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Green Death

Planning a funeral you can live with

By Timothy Gower

As she helped arrange her father’s funeral earlier this year, Amy Bieber began thinking about her own death—specifically, what would she want her family to do with her body? Fit and 43, the married mother of a trio of small boys presumably has many years to make up her mind. But a bit of research challenged some of her long-held assumptions.

“I had always thought I wanted to be cremated,” says Bieber, who lives in Murrieta, California. But she has had second thoughts since reading that cremation requires a great deal of fuel and emits greenhouse gases and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Likewise, Bieber learned that a traditional funeral, with a casket buried in a cemetery that requires frequent landscaping and watering, uses lots of natural resources, too. “There don’t seem to be many good options,” she says.

Yet, there are alternatives to traditional burial and cremation that appeal to people who are concerned about the effect their send-off to the great beyond will have on the environment. In fact, a 2017 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association found that 53.8% of Americans are interested in exploring so-called green or natural burial, an alternative to conventional means of “body disposition”—the preferred term in the funeral industry—that experts say probably has the least carbon impact.

A 2017 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association found that 53.8% of Americans are interested in exploring so-called green or natural burial.

“The term ‘green burial’ is just a 2018 phrase for what we used to call ‘burial’,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in South Burlington, Vermont. “You simply have the body placed either in a shroud or an easily biodegradable container, then buried directly in the soil. That’s it.”

While there are infinite ways to personalize a green burial, they all share something in common: They omit several elements considered essential in the typical modern funeral. That includes:

– Embalming. Injecting formaldehyde into a dead body slows (but doesn’t halt) decomposition, but embalming is not legally required and almost never necessary, says Slocum. (One exception would be if a body is being transported a long distance.) Embalming is rare outside the United States and Canada, he adds. While the formaldehyde usually used in embalming probably doesn’t pose much threat to the environment, exposure to the chemical is risky for embalmers themselves, who have increased rates of certain cancers and respiratory diseases, as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

– A traditional casket. Each year, the hardwood and metal used to make the coffins commonly sold by funeral homes use the wood of 77,000 trees, as well as 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, according to the nonprofit Green Burial Council (GBC). Green burials use shrouds or coffins made of sustainably harvested woods, cardboard, wicker, or other biodegradable materials.

– A concrete vault for the casket or liner for the grave. Most cemetery operators require them, playing on loved ones’ fears by implying or stating flat out that the concrete will help protect the body from water and soil, to say nothing of hungry microbes and worms. But their true purpose is to prevent the gravesite from caving in under the weight of lawn mowers and other landscaping equipment, says Jeff Jorgensen, proprietor of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle, who formerly managed a cemetery. Besides, vaults and liners eventually crack, says Jorgensen. “When you put a body in the ground, or a mausoleum, ultimately it turns to bone, no matter what,” he says. The GBC estimates that the concrete used to make vaults and liners each year in the United States could create a two-lane highway from San Francisco to Kansas City.

But arranging a green burial for yourself or a loved one can pose challenges. Many funeral homes require embalming if you plan to have a wake, for example, though others (like Jorgensen’s facility) do not. If a client does not want embalming for a loved one, he’ll place ice gel packs below the body to slow decomposition enough to allow for brief viewings prior to burial or cremation.

Moreover, you may struggle to find a cemetery nearby that will permit green burials. Some “hybrid” cemeteries set aside a portion of their land for that purpose, while others are devoted solely to natural burial. But only 100 or so of the roughly 10,500 cemeteries in the United States make such accommodations. (You can find a list on the Green Burial Council website, Jorgensen performs green burials, but says they make up a tiny portion of the body dispositions he performs. The reason: The nearest “eco-cemetery” is 90 miles north of Seattle, which is a long drive for loved ones who would like to place flowers on a gravesite now and then.

If there’s a small church or village cemetery near you, Slocum says it can’t hurt to ask if the operators will permit a green burial, though they may have no clue what you’re talking about. And if you own enough land, you may be able to create a private cemetery; ask your local zoning officials.

If green burial isn’t for you, Jorgensen believes that the next-most environmentally friendly mode of body disposition is a newer method available in some parts of the United States that goes by various names, including flameless cremation and alkaline hydrolysis (AH). The body is placed in a large stainless-steel chamber filled with water and potassium hydroxide, which is heated. After a few hours, the soft tissue dissolves, leaving behind bone fragments and a sterile solution; the bones are pulverized into ash, as in conventional cremation, and the fluid goes down the drain. AH “has 90% less carbon impact than conventional cremation,” says Jorgensen, who doesn’t offer the procedure, which is currently only legal in about 15 states, not including Washington.

Availability may not be the only barrier to acceptance of AH—several friends gasped in horror when I described it. However, Slocum says it’s catching on. “To some families, it seems gentler than traditional cremation,” he says. “But to others, it makes them think of mobsters dissolving a dead body with lye in a bathtub.” (The corpses of several unfortunate characters in the hit TV show Breaking Bad were disposed of through liquefaction.)

The perception that cremation is a greener choice than traditional burial also appears to have contributed to its rising popularity, though that’s a debatable assumption.

And what about traditional cremation? In 1960, it was used in fewer than 4% of body dispositions in the United States; today, that figure exceeds 50% nationwide, and in some parts of the country it’s much higher. One factor in that rise has likely been the Catholic church’s loosening pf restrictions on the choice of cremation in 1963 (though the Vatican still frowns on scattering ashes). The perception that cremation is a greener choice than traditional burial also appears to have contributed to its rising popularity, though that’s a debatable assumption. In a typical cremation, the body is placed in a chamber that is heated to 1800 degrees F, give or take, for two to four hours, releasing carbon dioxide, mercury, and other toxins into the atmosphere. The vast majority of Jorgensen’s clients—98%—choose cremation, and he estimates that performing one has the environmental impact of driving an automobile from Seattle to Spokane, about 300 miles. To keep his company carbon neutral, Jorgensen purchases “offsets” from a nonprofit group that plants trees and performs other green-space restoration around the state.

Other green options will likely become available in the near future. Not far from Jorgensen’s funeral home, a Seattle company called Recompose is developing technology that converts human remains into soil that can be used for planting gardens. And not long ago, Bieber saw a Facebook post about an alternative approach that appeals to her belief that while our bodies may have expiration dates, a person’s being is eternal. Capsula Mundi, a project launched by a team in Italy, hopes to soon offer egg-shaped biodegradable pods, in which the remains of a loved one would be inserted in the fetal position and buried a few feet below the ground; a tree would then be planted over the pod. As the pod breaks down, nutrients from the decomposed body would, in theory, nourish the tree. Bieber knows that, one way or another, the disposition of her body will have some impact on the planet, but says “at least that harm would be counteracted by a tree that provides oxygen, and that is a life force.” (Currently, Capsula Mundi only sells mini versions of its pods, which can be used for burying cremated ashes. To learn more about Capsula Mundi, read our interview with its co-creator, Raoul Bretzel)

If a traditional burial feels like the right choice for you, don’t worry that you’re contributing to a growing shortage of space in cemeteries; that’s only a problem in certain graveyards, typically near large cities, notes Jorgensen, who says many cemeteries he knows of have several acres of space remaining. “Do you know how many bodies you can fit in one acre?” he asks. “A lot.”

What matters most say Jorgensen, Slocum, and others who deal with death every day, is thinking about the kind of ceremony and disposition you want, and conveying those wishes to your family and friends.

“It will change you and everyone around you,” says Jeanne Denney, a psychotherapist and “death educator” who is on the faculty of the Art of Dying Institute in New York City, which conducts training and conferences focused on the final passage. Engaging in the process, Denney believes, can help us overcome the instinct to repress thinking about death, which only makes it more terrifying. “Your life is filled with less anxiety and more meaning,” says Denney. “You start to feel more alive.”

About the Writer

Timothy Gower (Bucket Age: 27) lives on Cape Cod, a peninsula off Massachusetts, where he hopes one day his ashes will be scattered in the sea, though he’s in no rush. His writing has appeared in over two dozen publications, including PreventionReader’s DigestEsquire, and the New York Times.

Having an environment-friendly burial or cremation is important to me.

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4 years ago

A good article! However, it does not mention “Home Funerals.” See: