Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . .
– The Book of Common Prayer
Throughout the United States, a growing environmental consciousness has changed the way we think about transportation, energy consumption, food production, and waste disposal. With the aging of the Baby Boom generation—the generation that brought us Earth Day, natural childbirth, and organic foods in the supermarket—concern for the environment is also changing the way we think about funerals.
Current funeral practice—the so-called “traditional” funeral—has really been around only since the Civil War, when the bodies of soldiers killed in action had to be transported from distant battlefields for burial in their hometowns. Before that time, funerals were typically conducted in a more natural manner, very similar to the green burial movement of today.
The return to a more environmentally friendly way to bury our dead is certainly understandable. Each year, in traditional funerals, cemeteries across the country bury approximately:
- 30 million board feet of hardwoods in caskets
- 104,272 tons of steel in caskets and vaults
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze in caskets
- 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete in vaults
- 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid
Green funerals avoid the use of toxic chemicals and non-degradable structures to preserve the body. Proponents of green burial also cite the lower cost of a “natural” burial, which typically is thousands of dollars less than a traditional funeral. Following are some of the ways in which a green funeral is distinguished from a traditional burial.
Formaldehyde—a major component of embalming fluid—has been designated as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and international agencies such as the World Health Organization agree that formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical. The use of embalming fluid poses a risk for groundwater contamination, as well as health risks for workers who are exposed to it.
Embalming is intended to slow the natural decomposition of the body—a concept inconsistent with the philosophy behind a green burial. Since state laws do not require embalming, and modern refrigeration techniques provide an alternative method for preserving a body for viewing, advocates for green burial maintain that embalming serves no useful purpose.
Traditional caskets are typically composed of non-degradable and non-sustainable materials, such as metals, plastics, and exotic or endangered species of wood.
In a green burial, the casket is either made of biodegradable materials like wicker, bamboo, or cardboard, or replaced entirely by a simple cotton shroud.
A vault is a large outer burial container made of reinforced concrete. Some vaults are designed to drain from the bottom, which allows toxins and heavy metals to leech into the ground and ground water at higher levels than if a vault was not used. Contrary to common misconception, no state or federal laws mandate the use of a vault, but it may be required by a cemetery to keep the ground from sinking. Vaults are typically not allowed in green cemeteries.
Although cremation uses energy from fossil fuels and releases some pollutants into the air, it is generally considered less harmful to the environment than traditional burial. According to the Green Burial Council, cost-effective cremation technologies that will reduce or eliminate a number of pollutants will be available by 2010.
Already common in England and other countries, green burial grounds may now be found in a growing number of states. Unlike a traditional cemetery, a green burial ground expressly prohibits the use of toxic embalming fluids and non-degradable burial containers.
In a typical green cemetery, the grounds are maintained by ecologically sound means, preserving as much of the natural environment as possible. Rather than elaborate gravestones, green cemeteries encourage living memorials, such as trees or shrubs, or simple markers set flush with the ground.