Death planning is a very personal topic, and one which most people find discomfiting. It’s hard enough to consider your own mortality as an abstract concept. It’s even harder to think in very specific—even graphic—terms about what will happen to your remains after you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
A growing number of people are seeking alternatives to the traditional burial, which typically involves embalming, concrete vaults, and other processes and products that are not friendly to the environment. An article in Scientific American put some astonishing numbers to the resource costs of this type of burial:
According to National Geographic, American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.
And if you assume, as many people do, that cremation is a greener option, you may be surprised to learn that, in the U.S. alone, the cremation process (which requires a great deal of energy to maintain 1,800-degree Fahrenheit temperatures) releases approximately 250,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. That’s roughly the same as burning more than 30 million gallons of gasoline.
In addition to the environmental concerns, there’s also the monetary cost of burial to consider. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a traditional funeral is about $8,500.
While the concept of green burial began to see a resurgence in popularity about 30 years ago, its traditions hail from much farther back in human history. In the simplest terms, a green burial is one that does away with most of the trappings of a modern funeral. There is no embalming, no fancy coffins, no concrete vaults, and no pesticides or other poisons applied at the burial site.
A green burial can be as simple as wrapping the body in a cotton shroud and placing it in the ground, typically at a depth of 3 to 4 feet, which is shallower than the traditional 5 to 6 feet. Sometimes, a wicker coffin or other biodegradable container is used. In a green burial, the body of the deceased is not embalmed. Embalming is not necessary for burial. It is a cosmetic procedure that is done strictly to preserve a body for the purposes of public viewing.
A green burial limits waste, reduces costs, minimizes the carbon footprint, keeps hazardous chemicals out of the soil, and can even help nourish the local ecosystem. In the case of conservation burial, the burial can also help to protect land by using burial fees to fund land acquisition, protection, and management.
According to the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery, a non-profit community cemetery in Florida, “The burial area also becomes hallowed ground, restored to its natural condition and protected forever with a conservation easement. Native plants beautify the burial sites. Those who support conservation are offered a more meaningful burial option with the certainty that protected land is the ultimate legacy to leave for future generations.”
Exploring Unique Green Burial Options
While most green burials focus on embracing the simplicity of a pared down funeral and internment, there are related burial options that are evolving out of this growing trend.
There is, for instance, the much-publicized “tree pod.” Designed and developed by two Italian designers, the Capsula Mundi is a biodegradable, egg-shaped burial container. At the moment, the company only offers a model suitable to contain cremated remains, but they have plans to release a larger size to hold intact remains.
Another unusual green burial choice was brought into the mainstream when the actor Luke Perry chose it for himself. The “mushroom suit” (or “infinity burial suit”) is an organic cotton, jumpsuit-style shroud that is seeded with specially cultivated mushroom spores. There is a TEDTalk about how this product helps people contribute to a cleaner, greener planet even in death, but the company’s website seems to be out of commission. Maybe this idea hasn’t quite caught on.
For people who are more comfortable with cremation, there are some companies offering interesting ways to put ashes to rest. Despite popular beliefs, sprinkling human ashes on the ground is not a very environmentally friendly solution. For those who would like to protect the soil, Let Your Love Grow provides a patented, all-organic mixture designed to offset the natural toxicity of ash and invite new life to flourish. Eternal Reefs offers an ocean-based option that combines a cremation urn, ash scattering, and burial at sea into one meaningful, permanent environmental tribute to life.
A number of states are also considering legalizing human composting (also known as “natural organic reduction”) as a burial option. Recompose, a very futuristic-looking facility, is the first business to offer this service in Kent, Washington where the process is already legal.
When it comes to our final resting place, there is no one right answer; but it’s good to have options. There are still a lot of stigmas and legal barriers to overcome, but a large number of people are starting to seriously consider alternatives to traditional burial.
According to a 2018 survey from the National Funeral Directors Association, nearly 54 percent of Americans are considering a green burial, and 72 percent of cemeteries have seen an increase in demand for such options. Currently, in Connecticut, there are very few resources to help facilitate a green burial. (One Connecticut family made national news headlines with their ordeal to fulfill a mother’s dying wish.)
But as this trend gathers momentum, and more people become aware of the options and their environmental benefits, it seems likely that green burials will become more accessible. In the meantime, you can learn more about green burials and access a variety of resources at the Green Burial Council or The Order of the Good Death.