Hybrid cars, backyard composters and household rain barrels have much in common with green burial these days. Opting for a biodegradable casket or shroud and forgoing chemical embalming and the use of a burial vault are just a few more eco-choices Americans now have in the midst of overwhelming environmental problems. Over the last decade or more news stories have done their best to trumpet these choices. As a 2010 New York Times article put it, “At the end of an eco-conscious life there is a final decision a person can make to limit his or her impact on the planet: a green funeral.”
These choices aren’t exactly new. We once buried our dead in earth-friendly ways, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But by the mid-19th century those practices would start to wither in the face of new forces – growing urban populations, the specter of death wrought by the Civil War and sanitation reforms that swept through cities and towns like wildfire. Eventually, American death care would become wasteful and polluting and our choices fairly narrow and uniform. The use of chemical embalming, hardwood and metal caskets and concrete vaults and liners would become commonplace, all rendered to standard lawn-park cemeteries with their gridded rows, machine-cut and polished stones, highly manicured turf, and at the larger and more well-funded cemeteries, the use of pesticides. Though not as environmentally hazardous as conventional burial, the modern crematorium would also develop in response to these forces, slowly building steam through the first half of the 20th century and taking flight in the latter.
Each year 20 million board feet of hardwood and 64,000 tons of steel are buried in U.S. cemeteries. Concentrated levels of iron, lead, copper, zinc and cobalt have been shown to leach from caskets into the silt loam. The funeral industry buries over 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete each year in the form of burial vaults. But vaults are sometimes also made of copper, plastic and asphalt—a semisolid form of petroleum. Embalming fluid is mostly made up of the carcinogen formaldehyde, which, while biodegradable, still poses a serious threat to funeral worker health when breathed as a vapor.
There’s also the non-renewable energy it takes to manufacture conventional caskets and vaults, as well as the energy used to maintain a typical conventional cemetery through lawn mowing. As for cremation, incinerating just one body is estimated to be the equivalent of driving 600 miles. In the process of burning bodies, any number of contaminants eventually make their way into the atmosphere—mercury from dental fillings, surgical devices, radioactive isotopes, prostheses, metal plates, screws and sutures, and silicone from breast implants. Crematories release a range of byproducts via fossil fuel combustion, including dioxins, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, mercury, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, and other heavy metals.
Throwing off the funeral conventions grown up over the last century and half, green burial—also referred to as natural burial—is rooted in the good sense of sustainability. That some green burial grounds boast a focus on land conservation, ecological restoration and long-term stewardship also speaks to this good sense. What’s more, the environmental problems of cremation are taken up by green burial advocates by pushing for better crematory filters that would help limit the amount of contaminants transmitted into the air, while also calling for more renewable forms of energy to run them. Many, if not most, green burial grounds do accept interment and/or scattering of cremated remains.
Making greener death care available for the choosing is no doubt essential in reclaiming rites that have for too long now been out of reach. Securing the choice of green burial must remain a key goal of the green burial movement precisely because greener death care options are still largely unavailable in most communities in the U.S. And yet, this message of choice also has its limits, and ultimately, remains a risky guiding philosophy to bank on for change. For one thing, it mistakenly places the path to social transformation in the hands of each individual quest. For another, in a culture like ours so steeped in social inequalities to have a choice at all is often a condition of access and privilege.
Yes, our choices count, and dissenting from practices that continue to violate the environment is key for prefiguring a more sustainable way of living with the earth. But as the rhetoric of green choice surrounds us it merely succeeds in cultivating the illusion that individual acts amount to profound cultural shifts, while never cutting beneath the surface. Individual consciousness is necessary and precious, but we should know by now that it does not by itself change the world. Falling back on the language of choice also puts us at risk of pointing the finger at those who are not making the “right" choices without ever having to question the forces that have shaped those choices to begin with.
To the extent that our choices are made with compassion, in the spirit of love and with sustainable and sensible outcomes for the living, the dead, and the earth, our choices surely matter. But the mega-message of eco-conscious choice also distracts us from something more elemental and also, something more essential at the heart of the growing movement to green our death care.
In green burial, rain, wind and sun are respected in the work of decomposition, as well as the pressure of earth, stone, roots and soil. Human decay is regarded as good and valuable, as microbes and insects descend to feed on the dead. As food and nourishment for other creatures, the corpse is of consequence to the land and to the species of mammals, birds, amphibians, plants, and insects that inhabit it. In essence, the corpse is of consequence to the planet. Over the last century and a half, however, this knowledge has largely eluded us.
As people are waking up to these lost ways, renewed meanings are emerging and are rekindling our bond with the earth. And herein lies the greatest potential green burial has to offer—helping to rectify our severance from the natural world in both symbolic and literal ways. As green-friendly funeral director, Bob Fertig, said to me, “The focus on the environmental aspect [of the green burial movement] is wonderful, but I think what sometimes gets lost in that is the potential for closeness with death and the way that it makes people feel.”
When green burial advocates, especially those who deal with grieving families, say green burial provides great solace to experiences of loss, there’s no doubt such comfort has been born by connection not only to each other, but also to the earth.
The green burial movement can’t be reduced to something as simple as an eco-conscious choice in a sea of American choices. At a more basic and shared level, green burial is about stretching the parameters of the earth or land community that ecologist and author Aldo Leopold so fervently believed in. Leopold was certain that “when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Green burial cultivates one more way for us to remember and restore our interdependent relationship with this green planet, for as much as American culture has tried to deny it, earth is home to us all.