GREENING YOUR FINAL ARRANGEMENTS
Posted with permission from Co-op America's Real Money newsletter, 800/58-GREEN,
Plan for environmentally sensitive final arrangements.
Have a funeral
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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