Seeing as it’s Earth Month, we wanted to address the myriad of simple things Earth-loving folks can do to help make traditional burial greener. As anyone who has ever cried upon seeing trash on the sidewalk knows: even small environmentally-conscious actions (especially when burial and body disposition are involved) make a positive difference when it comes to protecting our planet.
We've discussed green and natural burial A LOT (checkout articles here, here, here, here, here...seriously just search "Green" in the search bar) because it is considered the most environmentally friendly way to handle a body. However, green or natural burial might not be available to you. Luckily, there are still ways to become an environmentally friendly corpse.
Here are five ways to make a traditional burial greener. Although you don’t have to utilize all these options, considering these suggestions can help you make an informed decision regarding your end-of-life plans.
How to Make a Traditional Burial Environmentally Friendly
Embalming human remains has been a common practice in traditional funeral homes since the early 1900s. When a funeral director or embalmer embalms a body, embalming fluid replaces its blood. Embalming fluid contains a mixture of chemicals, including formaldehyde, methanol, glutaraldehyde, ethanol, and phenol. These chemicals help preserve dead bodies but are not good for the environment. (For example, if underground organisms ingest this fluid, they die.)
Embalming fluid also can harm the people who use it for a living. The Funeral Consumers Alliance notes that the fluid is a known respiratory irritant and carcinogen. Scholars Gwendolyn M. Michel and Young-A Lee explain that when a body is drained of blood (and that blood is replaced with formaldehyde embalming fluid), "both fluids become part of the wastewater stream of the funeral home, entering the municipal sewer system."
As we've noted before, embalming is not legally required (except in certain circumstances). So, if you choose not to have your body embalmed, consider having a conversation with your family now to make sure your wish is fulfilled.
Opt to be buried in biodegradable clothing or material
Michel and Lee note that "When fabrics composed of biodegradable fibers are used in burial clothing, they can be transformed into food and fuel for organisms within the soil.” This means that biodegradable clothing will leave less traces faster than our typical poly-blend attire.
Ideally, it's best to choose burial clothing that is free of dyes and synthetic fabrics. Natural, undyed fibers are best able to leave burial soil unmarred from common chemicals found in traditional clothing. Here are some plant-based biodegradable fabrics to choose from: cotton, bamboo, linen, hemp, and jute.
Consider your burial container
Although burying a natural fiber-clad body within a casket is a wonderful option, shrouds are possibly the most environmentally friendly all-purpose burial option.
Shrouds: Shrouds made from unbleached cotton fabric, muslin, linen, silk, felted wool, bamboo, or hemp are great choices. Shrouds are particularly environmentally friendly because they can be shipped in a small, light container - just like ordering a piece of clothing online!
Do you still prefer a casket over a shroud? Consider the following biodegradable casket options:
Woven: Woven caskets made of wicker, willow, or bamboo.
Wooden: To be truly "green," wood caskets must be free of toxic glue, metal, and varnish. The wood should also be sourced locally and responsibly. A simple pine casket is a great option!
Cardboard: Although people can be buried in cardboard, these are typically used for cremation, but are still accepted in some cemeteries.* There are biodegradable urns for people who wish to have their ashes buried. We've written about some of these options in the past.
*Let's talk about cremation.
Cremation isn't as green of a body disposition option as many people think.
According to Nora Menkin, executive director of the Seattle-based People’s Memorial Association, "Cremation requires a lot of fuel, and it results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year." Menken says that in the United States, the average cremation “takes up about the same amount of energy and has the same emissions as about two tanks of gas in an average car.”
A more environmentally-friendly cremation-style body disposition option is water cremation, also known as aquamation, bio-cremation, or Alkaline Hydrolysis.
Consider the burial ground
When researching your eternal resting place, find burial grounds that prioritize local wildlife and plants. Many cemeteries still require “burial vaults” or “outer burial containers” to keep their grounds looking prim and proper. According to the Green Burial Council, these grave additions use additional non-biodegradable materials “and impede natural decomposition and introduce non-biodegradable materials into the earth.” Essentially, the less manicuring (acres of picture perfect cut grass, chemical pest control, etc.), the better.
The following are a few burial ground and cemetery "keywords" to look for:
Natural Burial Grounds, or Green Cemeteries, are burial grounds that practice only full green burials (full body burial or biodegradable urns).
Conservation Cemeteries are similar to Natural Burial Grounds but are registered as conservation areas. This can be held by a municipality, a conservation authority or a land trust.
Hybrid Cemeteries are what we consider ‘traditional’ cemeteries that offer green burial in designated areas. These areas are often set apart from the rest of the cemetery, and follow (sometimes strictly, often loosely) the guidelines for green burial.
‘Green-Friendly’ Cemeteries (our term) are cemeteries that do not have an official designated area for green burials, but they offer the environmentally friendly options we have listed above (no vault, simple casket, shrouds, etc.) to make an effort to be more green.
Often, a funeral ceremony, burial, and reception all occur at different places. Cut down on the amount of gas your friends and family will use during the event by considering having all ceremonies in the same place. For example, look for a cemetery with a chapel on-site or a cemetery that offers graveside services.
You might also want to consider a home funeral which when properly planned, can reduce the environmental impact caused by moving bodies (and their loved ones) from hospital to funeral home to cemetery.
Becoming an environmentally friendly corpse
Before taking any of the steps outlined in our article, you will want to contact your local funeral home or cemetery to inquire about the green burial options available to you. Not only will this help you avoid any last minute surprises, it will help signal to the death care industry that green options are what consumers want!
We've examined five simple ways you can make a traditional burial greener. Although we just skimmed the surface on this topic, we hope this serves as a primer to help get you thinking about how your choices in life—and death—impact the environment.