Green Burial: The Circle of Life

Jim Weir was an avid outdoorsman. Hiking and fishing in the warmer months, snowshoeing in winter – he was most at home when surrounded by nature. He made his home on 10 acres of partially wooded land, and through many growing seasons his bountiful organic garden was the envy of friends and neighbors.

“As far back as I can remember, Dad instilled in my brother and me the love of nature and a sense of responsibility for preserving the goodness of the earth,” Justin, Jim’s elder son, recalls. “Dad lived a full and active life, and he never really talked about death. But when he died, we knew what to do.”

And just what did Justin and his brother do? They arranged a green burial, returning Jim, simply and naturally, to the earth he loved so much. “He was an amazing father,” Justin says with pride, “and although his death was devastating to us, we found comfort in knowing that in death, Dad would complete the circle of life he taught us about.”

Margaret’s story

Unlike Jim, Margaret has always been a city gal. Apart from summer camp during her childhood and vacations every year, she hasn’t spent a lot of time in outdoor adventures. Still, she lives a simple, frugal life, and she tries to be conscious of how all her actions impact the world around her. She lives near the office where she works so she can walk to her job every day, and her greatest joys come from nurturing the people and things around her, from family and friends to pets and houseplants.

When Margaret’s friend, Barb, lost her husband to cancer, Margaret accompanied Barb to make funeral arrangements. As the funeral director showed caskets to Barb, Margaret thought it ironic that qualities like durability, water tightness, and corrosion resistance were featured as selling points – in her view, such considerations seemed pointless – and she was shocked at the costs. Soon after the funeral, Margaret saw a story on TV about green burials, which inspired her to write instructions for her own funeral and green burial.

What is green burial?

Green burial is the simple act of returning a deceased body to the earth in its most natural state – without toxic embalming chemicals or a concrete vault. The body may be wrapped in a special shroud, or if a casket is used at all, it is made of biodegradable materials, such as bamboo or wicker.  A green burial allows the body to decompose quickly, in a natural manner, without negative impacts on the environment.

As awareness of the toxic impacts of traditional burials grows, so does interest in green burial. According to AARP, an advocacy group for people age 50 and older, 21 percent of those who responded to a 2007 survey stated an interest in green burials; in a 2008 survey, that number rose to 43 percent.

Reasons for choosing green burial

Following are three of the most common reasons people cite for choosing green burial.

  • Sustainability – Americans bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid and more than 30 million board feet of timber in traditional cemeteries each year, according to the Green Burial Council of New Mexico. To illustrate the magnitude of the problem, Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, points out that we bury enough steel to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, and the concrete in the vaults we bury would pave a highway halfway across the U.S. The fact that such practices are clearly unsustainable is a major reason many people choose green burial.
  • Cost savings – Funeral costs vary widely, but in general, green burials are estimated at approximately half the cost of traditional funerals. In current economic hard times, it’s especially hard for many people to rationalize paying a considerably higher price to delay the inevitable decomposition of a body.
  • Simplicity – Many people today try to simplify their lives by making simple choices. As Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, says, “Green burial isn’t about doing extra things. It’s about what not to do.”

Thoughts on going green

Have you attended a green burial? If so, what were your impressions? Do you think burial practices should allow nature to take its course? Or do you agree with those who prefer traditional burial?


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