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Posted with permission from Co-op America's Real Money newsletter, 800/58-GREEN,

Plan for environmentally sensitive final arrangements.

Have a funeral
that reflects
your values, and reduce expenses and planning headaches for
your loved ones.

Save resources. Keep toxic embalming chemical and resource-heavy caskets out of the ground. Leave an Earth-friendly example for others. On his deathbed King Alfred the Great said, “I desire to leave to the men that come after me a remembrance of me in good works.”

It’s a noble quote that raises this question: What do we as a society leave future generations when we bury our dead? Will our ancestors inherit a positive legacy?

Not through our current funereal habits. Each year in US cemeteries, we bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, which includes formaldehyde, 180,544,000 pounds of steel, 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze and 30 million board feet of hardwoods, including tropical woods, according to
Mary Woodsen, vice president of the Pre-Posthumous Society, an organization dedicated to bringing memorial nature preserves to New York state.

While most people don’t like to think of their own final arrangements, it’s possible to prepare for the inevitable. Planning ahead will not only remove a considerable burden from grieving relatives, it can give you peace of mind knowing you leave behind an Earth-friendly legacy.

A Grave Situation
Consider the land where you may be buried. When a new cemetery is created, the land is often cleared of existing vegetation, ruining the natural ecosystems and beauty of an area in exchange for a perfectly even, manicured lawn. Grounds crews maintain such a lawn with excessive water, pesticide, and fertilizer usage. The plot of land has a singular use, and visitors typically frequent the site only a couple times a year. The area will never be viable green space that supports naturally existing plant or
animal life. Neither will it be a shared community area that supports both the land and its people like a park or reserve would. As Woodsen recently told MSNBC.com, “Cemeteries turn beautiful places into
a monoculture of gravestones—really, a landfill of embalmed chemical and cement. Then backhoes, lawnmowers, and tree pruners put diesel emissions into the air and pesticides and fertilizers into the water.”

The Hazards of Embalming
Embalming fluid, a chemical used to preserve the deceased, can contaminate the soil. It’s also highly toxic to the morticians who use it. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA), “embalmers are required by OSHA to wear a respirator and full-body covering whileembalming. Funeral home effluent, however, is not regulated, and waste is flushed into the common sewer system or septic tank.” In addition, the invasive nature of the embalming procedure may put the mortician at further risk should s/he come in contact with a blood-borne pathogen.

What few people may know is that embalming is unnecessary, and it’s rarely required by law. If immediate burial is not possible, refrigeration at a hospital can be used to safe-keep the body before the memorial service. In most instances, embalming is only mandatory when transporting a body out
of state. Should you choose not to use embalming, you’ll not only preserve the environment, you’ll reduce expenses, a big consideration when you realize the process can make up at least 10 percent of the $5,000 an average funeral costs.

Embalming is also not a religious consideration. In fact, people of the Jewish and Muslim faiths often care for their own dead. In the Jewish society, families call upon a group of individuals called the Chevra Kadisha (Holy Society) to prepare the body for burial when a death occurs. According to David Zinner, the executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, an organization that provides education about traditional Jewish burial practices, the Chevra Kadisha dates back to at least the 1300s. The group
performs a Tahara ritual, which “has remained fairly constant, but does vary from community to community,” says Zinner. A mortician never touches the body, and embalming is not performed. Instead, “with prayers and respect, the body is washed and purified with water, dried and dressed in
burial garments,” then placed in a simple pine casket.

The Tahara ritual can be performed in the home of the deceased, in a special building at the cemetery, or the morgue, but it’s usually carried out in a funeral home. Zinner says, “Most Chevra Kadisha groups are made of volunteers, but in some larger cities they may be funeral home employees.” The Tahara is a beautiful religious tradition that’s not only rich in community involvement; it’s less expensive and more environmentally friendly. While the

Tahara ritual is strictly for people of the Jewish faith, other religions and secular groups practice and teach similar preparations for the deceased. Zinner suggests contacting your place of worship or local funeral homes to learn whether you can make similar arrangements.

Which Casket is Best?
One of the most expensive attributes of a funeral is the coffin. It’s also one of the most wasteful. The majority of materials used to build caskets are not biodegradable, and some of the elements are actually hazardous. Glue often bonds the components of a coffin together, and this unsafe substance can leech into the soil and water as decomposition takes place. There’s also the concern that cemetery space will eventually run out if we continue using current burial practices. Using a plain wooden box, preferably made from recycled wood instead of rainforest hardwoods; a cardboard casket; or woolen shroud is both economically and environmentally sound.

This kind of “dust-to-dust” burial will nourish the Earth, creating a living legacy. Hazel Selena has created another eco-friendly alternative—the Ecopod, a 100 percent biodegradable and environmentally safe coffin that’s shaped like a seedpod. Created from recycled papers, the Ecopod comes in two different finishes, silk-screened with your choice of four colors, and three different decorative embellishments, or gold leaf. No synthetic hardeners give this unique casket its rigid shell; its strength is derived from the way it’s pressed together. For those preferring cremation, Selena has also created the organic ARKA Acorn Urn out of recycled paper to hold ashes.

And Speaking of Cremation ...
Often a controversial choice, cremation offers pluses and minuses. Though it is still frowned on by many religions, it’s growing in popularity.

According to the Cremation Association of North America, 21.20 percent of all deaths in the US were cremated. That figure rose to 26.19 percent in 2000 and is projected to increase to 38.98 percent by 2010. Cremation does save land space, and it’s much less expensive than a traditional burial.
However, the process requires fossil fuels, and it creates emissions that can pollute the air. However, some of that pollution comes from cremating the deceased in chipboard coffins that have plastic handles and a high concentration of glue. Using a cardboard coffin can reduce that emanation.

The Environmental Protection Agency also has strict stipulations in place to lessen pollution concerns. For instance, flowers can’t be placed in the crematorium with the deceased. And according to the FCA, “modern cremation units operate with air-scrubbing capabilities to keep air pollution to a
minimum.” If you’re wondering which—cremation or burial—is the stronger green choice, it’s difficult to say. Debates support both options, but only cremation meets religious resistance. The ideal situation would be to work to lessen the environmental impact of both arrangements.

Memorial Nature Preserves
If you’re seeking a final resting place that’s completely Earth-friendly while also reverent and life-affirming, you may want to consider a nature reserve burial ground. Currently there are over 160 green cemeteries in Great Britain, but only two existing woodland reserves in the US. Thanks to Billy and Kimberley Campbell, interest is growing. The Campbells founded Memorial Ecosystems in 1996. This memorial nature park in Westminster, SC, serves as a green cemetery that preserves wild land. Burials and ash scatterings can be done in the Ramsey Creek Preserve, but the interments must be natural. “No toxic embalming fluids, no vaults, and only biodegradable caskets. Because these are often the very expensive items, the total funeral costs for burial at Memorial Ecosystems parks are
much less expensive than current averages,” say the Campbells. The park doesn't allow cement grave liners and also prohibits plastic flowers and standing headstones. Small, flat grave markers can be used, although they’re not encouraged.

The Campbells have also lent their help to John Wilkerson, who is developing the Glendale Nature Memorial Preserve in Florida’s panhandle. This 350-acre park is currently operating as an “exempt cemetery” while it pursues a full license. It allows both natural burials and ash scatterings.

Other states have also expressed an interest in developing memorial preserves, and the Campbells want “to establish a nationwide system of preserves within the next decade.” They encourage groups or churches interested in establishing their own preserves to contact them for help. If there isn’t a memorial preserve in your area, you may research green alternatives in your vicinity by conducting an Internet search, or by speaking with local funeral directors or church officials who may be able to offer suggestions.

Of course, burial decisions are very personal and often difficult to make. However, with a little planning now, you can honor your life or the life of a loved one through burial choices that leave an Earth-friendly legacy for future generations.
—Terri Clark

Green Burial Resources

  • Eco-pod - (+44)(0)1273-746011, www.eco-pod.com. Alternative burial
    caskets and urns.
  • Funeral Consumers Alliance - 800/765-0107, www.Funerals.org
    Dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful,
    dignified, affordable funeral.
  • Glendale Nature Memorial Preserve - 850/859-2141,
    www.glendalenaturepreserve.org. A memorial nature preserve in
    Florida’s panhandle.• Kavod v’Nichum - 410/799-8070,
    www.Jewish-funerals.org. Provides information, education, and
    training about Jewish death and bereavement practice to synagogues
    in the US and Canada.
  • Memorial Ecosystems -
    864/647- 7798, www.memorialecosystems.com. First US memorial nature
    preserve. Located in SC.
  • Pre-Posthumous Society—Dedicated to bringing memorial nature
    preserves to New York state. E-mail: marywoodsen@nasw.org

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