Green Burials Reunite the Body with the Earth
- Tuesday, 09 February 2010
Dying is possibly the most natural occurrence in the world, but modern death rituals—embalming with toxic chemicals and traditional burial in concrete vaults—are not eco-friendly.
Environmentally harmful dispositions and other ecologically unfriendly practices have caused a new generation of death care professionals to green up the funeral industry with burials that tread lightly on the terrain.
Natural burial means no embalming, no elaborate casket, no burial vault—just a body returning to the earth. The concept is quite biblical if you consider the beautiful simplicity of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
Green Burials A Growing Trend
A recent AARP poll asked, "Which type of burial is most appealing?" Only 8 percent wanted a traditional cemetery burial and only 18 percent chose cremation. Of those polled, 70.4 percent chose green burial.
In addition to the traditional funeral and burial, there are greener options that people are choosing for a more natural send-off. Rather than turning their loved one over to a funeral home, some families are taking care of their loved one's final needs at home.
Before the Civil War, families washed, dressed and laid their loved one out in the parlor where friends and family gathered for a viewing. Embalming became the cornerstone of death care when the Union Army needed to preserve the bodies of slain solders for the journey back home. Americans eventually became removed from death.
When someone dies we immediately call the undertaker to "under take" all planning and preparation of the body. But some families are now moving away from merely passing their loved one on to a professional, and are seeing the value in lovingly carrying out the preparations themselves. It is their final gift to their loved one.
Home Funeral Service
A home funeral can encompass a memorial service, wake, viewing or a combination of the three. It's also an intimate experience: friends or family members might help wash and dress the body, build or decorate a casket, plan a memorial service, or accompany the deceased to the burial site or crematory.
Most states legally require only a certified death certificate, a permit giving permission to transport the body for disposition, and that the body be buried, cremated, or donated to medical science.
As the baby boomer generation "slouches into retirement," they are bringing environmental consciousness and a do-it-yourself mentality to bear on end-of-life issues, said Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.
"On some basic level, green burial acknowledges that the natural end of all life is decomposition and decay," Harris said. "Instead of fighting it at literally all costs with chemical embalming, concrete vaults and bulletproof metal caskets, green burial says, 'Let's just let the natural process play itself out.'"
Keep in mind that there are many shades of green. Green burial options come in many hues and are not just about helping the Earth. Green burials can also help save a different kind of green—the kind found in people's wallets.
The Green Burial
So what does a green burial look like? Picture the following setting: A body completely wrapped in quite a few yards of cloth, with four friends and family members on hand to cautiously lower it into the ground. There is no vault, no liner, and no embalming chemicals. Embalming fluid contains toxic chemicals—including up to three gallons of formaldehyde—that can seep into soil and ground water. What few people may know is that embalming is unnecessary, and it's rarely required by law. Soon the plain grave is covered with earth, with a knoll of dirt on top to compensate for settling, which will happen over time. There is no marker here, just native foliage. The backdrop doesn't look so much like a cemetery, but more like a nature conservancy.
In a traditional cemetery, a green burial dispenses with the typical cement vault in favor of a liner to top a modified version of a wood casket. The casket is similar to an upside-down shoebox: there is no bottom and it sits directly on the dirt, the body and casket decomposing over time.
As a society, we should look for a means of closure that is more natural. There is no disgrace in surrendering our loved ones—and eventually ourselves—to the embrace of the Earth. It is a ritual of reunion between body and soil, not to be restrained by artificial preservation. This is, perhaps, the ultimate gesture of reuse and renewal.
Sustainability, it seems, can be practiced in all aspects of one's life, including death.