Choices made by governments, business and industry, and individuals all impact our planet in various ways. Individual choices are usually the easiest to control. All areas of life, including end of life planning, offer opportunities to make choices which are more environmentally friendly. A green burial is one alternative to traditional burial or cremation.
An understanding of how each step in the process of traditional burial contributes to its overall effects on our world is often missing. Last week’s column briefly discussed the process of embalming. Estimates are that over 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde (a toxin) and other chemicals are used for embalming every year in the U.S. alone.
Caskets and vaults add to the environmental load. They require over 20 million board feet of hardwood, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, over 64,000 tons of steel, and 1.6 million tons of concrete annually. Fewer trees mean less uptake of carbon dioxide from the air. A steel casket weighing 200 pounds releases 800 pounds of carbon dioxide during its manufacture. Bronze caskets release even more carbon dioxide per pound during their manufacture than steel ones. The cement required for a single concrete vault releases 450 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Cemeteries also require consideration. Cemeteries require land, and although this land may be thought of as green space, the manicured lawns require mowing, fertilizer, and pesticides to keep them looking pristine. Mausoleums allow for a more efficient use of space but they still require building materials and maintenance. Mausoleums provide greater protection for remains when a cemetery is located in a flood prone area, but drawbacks also exist. Odors can leak from even tightly sealed caskets. In addition, the gases which build up during decomposition may cause a tightly sealed casket to burst, both of which will be more noticeable when final disposition is above ground rather than below.
Are there solutions to the dilemma of honoring the dead while also respecting the environment? In 3 states (Washington, Colorado, and Oregon), human composting, also known as natural organic reduction, is legal. This process involves placing a body in a stainless steel vessel with a mixture of wood chips, alfalfa, and straw. Moisture and temperature are controlled, and within 30 days, the microbes which are naturally present in the body and in the plant matter work with oxygen to turn the body into soil. The soil is allowed to dry for an additional 2-4 weeks and is tested for safety. Then, it can be returned to the family or donated to a natural wilderness. Additional information about this method of disposition can be found at https://recompose.life/.
A more widely available environmental alternative is green burial. The Green Burial Council is a nonprofit organization which focuses on working with the funeral industry to provide more environmentally sustainable options for final disposition. It defines green burial as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.”
The term “green” is easy to utilize in a misleading manner. This organization certifies cemeteries, funeral homes, and products according to carefully developed standards so that consumers can better understand their choices. Cemeteries can be certified as hybrid, natural, or conservation according to their specific practices. The Green Burial Council has certified 8 cemeteries and 26 funeral homes in Pennsylvania.
Green burial practices include avoidance of embalming, certain types of caskets, and vaults. Bodies are placed in biodegradable containers or wrapped in shrouds prior to burial. The land is kept in a natural state free from pesticides and fertilizers. Graves are marked with native or non-native stones or GPS coordinates instead of upright or concrete based markers.
Questions may arise about a green burial such as whether or not bodies buried in this manner attract animals or contaminate the water supply, how deeply they are buried, how long it takes them to decompose, and what a family’s experience will be like during a green burial. Find these answers and more at https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/real_answers_question_about_green_burial.html .
Would you prefer to be buried in your yard? It isn’t as farfetched as it might sound. Home burials are allowed in all states except Arkansas, California, Indiana, Louisiana, Washington State, and the District of Columbia. Regulations vary according to both state and local municipalities so do your homework before planning this type of disposition.
This series of columns was designed to provide information about various practices for the final disposition of human bodies. End of life planning is a very personal endeavor, and if you have preferences about what should happen with your remains, conversations with your loved ones and preplanning for specific actions will increase the likelihood that your goals will be realized.
Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN