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NEW YORK, 27 OCTOBER 2008
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
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.
And 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.
CONTACTS: Green Burial Council, www.greenburialcouncil.org;
Forest Stewardship Council, www.fscus.org; Greensprings Natural
Cemetery, www.naturalburial.org; Great
Burial Reef, www.greatburialreef.com;
Eternal Reefs, www.eternalreefs.com.
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or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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