Dying to Go Green
The media, and the melting polar ice caps, are telling us that ecological awareness is essential. With sustainability no longer viewed as a fringe issue, the topic of green living is here to stay. But have we considered the sustainability of death? If the planet is to support the lives of over six billion people and countless billions of other animals, we must consider the way we live -- and die.
Cremation often appears as the first choice of the eco-minded, as the process does not require the use of diminishing land for cemeteries or burial grounds. Surprisingly, though, it may not be the most earth-friendly option. Although cremation releases only a negligible amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, crematoria rely on fossil fuels to operate. According to the Green Burial Council, older crematoria burn nearly twice as much fuel as the new, more efficient ones.
When choosing traditional burial, most people have the body embalmed. Embalming, the process of chemically preserving the body, is ecologically problematic and dangerous. Embalming fluid typically contains a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and other solvents. Each year, we bury embalming fluid by the millions of gallons. Countless studies have demonstrated that funeral directors and those who work with embalming fluid suffer from a higher frequency of leukemia, as well as brain and colon cancers. Most cemeteries are, in effect, landfills of toxic materials.
As for a common burial, a ten-acre cemetery ground will contain enough coffin wood to construct 40 homes, in addition to many tons of casket steel and concrete for vaults.
“Across North America,” notes Mike Salisbury , a leading advocate of the natural burial movement in Canada and the current president of the Natural Burial Co-operative in Toronto, “enough metal is diverted into coffin and vault production each year to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and enough concrete is used to build a two lane highway from Toronto to Montreal… and back again.”
Eco-friendly funerals and burials are becoming more popular, and ways to conduct them are expanding. There’s a movement to plan funerals and burials that seek to minimize, or avoid altogether, the common culprits: embalming fluid, burial spaces that harm the ecology, and coffins designed to last indefinitely.
Bodies need not be embalmed, explains the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The procedure is rarely required by law, provides no public health benefit and isn’t necessary, even if one chooses an open-casket funeral. The Natural Burial Company in Portland, Oregon sells biodegradable coffins, made of materials such as recycled newspapers, fairly traded bamboo, and a variety of untreated wood, ethically harvested. The containers, unlike their traditional counterparts, are designed to decompose naturally, along with the body.
Throughout many parts of the world, including North America, the European Union, Africa and Asia, some cemeteries and burial grounds adhere to a strict conservation ethic. The cemeteries are meticulously managed to ensure that burials occur in a planned, sustainable manner, and to ensure the immediate and long-term health of the land. Essentially, we have the option, if not the responsibility, to perform the ultimate act of composting a large, organic material: ourselves.
What happens to our bodies after we die isn’t something most of us think about on a daily basis—if ever. But the ethic of doing the least harm possible to this earth, for the sake of the living beings who continue to live and thrive on it, is something we’re wise to take to the grave.
Guide to Natural Burial Sites in North America
Eternal Rest Funeral Home
2966 Belcher Road
Dunedin , Florida 34698
Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve
297 Railroad Avenue
DeFuniak Springs , Florida 32433
Honey Creek Woodlands
2625 Highway 212 SW
Conyers, Georgia 30094
Cedar Brook Burial Ground of Maine
Peter McHugh: 207.637.2085
Greensprings Natural Burial
293 Irish Hill Road
Newfield , New York
Mary Woodsen 607.272.4034
Joel Rabinowitz 607.898.5113
Susan Thomas 607.639.6613
Ramsey Creek Preserve
111 West Main Street
Westminster , South Carolina 29693
Ethician Family Cemetery
San Jacinto County , Texas
At this time we’ve found no natural burial sites advertised in Canada, although the Natural Burial Co-operative is obtaining a site. For updates, contact:
Secretary and Founding Member
Natural Burial Co-operative, Inc.
14 Division Street
Guelph , Ontario
- “Is Cremation An Eco-Friendly Form of Disposition?” http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/faq.htm (last visited 28 Mar. 2008).
- The Centre for Natural Burial, “Conventional Burial: The Truth About Conventional Burial” (undated); available: http://www.naturalburial.coop/about-natural-burial/conventional-burial/
(last visited 6 Apr. 2008).
- Mike Salisbury, “Natural Burial... Simple and Meaningful.” Available: http://www.helium.com/items/775236-natural-burial-simple-meaningfula (last visited 6 Apr. 2008).
- “What You Should Know About Embalming” (27 Nov. 2007); available: http://www.funeral.org/articles/embalming.html (last visited 6 Apr. 2008). Embalming is required when crossing state lines from Alabama, Alaska, and New Jersey. Three other states - Idaho, Kansas, and Minnesota - require embalming when a body is shipped by common carrier. Ibid.
- The Centre for Natural Burial, “Natural Burial Around the World” (undated); available: http://naturalburial.coop/conventional-burial/ (last visited 28 Mar. 2008).
- The Centre for Natural Burial, “Giving Back to the Earth” (undated); available: http://naturalburial.coop/conventional-burial/ (last visited 28 Mar. 2008).