Dying can be expensive. The average funeral cost $6,560 in 2009, and funerals today can easily top $10,000. But have you ever thought that dying can also be bad for the environment? That’s right. Few people consider the impact of their own death on the environment, but that is changing. The act of dying itself isn’t harmful to the earth, but the traditions and processes we have set up as a culture in relation to death have distinct environmental impacts. A new type of funeral is emerging, and the people behind it seek to address those impacts.
It is called the green funeral. Others call it the eco-funeral, but whatever the name the trend is about two things: limiting the overall impact of a funeral on the environment and enabling the natural decomposition of the body and its return to the earth.
That may sound macabre, or even like we are taking this whole green thing too far. But consider that green funerals are typically cheaper than their traditional counterparts and use far fewer resources; then they start to sound like not such a bad idea after all. Every step of disposition (that is the name in the business for what is done with a body) in a green funeral is carried out — or not — with consideration of its environmental impact. The carbon footprint of quarrying stone for a monument, the chemicals used in the embalming process, and the material required to produce the casket are all called into question. The answers to those questions, in many cases, determine what goes into the funeral.
Furthermore, with emphasis also being on natural decomposition of the body, other components of the traditional funeral are also changing. One green-burial website stresses the need for these natural processes by saying, “It is clear that nature has intended that our bodies be reunited with the earth. All organisms that have lived, have died and returned to the soil…only to be recycled into new life.” To allow that ultimate form of recycling to take place, materials have to be carefully chosen and traditional methods of disposition abandoned.
Such a change of focus in the industry could mean big changes. Big changes for businesses that provide materials and services to the industry, but also changes to what a funeral actually looks and feels like. What follows are five components of the modern funeral and the alternatives being offered as the choices become green.
Green funerals are not just breathing new life into the traditional pine box; they are promoting the production of caskets made from other materials as well. The casket is a significant portion of a traditional funeral’s cost. Families can spend anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000 for a traditional air and water-tight burial vessel. Green caskets come in a variety of materials, are often cheaper, and allow for decomposition.
In a way, the casket melds the two main facets of the green funeral phenomenon. Makers of the new caskets focus on choosing materials that are renewable and sustainable. The caskets themselves are biodegradable, thus further reducing our eternal footprint. It is estimated, after all, that the United States buries some 90,000 tons of steel every year in the form of caskets and vaults. Natural caskets won’t add to that number and will also allow the body to be recycled by the earth.
Caskets for green funerals can be, and often are, constructed of traditional pine. But new companies are producing alternatives. One such company is called Passages International. It offers willow, seagrass, and bamboo caskets, all harvested without the use of heavy machinery and hand-woven by craftspeople. Other companies produce biodegradable, pressed-fiber caskets. Some dedicated greenies forego the casket altogether and opt to be buried wrapped only in a thin cloth.
The U.S. buries 827,060 gallons of formaldehyde and other embalming fluids every year. It should go without saying, by now, that green funerals do not add to this total. Burying such quantities may not be a huge deal since the bodies containing those fluids are often locked in a sealed coffin that is further entombed in a concrete vault. But for those who choose to be buried in a biodegradable casket, it wouldn’t do to have those chemicals leaking into the soil. To say nothing of the effect that such chemicals would have in slowing natural decomposition, which is one of the main goals of going greenly into the afterworld.
No, there will be no embalming at a green funeral. That benefits the environment and the pocketbook of survivors. If a green cemetery is the chosen final resting place of a loved one, many will require that body not be embalmed.
So what does a green cemetery look like anyway? Well, in a word: Green. When you stop to think about it a traditional cemetery is not really all that restful or tranquil. They are oftentimes devoid of trees and filled with large, granite headstones. They are well manicured and heavily landscaped. Visiting Mom and Dad on Memorial Day would sure be a lot more peaceful without all those mowers running.
Green cemeteries tackle all of these drawbacks to traditional burial, and more. Again, there are two goals: to reduce the overall environmental impact and to promote or enable the return of the body to the earth. Many of these new cemeteries take the form of a forest or a field of wildflowers. The form the cemetery takes depends on its location, since the idea is to promote the growth of natural and native plants as the decaying bodies nourish that growth. Perhaps that is difficult to think about it, but in a way a growing tree is much more a celebration of life than a chunk of granite.
In keeping with the goal of minimizing environmental impact, the grounds are often left un-groomed. The graves are typically dug by hand. Such decisions on the part of groundskeepers keep the consumption of fossil fuels to a minimum, maintain a more tranquil environment (no noisy equipment), and reduce the amount of pesticides or fertilizers put into the ground.
No granite headstones? That’s right; there are significant environmental concerns involved with the quarrying of the stone needed to produce the ubiquitous monuments to a loved ones. And really, what’s the need? Those who choose cremation forego the comfort of a permanent marker and choose instead to spread a loved one’s ashes on a favorite beach or at some other meaningful site. Those who decide they want to be buried, albeit in a more natural process, don’t necessarily deprive their survivors of a grave marker.
The headstone can be replaced by many things. A pile of native stones can serve as a monument, or some new cemeteries allow simple, wooden markers. Others choose to have a small tree planted at the grave site. One cemetery in California allows the planting of small trees and then provides family members with GPS information so the grave site can be found by future generations as the landscape changes.
Other companies, recognizing that some still prefer a more traditional memorial, are producing headstones that are made of pressed plant composites. Such markers are still sustainable and avoid the environmental costs associated with traditional granite.
The choices in grave markers are vast in the world of green funerals. There are no hard and fast rules here. Indeed, some may opt for nothing at all, which is perhaps the greenest of all choices.
If the choices for a green funeral seem too numerous, you may think that opting for cremation is a simpler choice that is just as green. Proponents of the eco-funeral disagree. Cremation of a single body, they argue, requires 356 cubic feet of natural gas. Furthermore it produces carbon dioxide and even promotes mercury pollution as the fillings in teeth are incinerated.
But a new process is being offered by some as an alternative to traditional flame cremation. It is called resomation and relies on nothing but lye and hot water to naturally dissolve the body. The chemical process is actually called alkaline hydrolysis and promoters of it argue that it is really only speeding up the natural process of decomposition. It has been used for years by institutions like the Mayo Clinic and the University of Florida to dispose of human cadavers.
Once a body is dissolved using the process the bones can be ground to a fine powder and presented to survivors in an urn and those remains can be spread just as with traditional cremation. Resomation, then is a green alternative that still respects the ritual of cremation; a choice that is currently made by over 40 percent of Americans.
Whether old fashioned burial or cremation is the way you choose to have your remains handled after you pass. There are many newer, greener ways to have it done. Such green decisions are likely to cost your survivors less money and will likely have less negative impact on the environment for future generations.