EarthTalk: Green Burials
American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid.
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that increasing eco-awareness around the world has now extended itself to the afterlife, whereby burials can even be "green." Is that true? — Mary Lewis, Duxbury, MA
Modern western-world burial practices are arguably absurd, all things considered. We pack our dearly departed with synthetic preservatives and encase them in impenetrable coffins meant to defy the natural forces of decomposition that have been turning ashes to ashes and dust to dust for eons. And in the process we give over thousands of acres of land every year to new cemetery grounds from coast to coast.
According to National Geographic, American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide and climate-changing carbon dioxide.
But increasing demand for more natural burial practices has spawned changes in the industry, and dozens of funeral homes and cemeteries across the country have started to adopt greener ways of operating. Many of these providers are members of the non-profit Green Burial Council, which works "to make burial sustainable for the planet, meaningful for the families, and economically viable for the provider."
The organization partners with land trusts, park service agencies and the funeral profession to help consumers get the greenest burial experience possible. Its network of approved providers is committed to reducing the industry’s toxins, waste and carbon emissions. Many of the group’s member cemeteries — you can find a directory on the Green Burial Council’s website — offer clients the option of burying loved ones in more natural landscapes uncluttered by headstones and mausoleums. In place of a traditional headstone, for example, a tree might be planted over the grave. Instead of conventional wood and steel coffins, clients can bury loved ones in more biodegradable wicker or cardboard, or in a casket made of wood certified as sustainably harvested by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council. Advocates of such greener burials say that people take comfort in knowing their bodies will decompose and become part of the cycle of nature.
Likewise, dry ice is becoming a popular, non-toxic alternative to embalming. According to Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Newfield, New York, "No state in the U.S. requires embalming, though some may require it if burial doesn’t take place within a set amount of time — usually 24 or 48 hours."
Even the practice of scattering ashes at sea has a new wrinkle. Florida-based Great Burial Reef will place urns with cremated remains within 100 percent natural, pH-balanced concrete artificial reefs placed at the bottom of the ocean. And Georgia-based Eternal Reefs will mix your ashes with the cement they use to create "reef balls" — hollow spheres that resemble giant wiffle balls that are sunk offshore. Loved ones equipped with the GPS coordinates can boat or even dive to visit the site of the remains.
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