Going green isn’t just a life-style choice. It’s an afterlife-style choice, too.
The goal of a green, or natural, burial is to return the body to the earth in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition and allows the body to return to dust naturally. It is more environmentally friendly than burying chemicals, concrete, plastics, metals and precious woods in the ground.
Green burials are not new. Most burials before the mid-19th century were conducted this way. Green burials are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. As more and more people adopt healthy lifestyles and are paying attention to their carbon footprints, concern for one’s afterlife personal pollution is on the rise.
The green burial choice is not just about caring for the environment. It takes time for the people who survive us to make sense of our death. So it’s also about caring for the people who go on after us, and helping them make sense of this cycle of life.
Some aspects of green burial
No embalming. If the service calls for an open casket and more than 10 people will be viewing, embalming is necessary for health code regulations. The most common form of embalming involves formaldehyde, a respiratory irritant and known carcinogen. In the US about 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are used every year. A formaldehyde-free embalming option is available. But as the purpose of embalming is for preservation, this goes against the grain of green.
Biodegradable: clothing and casket (or shroud). According to UTAH.GOV, caskets are not a legal requirement in Utah.
No vault (its purpose is cosmetic— to prevent a grave from sinking)
Burial is in an area with native trees, shrubs and flowers. The green burial site at Bountiful’s Memorial Lakeview Mortuary and Cemetery is a grove of native oaks and maples. The graves are carefully dug around roots and rocks. It’s a sacred place. Peaceful. Wildlife frequently visit.
Grave is more shallow. This facilitates decomposition.
Grave markers do not intrude on the landscape.
Finding a cemetery to handle a green burial
Your choices could be a family plot in a private burial ground (see
Utah Funeral’s website). The Green Burial Grove in Bountiful, at Monument Lakeview Mortuary and cemetery is attracting people from out-of-state looking for a Green Burial Cemetery. Pleasant Green, in Magna, has plots that families can maintain for themselves.
In Utah, a few commercial cemeteries allow green burial. The Green Burial Council’s website lists seven local green certified cemeteries, all owned by the same Utah-based company, the Quist family.
A rural cemetery may allow you to dig the grave yourself. Also you can bury on your own rural private property (paying attention to local ordinances governing such). For a list of rural cemeteries in Utah click here.
The near future of death
Water cremation: This relatively new process has one-fourth the carbon footprint of fire cremation. It works by alkaline hydrolysis. The body is submerged in water containing 5% potassium hydroxide. The process mirrors what happens when a body is buried, except it takes just hours —from three to 12 depending on the temperature and pressure in the chamber—instead of months or years. Prices vary (both higher and lower, depending on location) compared to “traditional” (modern chemical) burial. This recent development is now legal in 11 states including Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado.
Mycelium suits: You may have seen Jae Rhim Lee’s 2011 TED talk, “My Mushroom Burial Suit.” The Infinity Suit, its next iteration, is now on the market for $1,500 by Lee’s Brooklyn-based company, Coeio.
Composting: Then there’s the Urban Death Project, which involves composting bodies in wood chips. Experiments are underway at Western Carolina University in North Carolina.
Environmental issues with conventional burial
According to the Green Burial Council each year, over 22,000 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:
30 million board feet of hardwoods (in caskets) (equal to four million acres of forest)
90,000 tons of steel (in caskets)
14,000 tons of steel (in vaults)
2,700 tons of copper and bronze (in caskets)
1,600,000 tons of reinforced concrete (in vaults)
825,000 US gallons of embalming fluid (mostly formaldehyde)
How green is cremation?
Cremation has its own serious environmental footprint. Modern crematoriums often have “clean “ smokestacks that ameliorate the associated emissions, and the cremation industry has claimed that reports of pollution have been greatly exaggerated. However, it takes hours for the cremation oven to reach the necessary temperature of 1800ºF. That can be a year’s worth of heat bills.
Nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals and particulates are released into the atmosphere when a body is cremated. If a body has mercury-amalgam fillings, the mercury will almost certainly become air. And burning a body inside a coffin creates significantly more pollution than burning the body by itself.
Death used to be a family affair. In the last century the practice of caring for our dead has become outsourced. But a the do-it-yourself movement takes hold, funerals are not immune.
Did you know….
1. Utahns have the lawful right not to hire a funeral director, or if they desire, to only hire a funeral director for just part of the work.
2. Dead bodies don’t harbor dangerous bacteria. Typical disease dies with the death of the body. If you could care for a person before death, then be assured that death has only made any risk decrease.
3. There’s no need to spend thousands of dollars over the possibility of leaking bodily fluids. If it happens at all, it’s minimal. What worked before death for that works after death as well.
4. You have 24 hours before the law requires the body be kept cold. Refrigeration at home is often accomplished using carefully placed dry ice or Techni-ice around the body.
5. If you handle a loved one’s body in a modest way before death, you certainly know how to do so after death, too. There’s no need for embarrassment.
6. If you have access to a van, SUV or truck and you know how to run a meeting, then there is little reason to hire a funeral director for transportation to a funeral, memorial or graveside ceremony.
— Joyce Mitchell, president, Funeral Consumers Alliance of Utah. a 501(c)(3)
MORE RESOURCES FOR A DIY FUNERAL
The State of Utah, Office of Vital Records: then click on File a Death Record. Death certificate: $16. Medical Examiner: $107 (required only under extraordinary circumstances and unattended deaths).
Passing Through Our Hands offers free instructions and also sells a how to video.
Home funeral guide. Free; can also be purchased bound.
Final Passages $26-plus. Click on “Our Guidebook.” How-to book – lets A and B contain elements helpful to Utahans.
Crossings: Caring for Our Own at Death has good resources.
Final Rights (book). Josh Slocumand Lisa Carlson take you through story after story of funeral chicanery. Utah is highlighted.
Contacts for support & encouragement in carrying out a do-it-yourself funeral from those who have already done so.
– from the Funeral Consumers Alliance
If DIY isn’t for you but you want a green burial….
If the funeral must be scheduled more than five days out, or you’re planning more than a small funeral, or find this final effort more than you can bear, a funeral home may be a better choice. You can still opt for the nontoxic embalming fluid,and a natural casket and forgo a vault. Be sure to ask around for directors with the skills to help you. (We found Vernalie Nelson, Starks Funeral Parlor in Holladay; and Josh Atkinson, Memorial Lakeview Mortuary.)
Information on this article comes from:
Vernalie Nelson, funeral director at Starks Funeral Parlor.
Josh Atkinson, funeral director at Memorial Lakeview Mortuary & Cemetery.