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About the Author
Elizabeth Fournier is the owner and operator of Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, Oregon, the first green funeral home in the Portland metropolitan area. She is a member of the international board of directors for North America Natural Burial and the advisory board for the Green Burial Council, the environmental certification organization setting the standards for green burial in North America.
Read an Excerpt
GREEN BURIAL, THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY, AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Green or natural burials have existed since the beginning of time. For most of human history, when the dead were buried (and not disposed of by other means), the body was wrapped in a shroud or perhaps placed in a simple wooden box, and then the deceased was lowered into a hole, covered with dirt, and returned to the earth. While mummification and embalming were known and practiced in Egypt, China, and other civilizations thousands of years ago, this was not the common practice for the clear majority of people.
Further, up until the last one hundred years or so, people all over the globe have tended to their deceased loved ones in their own households, with their own hands, and with their own time and love. Yet today, Americans seem more comfortable with handing over the steps of caring for their dead to licensed morticians in funeral parlors. Over time, our society has dealt with death less and less openly, until we arrived at where we are now, largely ignorant of our options and our rights throughout the whole procedure.
This chapter defines green burials and home funerals, and then it discusses the environmental problems with current burial practices.
What Are Green Burials and Home Funerals?
In the most familiar definition, a green burial means a person is buried in a container that can decompose, along with their human remains, and return to the soil. Ideally, all aspects of a green burial are as organic as possible. The body is not filled with embalming chemicals, and it is placed in the earth without vaults or nonbiodegradable caskets. The end goal of green burial is that nothing is used that doesn't help replenish the soil.
In the United States, some traditional cemeteries will accommodate burial without the use of a vault or casket liner in their grave plots. However, there are also dedicated green cemeteries and "green burial sites that also facilitate ecological restoration and landscape-level conservation," writes scholar Tanja Schade. These burial spaces feature sustainable landscaping and natural markers as headstones, and they may preserve land where native plants and animal life flourish.
Meanwhile, home funerals are a return to traditional ways, in the same manner that green burials are a return to traditional burial practices. A home funeral can be a healing, comforting experience for the loved ones affected by a loss.
A home funeral can include all of the elements of a customary funeral, but, to quote the NBC News report "More Families Are Bringing Funerals Home," a home funeral is "an intimate experience: friends or family members might help wash and dress the body, build or decorate a casket, plan a memorial service, or accompany the deceased to the burial site or crematory."
The website Seven Ponds (see Resources) promotes green burials and home funerals and emphasizes the many options available: "You can also find a funeral home, with a refrigeration unit, willing to refrigerate and transport the body, without embalming it. A funeral may be held at home before the body is transported to the burial site. Alternatively, a memorial service or life celebration may be held long after the body is buried."
What Do Green Burials Look Like?
I feel quite honored to have been able to help many families green the ceremonies and burials for their loved ones. And no two have really been the same, as we are all such unique and special people. I have arranged for people to transport their deceased family members in all sorts of vehicles, have helped people choose the perfect burial site on private property, and have witnessed communities joining together in creative ways to honor a member who has died.
In Portland in 2010, a woman named Alyce was dying from ovarian cancer. About a month before she died, her best friend, Diane, came into my funeral home to make plans and figure out how she could create a funeral that best aligned with her tender-hearted friend's spirit. We made a plan: Once she died, Alyce would stay in her home. We figured out which cemetery she would be transported to and by whom. I assisted Diane with assembling her team of helpers and assigning jobs.
Alyce was also involved in this planning, and she was very thoughtful about what she wanted and how it might unfold. Diane visited George Cemetery in Estacada, Oregon, and chose the burial space. She also had ready Alyce's oatmeal-hued, organic cotton dress, which Alyce wanted to be dressed in for her final journey to the cemetery. For the burial, Alyce was also wrapped in a natural blanket that shrouded her small frame, and she was placed onto a pine board for easier carrying — from the home, into the back of the station wagon, and to the gravesite.
Once at the cemetery, Alyce's friends gently lowered her into the ground and shared some words. In particular, someone spoke about how Alyce had always wanted to become a tree, and now that dream was going to come true.
* * *
As part of their home funeral for their father, three brothers — Bill, Ralph, and Jim — sat quietly on a wooden deck hanging off the side of the family's old farmhouse. Nearby, a cherry tree extended its gangly limbs full of righteous red fruit, which reached all the way to the deck. After a prayer, the brothers were ready to lay their father to rest about twenty feet away, a sweet space where the cherry branches would extend over the grave, providing shelter always, even during the winter when there were no leaves and no fruit. Of course, the tree would also shade their father in the summer.
At the gravesite, a long piece of muslin cloth was used to lower the body down into the grave, and then the "pallbearers" (those holding the cloth, since there was no casket) let the cloth go, so it fell across the shrouded body. The bottom of the grave had been lined with pine boughs, and now more were thrown over the body. The boughs were symbolic, but they also help hasten decomposition. If the brothers had used a biodegradable coffin or placed their father on a board intended to be buried with him, ropes would have been used to lower him. Instead, the "ropes" or lowering cords were sewn directly into the burial wrap.
Finally, the three brothers all moved shovelfuls of dirt to cover their beloved father's resting space, and they laughed over and shared childhood memories with everyone at the ceremony.
The Most Important Aspects of a Green Burial There are lots of ways to make a burial more environmentally friendly, but a few components are the most important for creating a true green burial. Part 2 discusses all these options in more detail.
Don't Use a Decorative Casket
The typical casket used today is not made to be biodegradable; it's made for preservation. Modern burial boxes are manufactured from reinforced steel or shellacked hardwoods, then embellished with metals, handles, and ornamentation. All that metal, lacquer, and toxic glue is certainly no good for the environment.
If you decide you want a casket, opt for a basic wooden casket, like a plain pine box, or one made from other natural materials: bamboo, sea grass, banana leaves, and even willow branches. Earth-friendly caskets are fully biodegradable. They will break down to nothing, and they shouldn't have any traces of metal, toxic glue, plastic, or varnish.
However, you don't need to use a casket at all. A deceased person can easily be wrapped in a favorite non-bleached or dyed cloth, blanket, or tapestry, and several types of commercially made burial shrouds and wraps are now sold. For more on all these types of green burial containers, see chapter 7.
Don't Use a Burial Vault or Grave Liner
A burial vault — also referred to as a grave box, casket liner, or outer burial container — is a container made from concrete or polypropylene, and it is used to surround the casket for maximum preservation and to prevent the grave from collapsing over time. Green cemeteries prohibit them entirely, and traditional cemeteries are beginning to forgo their obligatory inclusion. A green burial should be designed to allow the body to naturally return to the earth at the fastest rate possible. By not using a vault, the process happens much more quickly.
Embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, a likely carcinogen that is hazardous to the environment as well as to the embalmer. Forgoing standard embalming doesn't necessarily mean that a funeral must happen more quickly: Alternatives do exist for preserving a body for a moderate period, such as "green embalming" techniques as well as good old-fashioned refrigeration and dry ice. If you are using a funeral home, they will be able to assist with standard refrigeration, but if you are handling the body yourself, you will need some instruction; see chapter 8 for more on this.
However, don't let the idea of an unpreserved body gross you out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes it clear that the average dead body is neither dangerous nor contagious. Our society has developed a number of myths and misconceptions about dead bodies that I hope this book will help dispel.
Use a Green Burial Site
Ideally, to ensure an eco-friendly burial, choose a fully natural burial ground whose sole purpose is eco-conservation. Another great choice is a hybrid or low-impact green cemetery, a burial area that has adopted environmental practices but also allows for traditional graves. Or, if the law allows and the land is available, consider a backyard burial. See chapter 6 for more on this. A backyard burial takes some extra planning, and some extra work, but it may be the greenest way to say goodbye.
A Brief History of Modern Burial Practices
Up until 150 years ago, most burials were inherently green, the focus being the return of the body to the earth. When a family member passed away, the steps were modest: Bathe, prepare, and place the body in a humble wood box. For a short time, display the body at home for neighbor visits, and then bury the coffin in a family plot on the family farm or in a small-town or church cemetery.
But during the Civil War, soldiers were killed in such multitudes that their bodies couldn't be disposed of in a timely fashion. As Suzanne Kelly writes in Greening Death: "Newly trained civilian medical professionals were called into action, and over four years' time, as many as forty thousand bodies were embalmed. For families who wanted it, and who could also afford it, bodies were shipped back home for burial." By replacing the body's natural fluids with formaldehyde and other chemicals, a body could be restored, preserved for some time, and transported long distances.
Embalming became a profitable service industry, and the business of funeral directing was born. Soon, it became standard practice to quickly whisk a dead body out of the home and to a funeral parlor, where the deceased was restored to look as lifelike as possible. After an expansive and expensive memorialization period, the undertaker buried the body in a fancy casket in a manicured graveyard. The coffin was placed inside a concrete vault, which prevented the coffin from collapsing and the ground from sinking. This uneven ground made mowing at cemeteries problematic, and it also reminded living visitors of the unpleasant fact of dead bodies beneath the earth. Each new wrinkle in funeral practice seemed designed to add to the illusion of the perpetual preservation of the cadaver.
Today, as Jessica Mitford illuminated in her 1963 bestseller The American Way of Death, Americans tend to be very squeamish around death, and they prefer that burial arrangements are handled at a funeral parlor by trained people who know what they are doing, even if it costs a fortune. Mitford delighted in saying that the funeral industry "successfully turned the tables in recent years to perpetuate a huge, macabre and expensive practical joke on the American public."
We like neat. Clean. Not to get our hands too dirty. Those of us left behind do all we can to remember and honor the deceased as they were when they were living, and conversely, we try to hide all signs that they are now dead. Yet the consequences of this attitude and of these burial practices have led to a host of environmental problems that also remain largely unseen and unacknowledged.
The Environmental Impacts of Traditional Burials
Worldwide, official estimates are that more than 50 million people pass away each year, which includes almost 3 million people in the United States. How these people are buried certainly makes a difference to nature and the environment.
Current practices typically bury lots of bad things in the ground, and this is having negative environmental impacts. "The typical ten-acre swath of cemetery ground," notes Mark Harris in his 2007 book Grave Matters, "contains enough coffin wood to construct more than forty homes, nine hundred-plus tons of casket steel, and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete. To that add a volume of embalming fluid sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer to keep the graveyard preternaturally green. Like the contents of any landfill, the embalmed body's toxic cache escapes its host and eventually leaches into the environment, tainting surrounding soil and ground waters. Cemeteries bear the chemical legacy of their embalmed dead, and well after their graves have been closed."
Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, writes that conventional burials contribute to emissions by several means. "Although embalming slows the decomposition process, it does not stop it completely. In the weeks and months following a conventional burial, bodies slowly decompose anaerobically, and this lack of oxygen creates methane, a particularly powerful greenhouse gas." Even more emissions occur during the construction of traditional caskets and grave liners. Then, beautifully manicured cemeteries don't happen with just water, seed, and sunlight. Gallons of pesticides and fuel must be used to weed, mow, and preserve the grass.
To quantify these impacts with slightly different numbers, here are some statistics provided by Mary Woodsen, founding president of Greensprings Natural Cemetery near Ithaca, New York, and science writer at Cornell University. According to her, each year conventional funeral and burial practices in the United States result in the use of
4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, which contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen;
1.6 million tons of concrete, from burial vaults; and
20 million board feet of hardwood for caskets.
Or, according to Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council, each year "we bury enough embalming fluid to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools, enough metal to build the Golden Gate Bridge, and so much reinforced concrete in burial vaults that we could build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit."
Cremation: Ashes to Ashes Doesn't Always Mean Green
After the 1963 publication of Jessica Mitford's bestselling book The American Way of Death, cremation was embraced by many as the better ecological alternative to traditional burial, and cremation experienced a meteoric increase. The main concern was space: Since cremated remains take up no space, if they are scattered, or very little space, if they are preserved in an urn, this saves the land for the living.
According to a 2016 Time magazine report, only about 10 percent of people in the United States chose cremation in 1980, but it's risen steadily ever since, and today, about 49 percent of people choose cremation versus 45 percent who choose traditional burial. There are several reasons for this:
Cremation is much less expensive than modern burial, by 50 percent or more.
Cremation requires little planning, either before or after death.
Remains are portable, so they may be placed almost anywhere, and they can be dispersed in places that are meaningful.
While cremation remains a better ecological choice than modern burial, cremation is not considered a genuine environmental alternative for a few reasons. The main reason is because of the energy it takes. Typically, cremation ovens use fossil fuels, and they must maintain a temperature of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours, which burns a lot of fuel. Cremation emits mercury and other elements into the air and water, plus it produces 250 pounds of carbon dioxide. The United Nations estimates that crematoriums contribute up to 0.2 percent of the annual global emission of greenhouse gases, and cremation adds to heavy metal particulates in air pollution.
In addition, cremation ashes — sometimes called cremains — are not themselves "green." Cremation ashes are primarily tricalcium phosphate with small amounts of other minerals and salts unique to each body. Human ashes are comprised of different elements depending on what a person's body contained, which depends on their nutrition and their lifetime exposure to heavy metals and chemicals. This is exactly why you should never dig a hole, dump cremation ashes in it, and plant a tree on top of them. Cremation ashes are not like fertilizer. Carbon, nitrogen, and all the usable nutrients for plant growth are burned away, disappearing into the atmosphere. In addition, if you plant a tree or foliage over cremains, consult local experts and choose species that are native to the region.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Green Burial Guidebook"
Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Fournier.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
SECTION ONE: INTRODUCTION
What Is Green Burial
A Brief History
But is Green Burial Legal?
SECTION TWO: GETTING STARTED
Why I Wrote This Book
How to Use This Book
Talking the Talk
SECTION THREE: WHAT DOES A GREEN BURIAL LOOKS LIKE?
A Green Burial Glimpse
My First Green Burial
Basic Green Burial Terms
But What about Cremation? Isn't It Green?
SECTION FOUR: PUTTING THE PLAN ON PAPER
How Much Does a Green Burial Cost?
What is a Home Funeral?
What is Your Vision?
Funeral Wish List
SECTION FIVE: LEGALITIES
Do I Need a Funeral Director?
Appointing an Individual to Handle Arrangements
Order of the Next of Kin
How to Appoint an Agent
Durable Power of Attorney Document
Vital Statistics Form
How to Obtain a Home Funeral Packet
SECTION SIX: D-I-Y BURIAL
It Takes a Village
What is a Death Midwife?
What is a Death Care Consultant?
SECTION SEVEN: HOW TO HANDLE THE BODY
A Few Words of Precaution
SECTION EIGHT: NATURAL BURIAL CASKET
How to Make a Green Burial Wood Casket
Shelves for Life
SECTION NINE: GREEN BURIAL CONTAINERS
Green Burial Shrouds
Infinity Burial Suit
Infinity Burial Shroud
SECTION TEN: GREEN BURIAL GROUNDS
What Qualifies as a Green Burial Ground?
Three Kinds of Green Burial Cemeteries
List of Green Burial Grounds by State and Province
SECTION ELEVEN: BACKYARD BURIAL
Surveying and Measuring
Tools Needed for Digging Deep
Lowering the Body
Troubleshooting Unseen Issues
SECTION TWELVE: GREEN BURIALS OF THE FAMOUS
A Will for the Woods Movie
SECTION THIRTEEN: OTHER GREEN DISPOSITION OPTIONS
Burial at Sea
Religion and Green Burial
Scene of a Native American Burial
SECTION FOURTEEN: GREEN BURIAL IN OTHER CULTURES
Upright (Vertical) Burial
Tibetan Sky Burials
Turning of the Bones
SECTION FIFTEEN: GREENING YOUR CREMAINS
Crestone End-of-Life Project
Dryer Lint Urns
Let Your Love Grow
Rest in Pieces
SECTION SIXTEEN: GREENING YOUR LAST HURRAH
Sustainable Mourning Meals
Hold the Flowers
Send a Tree
SECTION SEVENTEEN: CONCLUSION