Fifty-six million people die each year, worldwide. What a mess we’d be in if all cultures and religions promoted the embalmed-and-buried-in-a-concrete-vault model that is customary in the United States. Over time, a typical ten-acre cemetery is filled with enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 houses, nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel and another twenty thousand tons of concrete. Add to that enough toxic formalin to fill a small backyard swimming pool, not to mention the pesticide and weed killer used to keep the cemetery grounds eternally green.
Green burial is burial that can take place without the use of formaldehyde-based embalming, metal caskets, and concrete burial vaults. It is essentially the way much of humanity has cared for its dead all the way until the late 19th century. In some instances, green burial can also be used to facilitate ecological restoration and landscape conservation.
At its greenest, natural burial involves the interment of a shrouded or minimally-coffined body in a green setting, be it a natural cemetery or on rural land. It also includes cremation–which consumes significantly fewer resources than the modern funeral–and options that return the resulting ashes to the environment. Among them are scattering ashes at sea and adding ashes to a memorial “reef ball,” a concrete form resembling an igloo which is then dropped into the ocean onto established reef sites, where they serve as aquatic nurseries for fish and other undersea wildlife
Following are a number of frequently asked questions posed to the Green Burial Council–a non-profit organization working to make burial more sustainable, economically viable, and meaningful:
How can green burial bring about restoration or conservation?
The Green Burial Council (GBC) requires that its certified conservation burial grounds engage in both restoration planning and stewardship. Certified Natural Burial Grounds are required to have in place a deed restriction to ensure that a green cemetery now remains one in the future. GBC Conservation Burial Grounds are required to have a conservation easement held by an established land trust. The key to success we believe is in requiring transparency and accountability, and a system of checks and balances.
What’s wrong with embalming?
The Council doesn’t think any end-of-life ritual or disposition option is “wrong.” We only want to ensure that services/products are available to people who wish to minimize their environmental impact. The primary environmental issue with embalming fluid is that contains formaldehyde; a “probable” carcinogen according to the US Environmental Protection Agency and a known carcinogen according to the World Health Organization. Embalming creates health risks for workers and it’s associated with several diseases such including nasal cancer and leukemia. In very few circumstances is embalming actually required by law, and a “funeral with a viewing” is not one of them. GBC approved funeral directors make available refrigeration and/or dry ice as an alternative to embalming.
What are the environmental issues associated with vaults?
Originally developed to deter grave robbers in the late 19th century, vaults are required today by many cemeteries in order to help prevent the ground from sinking and markers from moving. There are no state or federal laws requiring the use of a vault, though cemeteries are allowed to have policies that do. Some conventional cemeteries now offer consumers the option of paying additional amounts of money in an endowment care funds to handle potential maintenance associated with vaultless burial. Many however, offer vaultless burial at no additional charge. While the concrete and metal in vaults are considered “natural” to some, the manufacturing and transporting of vaults utilizes a tremendous amount of energy and contribute to 1.6 tons of reinforced concrete being produced. Vaults are not required in GBC approved Hybrid Burial Grounds and prohibited in Council certified Conservation and Natural Burial Grounds.
Is cremation an eco-friendly form of disposition?
Cremation uses far fewer resources than almost any other disposition option but it also has an environmental impact and “carbon footprint.” Cremation burns fossil fuel and some older cremation facilities can use significantly more energy compared to newer ones. Mercury is also emitted when a person with dental amalgam fillings is cremated, though just how much is widely debated. The GBC has recently begun to certify cremation disposition programs that create or protect habitat. We will also be requiring that mercury pollution be mitigated by our approved cremation facilities by 2010 when cost-effective technologies are expected to be available.
What is a home funeral and how does it differ from a home burial?
Home funerals allow for families to care for a decedent, and all aspects of a funeral, at home, and were quite common up in the US until the mid-20th century. A family can facilitate a home funeral on their own; with the assistance of a home funeral practitioner; or in conjunction with a licensed funeral director. Some states require the latter. Home burial is an alternative to burial in a cemetery. It’s allowed for in most parts of the country, but usually requires some minimum number of acreage. Home burial has historically been quite common in rural areas.
Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Nebraska, New York all have restrictions on your ability to care for your dead. Each state has its own regulations governing this matter. For most states, everything from transportation to final disposition is within your power.