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Green to the Grave: Eco-Friendly Burials Catching On

The numbers are still small but backers of green burials see their way of death as the wave of the future.

Is the "death care" industry -- in the United States alone an $11 billion-a-year effort supporting more than 20,000 funeral homes and around 105,000 jobs -- flirting with death itself?

It's an industry which every year buries millions of tons of valuable resources -- wood and metal coffins, and concrete grave liners -- along with embalmed bodies containing countless gallons of toxic formaldehyde.

Traditional burials have long been that way, but in today's eco-conscious world, it's a system that leaves the funeral industry seeming to be increasingly out of step, complain those who favor greener, more natural ways of burying people.

That may explain in part the growing popularity of cremation, which the National Funeral Directors Association says is the preferred option of more than one-third of clients in the United States, and one widely quoted study says that number is growing. In England, that figure currently is more than two-thirds. 

But cremation, with its discharge of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and other airborne pollutants, including a few nasty ones like mercury vapor from teeth fillings, is not especially kind to the environment either.

Instead, more people are turning to natural burials, typically much simpler than traditional ceremonies. Bodies are preserved with refrigeration or dry ice rather than embalming; cotton shrouds and biodegradable coffins replace metal or ornate wooden caskets; and the body is placed in a shallow grave instead of deep inside a concrete vault.

And burials take place not in a traditional cemetery, but in a natural area destined to be protected and preserved for posterity as a woodland or nature reserve.


In the summer 2004 edition of Generations, the journal of the American Society of Aging, psychologist, playwright and academic Robert Kastenbaum put an almost rhapsodic spin on green burial in an introductory essay titled, "Why Funerals?" Quoting in turn Abi Holmes, a modern woman who makes willow coffins, he wrote: "(Green) funerals are to be removed from the technological-commercial matrix and put in the service of 'producing wildlife habitats and forests from green burial sites, where native trees, wild flowers and protected animals are encouraged ... meadow brown butterfly colonies, grasshoppers, insects, bats, voles and owls to multiply ... where the mechanical mower does not prey on a regular basis and a self-supporting ecosystem can evolve.'" 

Rupert Callender, who owns the Green Funeral Company, in southwest England's Devon, believes natural burials will grow to become the dominant type of burial in the U.K. "within the next 20 to 30 years."

That's a startling claim given Callender's own admission that green burials were considered "a bit faddy" as recently as a decade ago and today still account for perhaps just 2 percent of all U.K. burials.

However, Callender, one of only a handful of green funeral directors in England, says around 250 natural burial sites, averaging three or four acres each, are now operating and "new ones are opening up on a monthly basis."

"The U.K. put green burial on the map," said Joe Sehee, who is widely credited with doing the same thing in the U.S. when he founded the Green Burial Council in 2002.

The trend has not escaped the attention of the death care industry, which believes going green could be critical to its own survival. "Green funerals are an emerging alternative to the funeral services we're used to providing," notes the association Web site. And while there are differing points of view over things like the best way to ensure burial sites are permanently preserved and whether to allow the burial of any embalmed bodies, observers see the trend line pointing up.

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