Appeared in Orange County Voice as The Green Reaper: How to Die Ecologically, November 2007, page 11.
Green Endings – A Better Way to Go
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.
There’s one topic that people like to think about even less than what they owe in taxes or the most humiliating thing they have ever done — funerals and burials, especially their own.
We avoid it not just because it brings up the really big questions (Why are we here? Is there life after death?), but also because we feel no connection to the whole mortuary scene — the cold sterile slab, the smelly embalming fluids, the dreary funeral parlor. These facets of modern burials say nothing about us, or the values we hold.
But there’s a movement afoot to offer an alternative that is less impersonal and, for many people, more meaningfully connected to the life that was lived. It is called green burials.
Why Green Burials
A green burial is really anything but new. It’s what the early Americans did. Bodies were wrapped in shrouds or modest pine boxes and buried in a natural setting with a simple marker.
Burials in Western culture have since morphed into something quite different. Bodies are embalmed with a fixative, usually formaldehyde, placed in metal or hard-wood caskets and buried in graves lined with plastic or cement vaults.
The movement to return to simpler burial practices is spearheaded by Joe Sehee, a one time Jesuit lay minister who is outspoken about both the sterile, scripted nature of modern burial practices and the negative impact they have on the environment. He reminds us, for instance, that formaldehyde is a known toxin that can leach over time into groundwater. Formaldehyde is listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a known carcinogen and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen, and it has been linked to nasal/throat cancer, leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease. In fact, the European Union is considering banning the chemical as a threat to both human health and the environment.
The practice of preserving a body through embalming emerged during the Civil War when felled soldiers had to be transported long distances for burial near home. But with the advent of refrigeration, embalming became unnecessary. Refrigeration is a very adequate preservative, even when viewing of the body is central to a funeral.
No state or federal law requires embalming. Furthermore, Sehee claims there is no evidence whatsoever that embalming is needed to prevent the spread of air-borne pathogens “unless a corpse learns to cough.”
Sehee also questions the rationale behind non-biodegradable (and often very expensive) caskets and vaults. Neither caskets nor vaults are required by law, although cemeteries can insist on them. At the height of vulnerability, family or friends can feel pressured to demonstrate their love for the deceased by spending money on such accoutrements that might even be at odds with the values of the loved one.
The associated environmental costs are high too. The volume of cement that goes into burial vaults each year is enough to pave a two-lane highway from New York City to Detroit. Another Golden Gate Bridge could be built each year with the amount of metal poured into making bullet-proof caskets. Fancier wooden caskets are typically made from hardwoods that might not be harvested sustainably. Also, maintaining expanses of manicured lawns necessitates unending consumption of fossil fuels, water and pesticides.
To offer access to greener end-of-life practices, Sehee recently founded the non-profit Green Burial Council (GBC) in New Mexico. The GBC’s mandate is three-fold: to certify death-care providers who will commit to “ecologically sound practices,” to create endowment funds to aid land conservation organizations in developing GBC-approved burial grounds, and to educate the public.
Two types of burial grounds can be certified (Natural and Conservation Burial Grounds) that differ basically in the type of legal protection that insures that the grounds will be shepherded into the future as intended. Natural, peaceful settings with conservation value are candidates. Key features of both certifications are the prohibitions on embalming, non-biodegradable caskets, and vaults. Graves are marked very simply, by stones, trees, wildflowers or not at all. A hand-held global positioning device insures that visitors can locate a gravesite with precision.
Embalming, luxury caskets and vaults all add cost to burials. Conventional whole body burials can run $5,000 to $10,000, whereas the price of burying cremated remains tops out at about $5,000. For a green burial, these rates are roughly halved: one-half pays for the burial itself plus continued stewardship of the site, and the other half goes to acquisition and restoration of further acreage.
GBC-certification is every bit a market-based tool to conserve land as well as a means to add meaning to end of life practices. Sehee’s goal for the next decade is to bring a million acres under the stewardship umbrella of GBC certification.
Burial at Sea
Cremation with burial at sea is probably the most well-known eco-friendly burial practice and has become synonymous with the Neptune Society founded 35 years ago.
Although separately owned Neptune Societies serve different parts of California, they all share much philosophically with the GBC. They do not sell caskets, although there is regional variation in the extent of funeral services offered. The deceased is cremated without embalming in a simple “dignified” container. The body is kept in refrigeration ahead of time, and viewing is generally possible, including when the body is placed in the cremation chamber.
While many people elect for scattering of ashes at sea, arrangements are possible for dispersal at a special place on private or public lands (e.g. secluded areas in state or national parks), interment in a cemetery, or return to the family in an urn. A different at-sea option is offered by Eternal Reefs in Atlanta, Georgia. A bell-shaped “reef,” fashioned from cremated remains mixed with pollutant-free cement and placed along the eastern seaboard, provides a living memorial. With cremation, families are free to craft a totally unique funeral reflective of a deceased’s values and wishes.
Cremation is not completely without environmental drawbacks, however. A modicum of natural gas is burned, typically 12-35 gallons according to Jim Ford, COO of Neptune Society, Inc. The issue of mercury emissions from dental amalgams has also been raised, although arrangement can be made for their removal beforehand. Ford emphasizes that the emissions from a street bus as it pulls away from a stop far exceed that from a cremation.
Southern California Options
Cremation is now fully mainstream in California, with half of residents choosing this option. The Neptune Society of Orange County’s website states that the charge is usually 20-80% less than what would be paid at a local funeral home.
So far there is only one GBC-certified conservation burial ground nationwide, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina. Northern California is home to a few hybrid cemeteries, however, where a section of a traditional cemetery is designated specifically for green burials. But that does not mean that southern Californians are without choices.
You can contact the GBC to locate funeral providers in your area that offer a “green package” where the burial still takes place in a conventional cemetery setting but foregoing the embalming, non-biodegradable casket and vault.
And if time is not of the essence, Sehee is working with conservation groups and cemeteries, including in Santa Barbara and San Diego counties, to establish certified green burial grounds and hybrid cemeteries in the not-too-distant future. GBC also hopes to partner with the Neptune Society to allocate scenic acreage in nearby mountain areas specifically for the scattering of ashes.
Through conversations with thousands of Americans, Sehee finds that Baby Boomers, who grew up along side the environmental movement, are especially likely to embrace the idea of a green-minded burial. However, he feels that the environmental pluses are “less a driving force than is the sense of greater connectedness to one’s final passage.”
A greener burial, whether on land or at sea, can be a way to say something deeply felt as we take leave of our earthly existence. Such a parting can bring us to a more honest and spiritual connection to the cycle of life and death.