The Ultimate in Recycling
by Wendy Priesnitz
When a loved one dies,
environmental issues may not be top of mind for grieving family and
friends. However, the average funeral and burial are very un-green.
Embalming fluid is made with formaldehyde, which is
a carcinogen. Most traditional caskets are made from
formaldehyde-glued chipboard covered in a thin veneer. Handles are
usually plastic, designed to look like brass. Those substances
pollute during manufacture and after burial. More expensive caskets
are manufactured using exotic or endangered species of wood. Many
cemeteries have few or no trees and often experience drainage and
ground water pollution problems. In others, the grounds have been
destroyed through the use of herbicides.
Most cemeteries require caskets to be buried in
concrete vaults. Originally developed in the 18th century to deter
grave robbers, vaults are sold today to keep the ground from sinking
and markers from moving. In the U.S. alone, these vaults cause 1.6
million tons of reinforced concrete to be buried annually.
Cremation was long considered more environmentally
friendly than burial, but its use of fossil fuels is problematic.
The average cremation produces about 50kg of carbon dioxide and
emits dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulphur dioxide
and mercury from dental fillings. Cremations are responsible for 16
percent of mercury released into the air in the U.K.
Fortunately, there is a simple, affordable and
environmentally-friendly alternative. A green or natural burial takes place
in a protected green space. No embalming fluid is used (nor is it necessary
– the Green Burial Council says there is no evidence that embalming provides
public health benefits and that, if necessary, a body can be preserved for a
few days in a cooler or by using dry ice). Interment is done in a
biodegradable casket made from cardboard or wicker, or directly in the
ground wrapped in a simple cotton shroud or a favorite blanket, and no
concrete vaults are used.
A natural burial site may be planted with native trees,
shrubs and wildflowers. Water is not wasted, nor are herbicides used. To
encourage land preservation, most green cemeteries grant conservation
easements to preserve the area in perpetuity. Some green cemeteries keep
track of graves using GPS and mark them with simple rocks and plantings;
other prefer a centralized memorial.
Home funerals are another way by which environmentally
conscious families can avoid compromising their values. A simple service at
home provides an opportunity for cost savings and allows family members to
more easily personalize end-of-life rituals. Just as the birthing process
has evolved away from something that was entirely controlled by the medical
profession, home funeral providers are much like midwives, assisting people
in taking matters into their own hands and having simple services that are
appropriate for their own particular needs. If you don’t want a funeral
provider involved, you can always organize a memorial service sometime after
Since we first reported on the “natural death” phenomenon in
1994, green burials have become more popular. A recent poll conducted by the
seniors’ organization AARP asked: “Which type of burial is most appealing?”
Only eight percent wanted a traditional cemetery burial; 18 percent chose
cremation and 70 percent chose a green burial. There are now over 200
natural burial grounds in the U.K. and experts say they’re starting to catch
on in the U.S., with cemeteries hosting natural burials in California,
Florida, New York, South Carolina and Texas. The Green Burial Council is
working on certification programs to verify the quality of providers who are
going natural. There are few natural burial sites in Canada, with the first
one opening last year in Victoria. On Earth Day 2006, the Natural Burial
Co-operative was formed in Canada, by which members will be able to purchase
environmentally safe burial products, pick a plot in a natural burial
cemetery and select the tree or other plants that will commemorate the
(In case you’re wondering, it might be legal in your area to
bypass the cemetery altogether...or not. While some jurisdictions prohibit
disposal of human remains anywhere other than in a cemetery, many other
don’t and, in fact, allow family cemetery plots. Check with your
state/province and municipal government.)
For those who still prefer the idea of cremation, it is also
becoming greener. The newer cremation burners incinerate many pollutants and
crematoriums are being encouraged to reduce their carbon footprints by
participating in carbon offset programs. Those who want to bury cremated
remains can purchase biodegradable urns. Some people also opt to add ashes
to balls that are dropped onto memorial ocean reef sites.
Green Burial Council
Natural Burial Association of Canada
Natural Death Centre UK
Grave Matters by Mark Harris (Scribner, 2007)
The Natural Death Handbook by Josefine Speyer
(Rider & Co, 2003)
Dealing Creatively with Death, a Manual of Death
Education and Simple Burial by Earnest Morgan (Upper Access, 2001)
Coming to Rest: A Guide to Caring for Our Own Dead,
an Alternative to the Commerical Funeral by Julie Wiskind
Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love by Lisa
Carlson (Upper Access, 1997)
Wendy Priesnitz is the
Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with more than 40 years of experience.
She has also authored 13 books.
This article was published in 2008.