For many people who make an effort to live sustainability, it's equally important that the end of their lives are environmentally conscious as well. But what is a green funeral? The Conservation Burial Alliance defines it 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."
There are many options for a green funeral, and few hard and fast rules. Greener options may take a bit more planning, so it's helpful to talk about your and your loved ones' desires early.
History and Environmental Impact of Modern Funerals
The way we treat our loved ones after death today is very different from past traditions. Throughout the ages, people predominantly buried the deceased below ground to let their bodies decay and fertilize plants. Only the very prominent were given elaborate memorials that would not allow decomposition, such as mummified Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese monarchs.
It was only in the nineteenth century that scientists started to preserve organs for study after death. With this came the ability to preserve a loved one who had died far from home and move the body to celebrate their life with family. Embalming slowly became the norm and is now common practice.
Research in the Berkeley Planning Journal reports that, annually, cemeteries in the United States use and bury:
- Over 30 million board feet of hardwood
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze
- 104,272 tons of steel
- 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete
- 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (primarily formaldehyde)
As these figures show, traditional funerals use a great deal of natural resources. A green burial uses fewer of these resources and prioritizes the long-term health of the environment.
Green Burial Sites
You may be wondering, what is a green funeral burial site like? Natural burial parks or green cemeteries are not like the highly manicured graveyards you may be used to. Often, these sites are nature preserves with trails through conserved wooded lands and intentionally built wildlife habitats. These locations will not use pesticides or herbicides that pollute waterways and harm pollinators. The Green Burials website lists natural burial parks and cemeteries by state.
Another alternative is to memorialize the deceased through habitat preservation. The nonprofit Eternal Reefs offers one such example of this by helping to build coral reefs with cremated remains—marrying thoughtful burials with environmental preservation.
The memorial service to remember a loved one who has passed does not need to be any different during a green burial. A religious ceremony is still often held as well as a graveside memorial and an event with loved ones sharing food and stories.
Caskets have long been used to move and bury bodies. Bodies break down at a much slower rate in traditional vaults and caskets than they do in a natural burial. While neither caskets nor vaults are airtight, they typically prevent the body from joining the soil. A natural burial, on the other hand, lets the body fully return to the earth.
As the Berkeley Planning Journal report explains, in a green burial, the best practice is to bury the body without any embalming fluid in one of the following materials:
- A cloth covering
- A shroud
- A biodegradable casket made of bamboo, paper, wool, banana leaf, or willow
If you are not near a green burial site that commonly uses one of these materials, ask your funeral home and cemetery what they may allow. An untreated wooden casket is a more traditional option that will decompose eventually. Additionally, you can ask for the bottom of the casket to be removed and entirely forego the vault that goes around the casket.
Cremation and Urns
Cremation is not officially considered a green burial, but again, it is up to the family and the deceased how they want to be honored. The Green Burials site reports that cremation releases dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide when the body is burned. However, it may be an appealing option for those who do not want a grave site that takes up crowded cemetery space.
For those who are cremated instead of buried, there are many urns that are eco-friendly. Urns made of wood are often a suitable green choice if the urn will be displayed as a memorial in a home. For those that will be buried or sent away at sea, there are other biodegradable options made from materials such as clay and gelatin, salt (for a sea burial), wood, wicker, cornstarch, or heavy-duty cardboard (for a soil burial). Other urns may contain a seed or sapling so the deceased's body will nourish a growing tree.
The headstone at the grave site of a green burial is often different than those used for a traditional graveyard. At a natural burial park, usually a tree, a flowering shrub, or a flower bed mark a grave instead of a headstone. These living memorials act as a habitat for native animals and add to the natural aesthetic of the nature preserve. Some burial parks do allow a natural engraved rock, but this is not always the case.
A green funeral can leave a lasting, positive impact on nature and the Earth while honoring the dead. Are you looking for more ways to live your entire life in a more eco-friendly manner? Check out our other green living tips on the Thinking Sustainably board by @tomsofmaine on Pinterest!
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Why It's Good
A green burial honors the dead while creating a lasting, natural memorial that lessens the environmental impact caused by traditional burials. Aligning the end of a person's life with the values they embraced throughout their life is a beautiful way to honor them.