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Green Burial – Thinking Outside the Box

By Marie Oser, Managing Editor
May 26, 2010
File under: Environmental Impact, Natural Alternatives, Saving Money


Funeral rites date back to the earliest of civilizations. Archeologists have discovered ancient burial grounds of a Neanderthal man in Iraq dating to 60,000 BC. The body was found with animal antlers and flower fragments next to the corpse, believed to demonstrate ritual ceremony.1

While over time, every culture has developed customary rituals in caring for the dead, modern funerals are incredibly resource intensive. According to the Worldwatch Institute, the $25 billion death-care industry oversees 1.8 million burials a year and the average funeral costs about $6,000.2

Today’s post-mortem preparation includes embalming, a process that delays decomposition and preserves the corpse for viewing. The body is flooded with embalming fluid, the blood drained and body cavity vacuumed. The body is then sealed in a laminated wood casket and placed in a lined grave or cement vault.

Every year in the U.S., cemeteries bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, 180,544,000 pounds of steel, 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze and 30 million board feet of hardwoods.3 This conventional end-of-life ritual that contaminates the soil with toxic chemicals and often uses slow-growing trees for caskets, also endangers the living.

Embalming fluid typically contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen shown to pose health risks in funeral homes. A 2009 study by the National Cancer Institute revealed that embalmers exposed to formaldehyde have a much higher incidence of myeloid leukemia.4

A green burial without embalming and in a biodegradable container or shroud made of non-toxic materials will use less energy and emit less carbon. Biodegradable coffins can be made from cardboard, recycled paper, wood, formaldehyde-free plywood, biodegradable plastic, fair-trade-certified bamboo or wicker.

Eco-burials have been popular in the UK for years and in Japan, low impact burial offerings include vegetable protein urns and containers made from tealeaves. While Great Britain and Australia have more than 200 natural burial sites, the Green Burial Movement is in its infancy in this country.

Environmentalist and rural doctor, George William (Billy) Campbell, M.D. founded Memorial Ecosystems Inc., which opened the first modern green cemetery in North America in 1998.  The Ramsey Creek Preserve specializes in green burials that offer a less costly, more natural approach.

Graves are hand-dug, and instead of using expensive, finished coffins, the dead are buried in a shroud or plain wooden box without vault or grave liner.

Joe Sehee, a leading green burial advocate is the founder and executive director of the Green Burial Council, an organization that encourages environmentally sustainable death care. The Council has established the first certifiable standards for cemeteries, funeral and cremation facilities in the U.S. Conventional funeral providers in eight states will now offer Green Burial Council approved burials.

The Hudson Valley Green Burial Association in New York is a grass roots organization formed to raise awareness about sustainable burials. The committee champions natural burials with shrouds and flowers that can be visually beautiful as well as earth friendly and sacred.

Green burials are far less costly and the money is allocated to preserving the ecosystem instead of on expensive and unnecessary consumption. Consumers who choose a green burial for their final act help to preserve the environment and can save thousands of dollars.

Green Burial Sites

Marie Oser is a best-selling author, writer/producer and host of VegTV, Follow Marie on Twitter:

More from ecomii:

1. Solecki, R. S. 1975. Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal flower burial in northern Iraq. Science 190(28): 880.

2. Life-Cycle Studies: Burials, Eye on Earth, Worldwatch, Lisa Mastny. May 14, 2010

3. Mary Woodsen, vice-president of Pre-Posthumous Society

4. A Hauptmann, Michael, A Stewart, Patricia A., A Lubin, Jay H., A Beane Freeman, Laura E., A Hornung, Richard W., A Herrick, Robert F., A Hoover, Robert N., A Fraumeni, Joseph F., Jr, A Blair, Aaron, A Hayes, Richard B. Mortality From Lymphohematopoietic Malignancies and Brain Cancer Among Embalmers Exposed to Formaldehyde J. Natl. Cancer Inst. 101: 1696-1708. Dec. 2009

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