Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, takes on new meaning with the rise in popularity of natural “green” burials. Many of us choose to be environmentally thoughtful throughout our lives, so why shouldn’t we continue that practice in death?
Most burials before the mid-19th century were natural burials, as are many Jewish and Muslim burials today. Commonly called green burials, the body is neither cremated nor filled with embalming fluids and other chemicals. Instead, you can truly become one with the Earth and co-create more life when buried in a natural way.
Why Not Cremation & Traditional Burial?
In 2019, the rates for cremation were higher than burial for the fourth year in a row. By the year 2040, according to a Cremation and Burial Report from the National Funeral Directors Association, cremation in the U.S. is projected to be 78.7%. There are many reasons for the rise in popularity of cremation, including concern for the environment. But what many don’t know is the negative environmental impact that this practice has on the planet.
Cremation takes a lot of fuel, emitting tons of carbon dioxide each year, about 6.8 million metric tons. Burial creates an environment mess as well. A research article entitled “Groundwater Pollution and Radiation Contamination in Cemeteries and Local Communities” details what we put into the ground each year.
Each year over 20,000 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:
- 14,000 tons of steel vaults.
- 90,272 tons of steel caskets.
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze caskets.
- 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults.
- 30 million board feet (70,000 m3) of hardwood caskets.
- 827,060 US gallons (3,130 m3) of embalming fluid, which usually includes formaldehyde.
There are about 109,000 cemeteries in the United States alone. When you do the math you can imagine the devastating effects that treated metals, concrete and chemicals draining into the soil and waterways cause. Formaldehyde is also classified a hazardous waste. As this information becomes better known, more people are waking up to a better way to give our bodies to the earth without harming the planet and creating more pollution.
What is Green Burial?
Choosing a green burial is a way of creating minimal environmental impact that helps reduce carbon emissions and supports the restoration and preservation of natural habitat. The Green Burial Council was founded in 2005 in order to create certification for qualifying green burial providers. They developed the first set of environment standards for green burials, funeral homes and product manufacturers that support them.
According to the Green Burial Council website, some shared characteristics of green burial cemeteries include:
- Forego toxic embalming
- Do away with vaults
- Choose biodegradable containers, caskets, shrouds, urns
- Discontinue herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers
- Encourage sustainable management practices
- May use GPS units, non-native stone markers to mark grave sites
- May support land conservation efforts
Green Burial Options
There are numerous types of green caskets now available on the market, including sustainably sourced wood without metal and bamboo coffins. These include Banana Leaf Caskets made with coiled banana leaves with rattan and seagrass; Bamboo Coffins handmade from bamboo, a truly sustainable material, as once cut at the root, it grows back to full height in 59 days; Rattan Caskets
These caskets are constructed from rattan and are available in natural (light) color or organically dyed (dark brown) color; Seagrass – a sturdy, renewable grass that grows in abundance; or Fabric – small child/infant coffins are often made from organic fabric and cording available in a variety of colors using natural dyes.
There are also an increasing number of creative green burial options, including:
Mushroom Death Suit
Jae Rhim Lee, a research fellow at M.I.T. has invented the “Mushroom Death Suit.” It’s a cotton bodysuit covered in mushroom spores and it’s created with the intention to filter out the chemicals that are released from a body as it decomposes. Not only will the suit clear toxins and facilitate a natural decomposition, but it also allows the body to become a patch of mushrooms in a natural environment that can ultimately be healthy, chemical-free compost.
Biodegradable Burial Pod
Would you like to become a tree? Capsula Mundi designed by Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli allows you to be buried in a biodegradable egg-shaped organic casket. Once buried, the pod breaks down and provides nutrients to a tree sapling planted right above it.
Becoming One With the Earth
In the United States, it is now legal in the state of Washington to let your body become compost through what is called “natural organic reduction” aka human composting. Within weeks the body becomes soil with the help of a mixture of natural materials, including straw and woodchips. Families can keep the soil in urns, spread it in nature or use it to grow plants on private property.
As the desire for green burial becomes more popular, cemeteries are beginning to offer different options. The Green Burial Council developed a rating system that lists three types of categories for green burial locations: Hybrid (no outer burial container or variable container); Natural Burial Ground (no outer cntainers or toxic embalming chemicals); and Conservation Burial Grounds (strict conservation and long-term stewardship of burials).
Where To Begin When Planning a Green Burial
Contact a green funeral home for details. The Green Burial Council website offers an updated list of green funeral homes in the Canada and United States.
If you prefer to not work with a funeral home, ask a green burial cemetery about a family directed funeral or a DIY funeral. This allows you to have full involvement in the process. You can also contact a certified Death Midwife who is trained and legally allowed to lead you through this process.
The New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy (NHFREA) website offers a full list of green burial cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada. Not all of these cemeteries have been certified by the Green Burial Council.
The subject of death is taboo in our culture, despite it being the natural and inevitable transition for each of us. As we strip away the unnatural and chemical elements of traditional burial, we are offered the opportunity to reconnect with the sacredness of death and clear the fear that often surrounds it. Honoring ourselves and those we love with a green burial, offers the opportunity to not only support a healthy planet, but a healthy interaction in the death process as well.
Bloom Post is a freelance writer, ceremonialist, teacher, and author of the books Shaman’s Toolbox: Practical Tools for Powerful Transformation and Plant Spirit Totems. For more information: www.BloomPost.com