Rest in Green Peace: Green Burials for Sustainability After Death

Sustainability, it seems, can be practiced in all aspects of one’s life–including DEATH!

As I discovered recently, traditional methods of handling dead humans are surprisingly serious sources of pollution and resource consumption. For example, burials require a dangerous toxin, formaldehyde, to embalm the body, and those pollutants remain in the corpse as it decays and then goes back into the Earth. Caskets, too, can be problematic in terms of using wood (usually not sustainably harvested), and then the graveyards where they all end up take up lots of land. What about cremation? Well, stoking those fires requires tremendous amounts of power–i.e., electricity, which of course usually comes from coal-fired power plants.

According to the statistics from Wikipedia, each year in America the following environmental nasties get sent below ground with our dearly departed:

  • 30 million board feet (70,000 m³) of hardwoods (caskets);
  • 90,272 tons of steel (caskets);
  • 14,000 tons of steel (vaults);
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets);
  • 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults);
  • 827,060 US gallons (3,130 m³) of embalming fluid, which most commonly includes formaldehyde.1

Knowing all this, Death becomes even scarier than usual for any eco-conscious person. But rather than face the great unknown with a heavy heart, rather than lie in the Earth without the ability to rest in peace, you can help preserve the planet even after you are gone. Yes, you can get a green burial.

With a green burial, also known as a “natural burial,” no preservatives or other chemicals are used to embalm the body…so you rot the good old fashioned way: naturally. How nice to know you will not be killing the conqueror worms, or at least giving them a tummy ache, as they feed on your flesh! The coffins are made from recycled paper products, cardboard, or even wicker, and they use no chemical glues or other toxic components. If you choose cremation, you can even get urns that are sustainably produced with recycled materials.

Moreover, the burial sites and cemeteries themselves are equally natural when you go with a green burial. Rather than use tombstones or vaults or any other extravagant memorials, green burial sites use natural markers–trees, flowers, or stones, for example. The individual sites are also recorded via survey techniques, such as GIS, so that the living can still find where they planted you (pun intended). The green cemeteries are often on land that has been donated as a conservation easement or is a preserve/park of some sort.

The best resource for finding out more about green burials is the Green Burial Council, which has been working to make death a little greener since 2005. The Council’s website offers great information on the process, including an FAQ, and providers of green burials. You can also find out more from other non-profits, individual green burial companies, and specific cemeteries.

Now, at first glance this whole green burial thing may seem a bit…well, silly. Yes, it is important to live sustainably, but do we also have to keep fretting about it all and try do die sustainably, too?!

Whether or not you go for an all-out green burial, I think the basic idea behind this is in fact quite important. The very fact that we have to try to have a natural/green burial, that we have to make very specific and meticulous efforts to break conventions in order to be kinder to the Earth, is rather troubling. It reflects quite clearly just how unsustainable modern life has become.

So having a green burial option is really quite refreshing. It almost makes you look forward to death…okay, maybe not. It should definitely make you think about how every aspect of your life truly has some impact on the environment.

I, too, have been mulling over my own inevitable passing away after learning more about green burials. If I wanted to get fancy and complicated, I think it would be nice to be cremated in a bonfire somewhere out in nature. I would like my loved ones then to scatter part of the ashes in the Rivanna River and the rest into the winds from Humpback Rocks, a fantastic point way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

At the same time, though, even that much complexity and “ceremony” seems a bit overdone for little old me. Instead, maybe I should just have someone dig a hole, throw me in, and cover me back over with the soil. After all, the worms are going to get me anyway…so why try to delay the process? And I would like to give back to the Earth by “fertilizing” it in my own way, with my very own flesh, and so become part of nature once again in every single bodily part and particle.

Death, be not proud…be thou green instead!

Image credit: Gerrit at Wikimedia Commons.
1. “Natural Burial.” Wikipedia 8 July 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_burial>.

  1. derek

    When my son died, we wanted to be able to bury him in a natural setting, preferably a spot we chose. We had some friends offer their land for this, but the regulations were complicated to comply with. We were grieving and in schock, so we didn’t pursue it and had his body cremated.
    Lesson? Look into options now, so you can make choices then.

  2. Aurelia

    Is this a well-known option? I think that more people should know about it and it should be commonly considered as an option! We should all be green, in life and death!

  3. aditya

    I recently read a post on New York shutting down its power system for an hour as an initiative against global warming. Some people criticized it saying, “What effect could that have on the planet, it certainly doesn’t feel cooler”. But I think what we do on an individual level has more of a symbolic meaning and creates awareness among the general public. That is how it goes a long way. We at Mahindra recently had a similar event under on of our programmes ‘Mahindra hariyalli’, which was basically a seed planting campaign. I would like to get your views on it on our corporate blog (mahindrauniverse.com).

  4. Dustin

    Thanks for this post. I have often thought that our burial practices were wasteful and more harmful than helpful. The hurdle is getting family members to realize that preserving their loved ones forever is not something that is a good thing and they are in turn hurting the earth in order to not let go.

  5. kimba

    FYI – embalming is not legally required, but the funeral industry would like you to think it is, as it’s another expensive service they can add to your bill. Just forgoing this unnecessary and expensive “service” can green up even a traditional burial a tad.

    An excellent and entertaining resource: “The American Way of Death” by the late (and great) Jessica Mitford.

  6. Andrew

    I totally agree that embalming is unnecessary and polluting.
    Be careful about the rhetoric around cremation though – the GBC linked above are pretty well grounded, but some you’ll find on the Net is OTT and misleading – the amount of energy required to cremate a body is not that large (relative, say, to the gas used for the procession to drive all the way out to an out-of-town cemetery). Neither is pollution from cremation such a big deal if you choose a good crematorium and a non-polluting coffin (or shroud etc).
    I’m all for information and choice – great article!

  7. shroudwoman

    Green Burial Update:
    In 2004 after working in California’s first green cemetery I invented our company KINKARACO-Green Burial Shrouds hardly anyone knew what a shroud was outside of the Jewish or Muslim communities.
    In 2005 our shroud was featured on the popular TV show “Six Feet Under” and people started learning more about it.
    Our customers then were mostly environmentally concious individuals pre-purchasing shrouds to keep with their written final wishes.
    For years the funeral homes and traditional cemeteries viewed Green Burial as a threat but today they are beginning to see it as a viable alternative and more funeral homes around the country are providing our products as more and more Green cemeteries and Natural Burial preserves crop up all over the country!
    Jessica Mitford’s expose started the only “sustainable” alternative -CREMATION-for the late 20th century at a time when that choice was very controversial.
    In the 21st century cremation is no longer the most sustainable option due to its use of so much gas and emissions.
    Green Burial provides a truly natural organic 21st Century form of interment by “recycling” your very own body!
    Thank you

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