Ramsey Creek Preserve

Photo: Kimberley Campbell

Westminster, SC

Green Burial

Why do I or why should anyone have interest in green burial? Because green burial is generally less expensive and less toxic to the environment. It also permits a more personal and natural relationship between the living and the dead, humans and the land at a time of shock, grief, and confusion. Green burial might not be the best choice for every family but unless you know what your choices are you can’t really say.

The 3 core tenets of Green Burial are:

  1. No Embalming
  2. No Burial Vaults or Grave Liners
  3. No Impervious Containers

Embalming

Embalmers in the US use a formaldehyde-based solution to replace arterial blood and cavity fluids in a human body to temporarily preserve a lifelike appearance for a viewing. Each year Americans bury about 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde used in embalming in US cemeteries. A known carcinogen, formaldehyde is dangerous to the people who manufacture it and to the embalmers who use it. It also leaches into the ground water from embalmed bodies. Embalming is almost never required by law, and temporary preservation can also be achieved by refrigeration or by chilling the body core with dry ice (available at many grocery stores) or a reusable product called Techni-Ice (available online).  The 2017 price survey conducted by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Piedmont (NC) indicates embalming fees in the Piedmont range from $350 to $1195.

Burial Vaults / Grave Liners

Vaults (metals—steel, bronze, copper) and liners (concrete) enclose the coffin in a cemetery to prevent the soil above the coffin from compacting over time. Vaults can weigh between 1000 and 3000 pounds, and cost between $700-$10,000. Liners can use as much as 2600 pounds of concrete, and cost between $500-$1000. American cemeteries bury as much as 1.6 million tons of vault concrete in the US every year. State laws do not require vaults and liners. But cemeteries may require them to reduce the lawn care costs of backfilling the graves as they sink or are crushed by earth / liner moving or lawn mowing equipment. You can avoid the financial and environmental costs of these products by selecting a cemetery that does not require them. This is an important point: the liner benefits the cemeterian, not the family that pays for it. Because what does the liner do for or to the body? It prevents the body from melting back into the soil when it decomposes. After a lifetime of taking resources and energy from the earth, why would we not want to give back the little we can by putting our bodies into contact with the soil?

Impervious Containers

A quick search on the internet will show you the vast range of metal vessels and unsustainable woods you can seal a body up in—mahogany, bronze, copper, stainless steel, cherry, maple, oak. Americans bury up to 30 million board feet of oak, maple, and cherry annually, and thousands of tons of bronze, copper, and steel. The coffin options you can choose—reversible pillows, adjustable beds and mattresses, split lids, Memory Safe© storage drawers—often make little to no sense when you give them a moment’s thought. Why does a dead person need a mattress? What would you put in a storage drawer that you couldn’t put in the deceased person’s hand or tuck in the side of the box? What does it say about our values to be buried in finer furniture than we ever owned in our lives? And what do these boxes mean for our return to the earth? In most cases, even without a burial vault or liner, the molecules that used to be humans remain separated from the cycle of life for as long as the box remains intact. If you have a dust to dust view of the human body, you might need a better way.

And what would be that better way?

  • Instead of embalming, use refrigeration, dry ice, or reusable Techni-Ice.
  • Instead of a burial vault or liner, ask to be buried in a cemetery (perhaps a churchyard) that doesn’t require thousands of pounds of metal or concrete solely to facilitate their lawn mowing operations.
  • Instead of an impervious burial vessel, ask to be buried in an unfinished pine, poplar, willow, or felted wool box, or your grandmother’s quilt, a shroud made of your wedding dress, a gorgeous organic cotton sheet of robin’s egg blue, or a bright silk sari from your travels.
  • Instead of a factory coffin with mattresses and storage drawers, ask for your friends and family to decorate your locally-sourced handmade coffin with markers and art and love letters, and to fill it with notes and flowers and maybe a Philly cheesesteak sandwich or sand from a great beach vacation or soil from a family farm far away.
  • Instead of hot house flowers, ask instead for evergreen boughs, garden flowers, or wildflowers in season, dried flowers from your wedding bouquet, or a pressed boutonniere from a prom decades past.

"Decomposition … is an inexact process. Dinner will be served, but it could be fast food or fine dining. An array of determinants can speed up, halt, or delay it, like temperature, humidity, soil type, burial depth, cause of death, and even what the dead had for breakfast. What, if anything, the body was encased in and whether or not the body was embalmed are, of course, factors, too."

— Suzanne Kelly
"Greening Death" p. 29