses mentioned above offer a variety of biodegradable urns for ashes made from gourds, recycled paper, rock salt, or sand.
The burial places are not marked with a large headstone, but only with a small marker, or a tree, or sometimes nothing at all, with only GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates shared with the family so they can find the spot. And the land containing the burial ground is protected from development or other damage by a land trust or easement that ensures that the natural landscape will be preserved in perpetuity. The revenue from burials can be used to purchase more land for the trust as it becomes available, advancing conservation an acre at a time.
These greener burial sites appeal to people who want their last act to be a life-giving one. At the same time, conservation burial grounds also present conservation organizations with a vitally needed mechanism for funding their restoration projects.
Even as these burials direct funds towards conservation, they still often cost significantly less than conventional burials. Families spend an average of $6,500 on burial, including embalming, before paying for cemetery costs such as a lot and gravestone; by contrast, a green burial with a plain wooden casket and a site in a conservation burial ground can come to less than $3,000.
Thanks to a growing interest in more meaningful, affordable burials and in the environment, the green burial movement has been growing dramatically over the past few years, says Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council.
“This is the place where ritual and memory connects people to land and to land conservation,” he says. These greener burial options can actually help people feel less resistant to thinking about and planning their final arrangements, because “people can know that their last act is of incredible importance. When they pick out a green burial plot, they are proud. ... It makes people’s eyes sparkle—I’ve seen it.”
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