The rising interest in green burial is in fact a return to the practices that our forebears used prior to the rise of the modern funeral industry. The movement first started in Britain as natural or woodland burials. Embalming, metal caskets, and concrete burial vaults are banned, and a tree is planted directly on top of each grave. The resulting forests look somewhat like tree farms.
The amount of resources spent on traditional funerals and the environmental impact is staggering. Every year, conventional burials utilize more than 827 thousand gallons of embalming fluid, which puts toxins and carcinogens into the earth, over 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete for vaults, more than 90 thousand tons of steel and 27 hundred tons of copper and bronze for caskets, and 14 thousand tons of steel for underground vaults. That’s enough metal to build a Golden Gate Bridge each year, and enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit, according to Joe Sehee, Executive Director of the Green Burial Council.
Green burial fosters returning to the earth as naturally as possible and eschews embalming, sealed caskets to shield the body from the earth, and cemeteries of unnaturally sculpted acres. Providers are rising to address this interest, committed to reducing toxins, waste, and carbon emissions associated with conventional end-of-life rituals.
Green burial grounds can also serve as wildlife sanctuaries and nature preserves that restore and protect ecosystems. The Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina was the first of this new type of green burial ground in the U.S. Founded in 1998 by Billy and Kimberly Campbell, here the graves are hand-dug, shrouds or plain wooden boxes are used without a vault or grave liner, and natural stones mark the final resting places of the dead.
The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization, provides an eco-certification program for those in the funeral industry who wish to embrace it. The organization has certified at least a dozen burial grounds around the country, and when the green cemetery is operated as a nature conservancy, purchasing a burial plot can be a tax-deductible contribution.
Sehee said, “We’re trying to reduce the use of toxins and waste, CO2 emissions in death care, and involve burial as a legitimate conservation tool. Our mantra is we want to make burial sustainable for the planet, meaningful for the family, and economically viable for the provider.”
He speaks to funeral directors around the country on the growing trend. “We have a 100% voluntary market-based mechanism, and so far, so good,” said Sehee. “We’ve harnessed a lot of consumer demand, created awareness for this idea, and now we can leverage that by getting funeral homes and cemeteries to get on board, which we’re doing increasingly.” As of 2009, the Green Burial Council had certified at least 65 funeral homes.
The skyrocketing use of cremation for body disposal was a disruptive innovation in the staid funeral home industry, historically slow to embrace changes in their business model. Many providers lost business to cremation providers. Green burial is a second disruptive innovation. Sehee tells funeral directors to pay attention and respond, saying, “I tell them, you want this to be Cremation Round Two? Go ahead – diminish it, and don’t embrace it. Let others provide it, because that’s what will happen.”
“My feeling is the real driver is connected to spiritual issues,” said Sehee. “It’s innate for us to want to befriend our death to a certain degree. Cultures all over the world have done this. It’s only been in the last hundred years that this idea has been co-opted from us through practices and products that impede the process of decomposition. I personally think our culture’s inclination to deny death is more associated with some of the ickier aspects of conventional death care that you don’t want to think about.”
“Consumers should know that they do have options, no matter what end-of-life ritual or disposition choice appeals to them,” said Sehee. “And they can find providers who will accommodate them – that’s going to be increasingly easier to do.”
For more information, visit www.GreenBurialCouncil.org.
If you’ve got the acreage to allow zoning for a family plot on the “back 40,” burying a body at home can also be a green burial option. Keep in mind, though, that perpetual care of the burial site will be a responsibility handed down through the generations. The presence of a burial site will need to be made known if the property is sold in the future, and that could adversely impact property value.
And in today’s Non Sequitur cartoon, we visit a traditional cemetery for an agnostic’s burial. The headstone: “See You Later… Maybe.”