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Green Burials

I’ve been debating whether this is too morbid a topic, but my father passed away last week, so I’ve been pretty morbid lately. My dad’s wishes were for a very simple, unintentionally environmentally friendly burial that included cremation and no viewing. Unfortunately, the option that the majority of Americans choose (wake, casket, etc.) is the least green option possible. Why?

  • Embalming fluid – The embalming process uses formaldehyde, a toxic chemical that may be the source of the increased leukemia rate in embalmers. In order to have an open casket viewing (which I find kind of creepy anyway), the body needs to be embalmed, by law, even if it’ll be cremated afterwards.
  • Concrete burial vaults – Concrete boxes enclose coffins so that the ground doesn’t sink as the body decomposes. Each year, 1.6 million tons of concrete is used for this purpose—in the U.S. alone.
  • Caskets – 30 million board feet of wood is used per year for American caskets. It seems so wrong to me that trees are cut down just to be buried.
  • Cemetery land use – Cemeteries aren’t quite as bad as golf courses for pesticide usage and landscaping footprint, but they’re close. And what a waste of good land!

While cremation does use fuel (roughly the same as a month’s energy use for a single person) and emit air pollution (it’s the second-largest source of airborne mercury in Europe), its total use of resources is far less than a traditional burial. Only a third of Americans choose this option right now, but the percentage is expected to rise to half by 2025.

Image from the Grave Matters blog

The absolute best option that I can find (after my organs are recycled, of course) is a burial that doesn’t include a casket or liner, just a simple shroud. That way the body decomposes and the nutrients from it are returned to the soil. Not many cemeteries of that sort exist right now, but Rainbow’s End in Orrington, Maine seems to be the one that’s closest to my family (thus cutting down on their travel footprint). If you don’t live near Orrington, the Centre for Natural Burial has compiled a comprehensive list of green burial sites in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Of course, in the winter this wouldn’t be an option, so cremation and scattering in the woods seems like the best alternative. Truthfully, I would like to be composted or buried on my parents’ farm, but I don’t think I’d ever be able to convince my family to do that, even if I made them listen to “Circle of Life” a million times.


Comment from Jenn
Time January 28, 2010 at 8:56 am

…About the trees for caskets, I believe the finished boxes are likely also treated with chemicals (varnishes and stuff) – to make them pretty for the “big day”…

…And mining for (“perfect” pieces of) granite to make gravestones…

…All the pesticide-treated flowers that go into funeral-making…silk flowers, bits of ribbon, and plastic pots in cemetaries…

From a “green” point of view, modern burial rituals are pretty “un-green”…

I sincerely hope that when the time comes, your wishes will be honored.

Comment from Brenda Pike
Time January 29, 2010 at 8:32 am

Yeah, traditional funerals are just all-around not good. Thanks, Jenn.

Pingback from All Things Eco Blog Carnival Volume Eighty Seven » Focus
Time February 1, 2010 at 2:10 pm

[…] Pike presents Green Burials posted at Pragmatic […]

Comment from Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
Time February 1, 2010 at 3:45 pm

I’m very sorry for your loss. I was going to write about this subject sometime as well. It’s something we don’t talk about much. I know for me I want my body to help the earth when I die not make it even more toxic. Thanks for being willing to share!

Pingback from Friday Green Links – 2/12 « Pragmatic Environmentalism
Time February 12, 2010 at 8:00 pm

[…] I’m a week late in mentioning this, but my Green Burials post was featured in the All Things Eco carnival. Thanks, […]

Comment from Carol
Time March 5, 2010 at 2:48 pm

This article was sent to me by a friend – just wanted to let you know we are out there -cheerleading for a eco way to go!

Pingback from Pragmatic Environmentalism
Time February 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm

[…] The exaggeration is the worst. The only way he could actually have no impact on the environment is if he killed himself—and even then his funeral would consume resources and pollute. […]

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