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A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

FEBRUARY 2012 (links updated 2014): Think about the effort you put into living green. Now, take a breath and consider your death. Shouldn't it reflect the same values?

Green Burials
In tune with nature—and religious traditions

This may seem an odd, if not macabre, thing to say, but I am interested in the different ways my final remains can be put to rest. So should you be.

You see, there's the conventional way of getting buried in the U.S. today—which typically involves embalming, a fancy casket and interment in a cemetery park—and there are simpler, greener, less expensive ways. (Yes, for once, the green alternative is cheaper.)

Neither law nor religion dictates conventional practices—indeed, some faiths even prohibit them—yet many Americans think they're the only choice. As a result, over 30 million board feet of hardwood, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete and more than 100,000 tons of metal are locked away in graves each year.

Pollution is another side effect of our modern burial rites. Toxic embalming fluids end up in ground and surface waters, as do the herbicides and pesticides slathered on cemetery lawns to achieve that "perfect" manicured look.

What do we get for the waste and pollution? A comforting illusion—that our bodies and those of our loved ones will remain intact forever inside their massive steel caskets in their evergreen burial grounds.

But it's just a conjuring trick. The bodies will decompose eventually, regardless of the way they were prepared or housed. In fact, the whole purpose of the concrete vaults used in burial plots is to keep the ground from caving in when the casket and remains finally crumble.

A very different vision inspires green burials: that of returning to the earth whence we came. Think "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

This familiar phrase, from the funeral service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, is derived from a passage in the Old Testament. When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge, they are banished from the Garden of Eden lest they eat next from the Tree of Life. Immortality—at least in corporeal form—is not to be their fate. As they are told: "For dust thou art and to dust shalt thou return."

There's a certain bleakness to the traditional, non-sugar-coated view, but also consolation. Out of our ashes and dust, new life blooms. For real.

In that spirit, green burials let nature take its course with our remains, while supporting both the life around us and the life to come. In practice, that means small caskets and shrouds made of sustainable materials, simple graves with neither liners nor concrete vaults and no embalming with toxic chemicals.

The greenest burials go a step or two further by helping to preserve open space and restore ecosystems. Grave markers are unobtrusive flat stones or living things, such as trees or patches of wildflowers. In some cases, there are no markers at all. Instead, the exact locations are recorded and GPS systems guide visitors to them.

As to cremation, it is not as green an option as many people imagine, in that it burns fossil fuels and emits toxins into the air, including mercury from dental fillings. However, it does use fewer resources than conventional in-ground burial. Choosing an urn made of a sustainable material, such as bamboo, reduces the waste further.

It is also possible to offset the environmental impact of cremation by disposing of the ashes in a memorial reef that creates habitat for undersea creatures.

No one likes to think about death, but if you educate yourself about the alternatives while you are alive and kicking, you can decide for yourself how you want to go. The Green Burial Council offers a Green Burial Planning Guide to help you think through the choices and communicate them to the people who need to know—be they family members or friends, an attorney or the funeral home and/or cemetery with whom you may have already made final arrangements.

If you are looking to make final arrangements now, search the Green Burial Council's directory of certified green providers. GBC rates green providers according to the stringency of their practices, with one to three leaves (in place of stars).

Even if there are no certified green providers in your area, you still have options. Look for a funeral home that does not insist on embalming. It is not usually a legal requirement if the body is buried or cremated soon after death, and skipping it will save you hundreds of dollars. Some facilities may require it if a public viewing is planned. In that case, keep looking. Funeral homes with refrigeration services may prove more accommodating.

Similarly, you can green up burial in a conventional cemetery by choosing a simple, fully biodegradable casket. If a concrete vault is optional, do without one. Ditto for a grave liner.

For those making arrangements for someone else, one more alternative may be available. In the vast majority of states, you can make the funeral at home (provided you meet local legal requirements, of course). This can be done all on your own or with the help of a licensed funeral director—and can be a very personal, moving affair. If you live in the country with enough acreage, a home burial may be possible as well.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


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Graveside service
Gravestone
Plant in place of gravestone
Beaver pond
CONSERVATION BURIALS, like those at Ramsey Creek Preserve (above), which pioneered the concept, are the ultimate in green burials. Not only do they avoid practices that are harmful to the environment, they save, protect and restore habitat, such as the woods and beaver pond shown above. Graves may be marked with unobtrusive flat stones native to the region or with plants.

Photos courtesy of Ramsey Creek Preserve.


Resources


NPR
Environmentally Friendly Funerals

Green Burial Council
Find a Green Burial Provider

Funeral Consumers Alliance
Funeral FAQs

Federal Trade Commission
Funerals: A Consumer Guide

Reader's Digest
13 Things the Funeral Director Won't Tell You

The Boston Globe
Mercury Emissions Fuel Cremation Fight

Smithsonain Magaine
The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral

Crossings
Home Funeral and Green Burial Resource Center

Also see resources embedded in the text.


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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling!