Dear Vanessa,


What is the greenest way to "go away" after one dies?  

— Michael

Dear Michael,

I’ve got to say this is something I’ve been thinking about for years. Even as a young child, the idea of being pumped full of preservatives and buried in a sealed coffin just didn’t seem right, and cremation seemed like such a waste. And before doing the research to answer your question, I thought my preference to be wrapped in a shroud (organic, of course) and buried without a coffin was going to cause legal problems for my family. Turns out, not a single state requires embalming. Embalming, expensive caskets and concrete vaults are required by individual cemeteries; not by law.

Most funerals these days are expensive — $6,000 on average — and involve embalming bodies with toxic and cancer-causing chemicals (including formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, phenol and methanol), then encasing them in a casket made from endangered wood, plastic and metal that, in turn, is buried in a cement vault. To that resource and energy-intensive process, add the environmental costs of the pesticides, herbicides and fume-belching landscaping equipment used to maintain cemeteries. Contemplate those vast expanses of buried plastic, metal, cement and chemicals, and row upon row of rarely local, quarried stone or concrete markers, and our cemeteries begin to resemble toxic landfills.

Now contemplate cremation, and you find a process that uses tons of energy and causes air pollution. Newer, double burners and filters are an improvement over older burners, but cremation still releases dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and mercury into the atmosphere. Cremation also interrupts nature’s balance, as it robs the soil of what would otherwise return to it to be recycled. “Ashes to ashes” is much less sustainable than “dust to dust.” Still, compared to our current burial practices, cremation is the better environmental option. If you choose cremation, look for a provider with the most efficient burners you can find, and since you still have to use a container, make it a simple, plastic- and chipboard-free coffin. There is at least one company that mixes ash remains with concrete to create structures that are used as ocean reefs. Families can dive to visit the “reef,” which over the years should become home to a variety of marine life. Not the greenest option, but a good one.

So what are our best post-mortem options? We clearly are not alone in asking the question: Green cemeteries are becoming popular, and the number of cemeteries and others offering environmentally sound options is growing rapidly.

I suppose the greenest way to go is to be tossed into a compost pile. Next best? Plan for a burial in a green cemetery, or even at home (with the necessary permissions).

Green cemeteries put a conservation easement on the land they’re using so that it will be protected from development in perpetuity, and incorporate burial services into larger nature reserve and preservation plans. In this way, the dead protect the land for the living.

A green interment involves none of the following: embalming; concrete; quarried or foreign stone; steel, copper, bronze or lead; plastics, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. It does involve: hand-dug and -filled graves, often with the participation of family and loved ones; sanctuaries for native plants and animals; a return of organic matter to the soil; and burial places marked by trees, plants or local stone. Green cemeteries will only allow biodegradable caskets (usually untreated wood, cardboard or paper).

And if you think outside the box, be buried without one, too. Natural fiber shrouds, or even a favorite blanket, are common alternatives to caskets.

Live green, die green!


Death by the numbers:

• Every year 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, for caskets; 3,272,000,000 pounds of reinforced concrete and 28,000,000 pounds of steel for vaults.

• Cremation causes between 0.8 and 5.9 grams of mercury to be released into the atmosphere, and the energy used to cremate one body is equivalent to driving 4,800 miles.

• More green funeral information and resources can be found through Green Burials and the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

Photo: Jupiterimages