|Elizabeth D. Johnson
Imagine taking a walk through a garden or forest, admiring the wildlife, flora, and fauna. Maybe there is a lake or stream that you can sit by and collect your thoughts while absorbing the natural beauty around you. Now imagine that this place you’re in is a cemetery. Hybrid, natural, and conservation burial grounds are popping up all over the country, focusing on green alternatives to the burial and funeral process. The Green Burial Council describes green or natural burial as a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, and the restoration or preservation of habitat. It is also a way of reconnecting with and having our final purpose be giving life back to the earth.
Funerals in the United States are the most resource intensive in the world, with 53 million gallons of toxic embalming fluid being buried every year. Most people believe the way to combat this is to be cremated, however, the cremation process consumes fossil fuels and releases more than 23 million pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. While just having yourself or a loved one cremated seems small in the grand scheme of things, about 40% of Americans receive cremation. Among the most significant noxious emissions produced by cremation are carbon dioxide, hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, mercury, and of course, formaldehyde.
For those who would still rather have a more common funeral service including an open casket and the works, there are now formaldehyde-free embalming fluids and some are made entirely of nontoxic and biodegradable essential oils. Aside from formaldehyde being bad for the earth, the National Cancer Institute released in 2009 that funeral directors and embalmers have a much higher incidence of myeloid leukemia and cancers of the brain and colon.
Green burials may seem like a radical idea but they actually share many similarities with Muslim and Jewish traditions – no embalming, the body is usually laid to rest within a 24-hour period, and the body is touching the earth. They also involve the use of a shroud or a nontoxic, biodegradable casket. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, burials in the U.S. involved, at most, a pine casket and a plot of land. The “green death movement” essentially takes us back to those practices, when we were more connected to death and the land – a true “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, earth to earth” burial.
If none of the reasons above are resounding enough to think about a green burial for yourself, there’s always the cost difference. Typical funerals cost between $7,500 and $10,000 and cremations cost around $2,000 – not including the service and any other bells and whistles. The price of a burial plot at a green cemetery, including a marker, ranges from $800 to $3,500, with some of that cost going toward conservation and restoration. Some people also opt for a home funeral (being buried on your land), which is allowed by almost all counties, but most require a minimum number of acres and the filing of a plat map with the local planning department.
In this day and age, there are tons of things to consider about your life and your death. It seems like there are a thousand decisions to make and add-ons for everything that you want to do, whether buying a car or planning your own funeral. Perhaps a green burial will allow you to take solace in knowing that your final act is providing nourishment for the earth and conserving what we have left for the people you leave behind.
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