The Low Down On Green Living
May 19th, 2008
Recently I was at a Bioneers event here in LA, and a very spirited older woman stood up and announced, “Did you know that you can bury yourself in your own back yard? Well you’ll have to get someone else to do it, I guess– but it really is possible!” We all had a good chuckle and she went on to explain that you only needed to get a simple permit from the city to put your remains into your own yard. Many people in the audience were quite intrigued.
Ed Begley Jr., eco-activist and actor, was there and he chimed in, “That’s great! Just dig a whole, throw me in, and plant a tree on top of me. That’s how I want to go!”
This all got me to thinking about what the range of ”green burial” options might be, and how they stacked up against each other. I know it might be a tough topic to swallow, but when you consider that over 2.5 million people pass on each year in the United States, there is some pretty serious environmental impact to consider! We bury over 30 million board feet of wood, over 90,000 tons of steel, and more than 830,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Surely there is a more low-impact, nature-loving way for us to pass on.
So what is a “green burial”? It is primarily defined by doing LESS of what is involved in a typical burial. Traditional burials involve loading the body with embalming fluids, placing it in a casket, and interring the body and casket in the ground. An eco-friendly burial can mean skipping the use of embalming fluids and burying the body in a biodegradable shroud or a simple wood coffin (that will biodegrade over time). There are now cemeteries that specialize in green burials and participate in nature conservation programs (more on this below). Burial at sea can also be an eco-friendly option. Essentially green burial is any one of a number of options that doesn’t leave a body in a metal casket in the ground for hundreds of years.
What about cremation? Cremation is marginally better than a traditional burial from a resource perspective, but it does use fossil fuel. There are efforts being made now to explore alternative fuel uses and also using carbon offsets for cremation.
Keep in mind that a green burial can also be a great way to save money. A conventional funeral—including the embalming and a metal casket—can cost $5,000- 7,000 and up, plus another $2,000 for cemetery charges. A simple back-yard burial can cost less than $1000, and a burial at a green cemetery can save you several thousand dollars over a traditional burial.
Fortunately for all of us there is a non-profit organization called the Green Burial Council. This organization, founded in 2005, has established standards for cemeteries, funeral providers, and burial products that are environmentally sustainable and dignified for families. They are building an international network of “approved providers” who are committed to reducing toxins, waste, and carbon emissions that have been associated with conventional end-of-life rituals.
Click here to learn more about The Green Burial Council’s standards for cemeteries, funeral homes, caskets and more. And click here to find resources in your local area. We’ll highlight some particularly good options here:
+ One of the leaders of the green burial movement has been Memorial Ecosystems, based in South Carolina. They opened the Ramsey Creek preserve in 1998 as the first “green cemetery” in the US. They provide natural burials that use no embalming fluids, biodegradable caskets (but not hardwoods), and no vaults. They also protect and maintain the biodiversity of their cemetery lands. They now operate natural burial facilities in South Carolina and Georgia.
+ In New York, Greenspring Natural Cemetery offers low-impact burial in one-hundred acres of rolling hilltop meadows south of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region. You can choose to have a native tree or bush planted as a memorial to your loved one.
+ In Northern California, Fernwood operates a 32-acre cemetery in Mill Valley. Fernwood offers natural burial and they offer rocks, wildflowers and trees as burial markers. The also maintain a comprehensive land stewardship and restoration program.
+ Eternal Reefs is an organization that promotes the incorporation of cremated remains into artificial reefs. They mix remains into a cement-based reef facsimile and then place those “reef balls” into areas where aquatic life is struggling to thrive. Your loved one becomes part of an on-going environmental legacy. They have many affiliated providers across the US.
If you have had an experience with an eco-friendly burial approach or location, please let us know in the comments section.
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