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!