Published on September 29th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans0
Funeral and Memorial Services
The conventional end of a human life in American society is cloaked in an excess of “packaging” that requires an excess of resources and money, harms the environment, and prevents the natural processes that are set in motion when death occurs. The systems that keep life in balance on Earth are created and perpetuated by the continuous recycling of organic and inorganic matter.
Our culture’s efforts over the past century to sanitize and blanket the uncomfortable and frightening processes of death have resulted in a funeral industry that can thrive only in direct opposition to the fundamental principles of this self-regulating system. In preserving the human body from immediate decay through chemical embalming and sealed “double” burial in an elaborate, decorative casket, and steel or concrete liner, it is virtually impossible for it to be reclaimed into the natural elements.
Fortunately, we are seeing the beginnings of a tremendous change in the conventional practices of how death is handled. Many people who have lived their lives according to natural principles are also seeking similar alternatives in the way they end their lives as well. A dignified, yet simple close to life, that neither compromises earth’s resources nor environment is more possible than ever.
The Eco-Friendly Casket
A new generation of companies and individuals are working to change the conventional practices of the cumbersome traditional burial container. The wide range of materials used for the making of a conventional casket include thick-guage steel, bronze, and copper. Various hardwoods make oak, ash, and walnut caskets. The very idea behind interring the body in such a sturdy container is that it will be protected from the elements of moisture, “biological invasion,” and roots. A casket can cost anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. The average casket costs 600 times what it cost the manufacturer to make it.
Unique new burial containers for eco-friendly funerals can lessen the cost, both financial and ecological, of a loved one’s funeral. Recycled paper and alternative fibers are now made into biodegradable caskets and coffins. The Ecopod recycled paper coffin, SAWD’s Fair Trade certified Bamboo Caskets, and willow, bamboo, and sea-grass burial boxes are all becoming increasingly available, as are shrouds of organic cotton and hemp. All of these options are naturally durable, biodegrade rapidly, and support the weaving and paper arts. Coffins made of woven fibers also have the advantage of being lightweight and inexpensive to ship. If you are at all interested in how to go about making your own coffin, a good resource is “Do-It-Yourself Coffins for Pets and People” by Dale Power.
Green Burial Grounds
A few green burial pioneers have started modern natural cemeteries around the world. A small but growing number of these sites have cropped up in the U.S. The Natural Burial Company http://www.naturalburialcompany.com/ lists and provides links to these cemetaries that perform natural burials without cement or steel vaults, and mark graves with natural rocks, wildflowers, and memorial trees instead of gravestones. As bodies buried naturally are not treated with embalming fluid, elements of the body as it biodegrades return to the soil and imparts nutrients to the plant life in its natural environment. Through death a person may, in this way, “become a tree.”
Should you be unable to access to one of the dozen green cemetaries in the U.S. today, there are other ways that you can minimize the impact of a burial within the conventional funeral realm. Here are a few tips:
You can begin by finding a cemetery that will accept your biodegradable casket without an outer liner or vault. Look for a private cemetery that isn’t required to follow corporate policy and is less likely to be required to pressure you for a vault sale.
Know that it is your legal right to buy your own casket and have it delivered to the funeral home or cemetery of your choice.
Be aware that embalming is not required by law although many in the funeral home industry regularly imply to their customers that it’s necessary for public health and safety. In fact, the truth points to the contrary. Almost two million gallons of embalming fluid are buried in U.S. soil annually. Conventional embalming fluid contains a number of chemicals, including methanol, ethanol, and formaldehyde. Exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to nasal and lung cancer in mortuary workers and other occupational groups. Contrary to industry opinion, the embalming process is not necessary to prevent decomposition in the first few days after death; refrigeration also works just as well. And while the preservative effects of embalming fluid fade after a few days, its presence in the body still sterilizes and destabilizes the decomposing process, and what should occur in terms of decomposition cannot occur.
How Eco-Friendly Is Cremation?
The logical benefit of cremation, in contrast with the conventional method of burial, is that one doesn’t leave the burden of all the trappings of a funeral behind. The appeal of being able to virtually disappear has led many people to opt for cremation. Cremation, however, has its own array of problems: the energy used for combustion is considerable, as are the emissions that result from burning synthetic materials in clothing and body implants. Mercury fillings in cremated bodies account for 16% of the air-borne mercury pollution in the U.K. Although cremation filtration methods are becoming more efficient, filters are still very expensive, and trapped pollutants must still be disposed of. Over 80% of operating crematoriums in the U.S. are older, polluting models.
A handful of solar crematoriums have arisen in recent years in India. Each utilizes a large solar dish to harness the extreme heat necessary to reduce the body to ashes, and if these efforts prove successful, undoubtedly more will appear, and perhaps closer to home. But even when energy use is diminished and harmful pollutants are eliminated, there is still a compelling argument against cremation. While it is true that, in the form of ashes, we leave less of ourselves behind, it is also true that in cremated form the body cannot be re-absorbed as a nutrient source into the earth’s biological web of life. We can be scattered to the winds or sea, but if we are buried, albeit in an eco-friendly manner, we can continue to participate in the regenerative cycle of life, even in death.
A new sustainable method for quickly reducing human remains, called “Promession,” has been developed by a Swedish soil scientist named Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak. This method cryogenically freeze-dries the body immediately after death, and vibrates it by sound at an amplitude that reduces it to powder. Sound like science fiction? It’s not. All moisture in the body evaporates and various metals (such as dental fillings) and nondegradables (such as implants) are sifted out. What remains in the end is a dry, nutrient-dense substance highly suitable for burial and fertilization.
One disadvantage of the promession method is that the process uses liquid nitrogen, which is expensive, and costly to produce because it’s generated with electricity. Liquid nitrogen must be handled with specialized equipment, and poses some dangers to its handlers. However, because a body processed by promession method remains in a form that can still nourish the landscape, it functions far better than ash as a fertilizing nutrient, and is considered a sound and eco-friendly alternative to natural decomposition.
Other Considerations For A Green Funeral
Because natural burial is a relatively new development and as yet unfamiliar in our society, it is advisable to make your burial arrangements to ensure that all bases, both legal and personal, have been covered. As yet, there are no binding regulations governing green burial sites. Be sure to include instructions for organ and tissue donation, if that is something you wish to contribute. Organ donation is another way to contribute to the living even in death.
To learn more about green options for funeral arrangements and burial, visit the Green Burial Council: http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/. For in-depth consumer information on current news and consumer alerts pertaining to the often unethical practices in the funeral industry, visit the Funeral Consumers’ Alliance http://www.funerals.org/.