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Everything You Need To Know About Green Funerals

GREEN FUNERALS PROVIDE FAMILIES WITH AN ECO-FRIENDLY BURIAL OPTION

Confronting the death of a loved one and our own mortality is a certainty everyone must face. People cope with the promise of death uniquely, and death invokes a variety of complex emotions.

While some people may be at peace with the death of a loved one or with the anticipation of their own death, feelings of grief or depression can accompany the circumstance of any death. A person’s life is reflected on and culminates at their funeral and thus, funerals serve as a first step towards acceptance for those survived by the deceased.

One life has a ripple effect on others and on the planet we inhabit. People can take into account the health of the planet and the environment when confronting the idea of death despite the inevitability that they will not always be around to enjoy it.

In an era of reusable straws, electric cars, recycled clothing, and an overall heightened awareness of humans’ impact on the world we live in, funerals that leave a minimal carbon footprint have become a desirable choice for many.

A Green Funeral is the answer for someone looking to minimize their impact on the environment and become one with nature after their life is over.

GREEN FUNERALS EXPLAINED

Green Funerals are all-natural burials that minimize environmental impact(1). It is an umbrella term that can encompass many variations of a natural burial. They can reflect the life and values of those who choose them. Green Funerals can feel personalized, spiritual and less sterile than traditional full-service funerals, thus adding to their appeal.

The locations of green burials are often beautiful reserves that promote feelings of wellbeing and connectedness within the visitor. Hired funeral directors can customize the burial experience to the needs of the individual.

A person nearing the end of their life or planning arrangements for their death can be comforted in knowing that their body will become one with the earth, continuing the circle of life and facilitating ecological restoration at a price affordable to their surviving family. While some people opt for a simple cloth shroud to be buried in, others may solely forgo embalming to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals.

It is important to realize that there is a spectrum of options that can be more or less natural, and multiple ways to incorporate environmentally-conscious elements into any funeral without completely disregarding traditional practices that the culture of the United States accepts.

Green Funeral Basics

While Green Funeral practices vary among providers, basic characteristics apply. Items such as the burial container, the way in which the grave is marked and how the body is cared for are all generally the same no matter where a green funeral is taking place.

Burial Container

Green Funerals prohibit the use of concrete, plastic, or fiberglass vaults and embalming of the body. They use biodegradable materials that are easily broken down and absorbed into the earth, such as wicker, wood or cloth, for the burial containers.

The use of electric or gas powered equipment, like mowers or weed wackers, pesticides and herbicides is limited.

Natural Markers

Graves can be marked by their coordinates, wood pieces, rocks or native trees and other plants.

If a loved one wishes, the marking of the grave can be handmade by them, such as a wooden cross or etched stone.

The native plants that adorn and surround the grave additionally support the ecological health of the burial site (2).

Care Of The Body

Care of the deceased person’s body involves natural methods. Natural death care utilizes refrigeration, dry ice or natural and environmentally-friendly embalming fluids.

This article will explore how families can take care of their dead loved one in their home and/ or bury them on their property in place of someone doing the service for them.

Cost Of Green Funerals

Without the costs of coffins, tombstones and ground maintenance fees, Green Funerals are more affordable and thus reduce the financial and emotional stress on the family of the departed. In many cases, a funeral director is involved and there are necessary services of opening and closing the grave.

Traditional Funeral Cost

Costs of traditional funerals average between $7,000 to $12,000. For full-casket funerals, pricing depends on the casket, the cost of the grave, maintenance of the burial site and service fees. Though the casket and embalming services are excluded, cremation funerals can exceed $6,000 in cost.


Green Funeral Cost

Green Funerals, however, can cost as low as $500 but typically average around $2,000. Prices vary depending on the location, funeral director, vessel of burial and related purchases and thus have a wider range of pricing than traditional or cremation burials(2).

HISTORY OF GREEN FUNERALS

Death care in the United States is valued at nearly 12 billion dollars annually. It is evident that death has been capitalized upon and formed into a money-making industry of its own.

Where Green Funerals Originated

Embalming and space allocation for cemeteries was not always standard practice. In The Pre-Civil War era up to the mid 1800s, all funerals were green funerals and no chemicals were used. Most people were buried on their own properties and the process of embalming did not exist.

Because people only lived into their 30s and 40s, people were generally comfortable with accepting death as a part of life.  Many people were buried in shrouds, however, caskets made of wood were also common.

Burials were typically done on families’ private-owned land. It was not unusual for people to dress, clean and even display their deceased loved ones in the house until their final burial.

In this way, the family could mourn and memorialize the deceased over the course of a few days after the death. Instead of undertakers, families cared for the dead and were familiar with this stage of life. Simply put, attitudes surrounding death have greatly shifted since this era.

The Practice Of Embalming

Modern embalming practices of the United States funeral industry began with the American Civil War. Embalming the dead became common practice in order to transport the bodies of fallen soldiers back to their families after fighting and dying hundreds of miles away from home.

The bodies would begin to decay before reaching their destination and thus embalming agents were needed for preservation.

Along with this modern form of death care came the first military cemeteries and consolidations of space for mass cemeteries.

Thus, calling full-service funerals of today “traditional” seems to disregard the more dated tradition of entirely natural, green burials.

Consider this excerpt that puts into perspective the volume of embalming fluid, quantity of reinforced concrete and tons of steel used annually in full-scale, traditional funerals:

“It is estimated that, in a single year, enough embalming fluid is buried to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. Additionally, enough reinforced concrete is used in caskets to build a two-lane highway between New York and Detroit, and more steel is used than was needed to build the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Oceans of embalming fluid, entire bridges of steel and miles of highways exist underground in service of the traditions of our Western funerals.

The First Green Cemetery

Approximately 130 years after the Civil War and the emergence of embalming practices, the first green cemetery was founded in Ramsey Creek in the U.S. in 1998 by Memorial Ecosystems Inc.

According to their website, Ramsey Creek sought to bring back traditional, environmentally kind practices of the past. This set the precedent for the cemeteries that are completely green that exist today.

The Green Burial Council was founded in 2005, setting the requirements for green cemetery certifications and standards of practice. Additionally, the National Funeral Directors Association now offers a Green Funeral Practice Certificate, which officiates that the funeral home is environmentally friendly in its practice.

TRADITIONAL BURIAL VERSUS GREEN BURIAL

Like anything, there are pros and cons to both traditional burials and green burials. While traditional funerals may be the default choice for many people planning a funeral, it may be time to switch up our conception of what a funeral should be and look like.

Traditional Burial Pros & Cons

There are few pros to traditional burials, however they may still be comforting to those who prefer them. Environmentally they are harmful, but culturally they are accepted, making them an easy and default choice for many.

Traditional Burial Pros

  • Convenience.  Virtually all burial sites in the U. S. practice traditional, full-casket burials, making them easy to access. There may be less confusion for the family when choosing where to bury their dead, as traditional, full-service cemeteries are not few and far between. Because traditional funerals are just that, traditional, finding a location would not be an issue.
  • Defined place to visit.  The family has a defined place to visit their deceased loved one. They can walk through the manicured, park-like grounds on short-cut grass to the rectangular, marked grave of the person they are remembering.
  • Well maintained grave.  There are no overgrown wildflowers or mushrooms growing near or on top of the grave. A heavy, formal-looking gravestone clearly marks the grave and can look grand and honorable.
  • A family plot.  Some couples or families may buy their grave plots together and thus are comforted in knowing that they will be together in a nicely manicured place in death.

Traditional Burial Cons

  • Ground and burial restrictions.  Because most burial sites operate under traditional burial regulations, the family doesn’t have much choice in some aspects, such as how the grave is marked or what remembrances the family is allowed to leave on the grave. There may be restricted visiting hours or it may involve a far drive. A family member may not be able to plant a flower above the grave or leave behind something meaningful. Essentially, a traditional cemetery may leave family and loved ones feeling depersonalized and detached from the deceased person.
  • High associated cost. According to the Lincoln Funeral Advantage, the price for a traditional, full-service funeral ranges from $7,000 to $12,000. This astronomical price includes embalming, service fees, the casket, the grave plot, cost of opening and closing the ground, transportation fees and other costs. The price fluctuates depending on the funeral home, chosen funeral director and the casket, as those can cost thousands alone. A funeral where the body is cremated costs $6,000 to $7,000. Cremation is significantly less, but still costs a pretty penny.
  • Negative impact of embalming. Consider the impacts of embalming the body along with land use. Embalming means that a slew of toxic chemicals are pumped through an artery of the deceased person’s body in order to slow their decay. This process can be a health hazard for service workers exposed to these carcinogens and an environmental hazard once the body is in the ground and emitting toxins into the air and soil around it. Though embalming chemicals leak into the environment over the years, the quantity is not significant enough to affect human health.
  • Other environmental repercussions. Although some may be comforted by the thought that their deceased loved one is preserved underground, cemeteries become land ridden with preservatives and waste when the natural process of decomposition is interrupted. Also, maintenance of the gravesite and burial grounds requires tons of water, pesticides and mowing, which disrupt the natural flora and fauna of the area and waste great amounts of water that could have been useful elsewhere.

Green Burial Pros & Cons

As expanded on previously, Green Funerals were once the only option and this fact attests to the simplicity of them.

Green Burial Pros

  • Cost effective.  As in many cases, simplicity translates to better affordability. Prices range from $1,000 to $4,000 but can cost as low as $200 for cremated remains-- with the cost of cremation not included. A typical price falls around $2,000. A funeral director is legally obligated to accept any casket or container that the family provides without adding additional charges.
  • Supportive of nature. Green Funerals do not degrade the natural ecology of the cemetery location. Rather, these funerals support the wildlife and foliage. Native or non-native, non-invasive plants can support bird and butterfly species while the nutrients of the decomposition in the soil support mushroom species.
  • Protects water quality. Though one may think that decomposing bodies may threaten water quality, Green Burials actually are known to protect water quality to a greater extent than traditional burials. There is no water used for irrigation and consequently less water used and wasted.  In most cases, frequent biological surveys gather information on how the environment is responding to the burials, demonstrating that the funeral homes that sponsor Green Funerals care and invest in planning.

Green Burial Cons

  • Small available area. The area chosen could have a small size in which burials could take place and there may be limited availability. In lieu of choosing a plot, families may have few options to choose from on the grounds.
  • Further distance between family members. Because Green Cemeteries are meant to build up and conserve nature, burial directors often do not want to interrupt the natural overgrowth of a burial that took place months or years prior. Thus, if a couple wanted to be buried side-by-side yet died years apart, they may have to be buried with more physical distance between them than they would at a traditional cemetery.

Additional Reasons To Have A Green Funeral

There are various reasons people wish to have a Green Funeral. Green Cemeteries provide learning opportunities for students, are lands of abundant ecological value, contribute to the natural cycle of life and reduce one’s carbon footprint on the earth, as Green Cemeteries are naturally maintained.

Knowing the benefits to having a Green Funeral could allow one to feel that their death can be meaningful and, though their time on earth is over, beneficial to life that continues on after their passing.

Health

Traditional funeral practices also have negative health implications for embalmers and gravediggers. Embalmers have a higher risk of developing blood diseases and ALS as a side effect of inhaling toxic chemicals(8). Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is common among gravediggers due to the inhalation of dirt and chemicals.

It is evident that, aside from the environmental impact, human health is endangered by traditional, unnatural practices. Protecting those who are living may be a reason for some to desire a natural funeral for themselves.

Spirituality

A deeper exploration of spirituality may be a motivation for the growing popularity of Green Funerals. In the time leading up to one’s death, if death can be expected, imagining how the body will decompose to become soil while greenery twists above and birds chirp in the trees he/she helped to grow can bring peace to a time that may be filled with fear or uncertainty.

Instead of forever being encased in cement and lacquer, knowing that one will have the trees and wildlife as company can help with the life transition.

LOCATING A GREEN CEMETERY

The Green Burial Council has a host of links to Green Funeral providers around the United States. The Green Burial Council is a nonprofit educational organization and leader in the green burial movement that oversees the regulation of burial provider certifications.

There are 15,000 funeral homes in the United States, however only 255 are certified by the Green Burial Council. This does not mean, however, that you cannot have a mostly or entirely green funeral at a typically traditional cemetery. You do not have to find a Green Cemetery in order to have a Green Funeral. Some cemeteries are entirely green, while others are traditional with a portion of the cemetery allotted to Green Burials.

Burial grounds can be hybrid burial grounds-- meaning that they are traditional burial sites with a green burial location reserved-- natural burial grounds, which only do green funerals, or natural conservation burial grounds(3).

Cemeteries have guidelines on how to bury the dead and most do not permit Green Funeral practices. Many require that the deceased be buried in a wooden or steel coffin, preventing the natural decomposition of the body.

You can ask if the cemetery you would like to use allows a wood or concrete casket with an open bottom so that natural decomposition can still occur. It is important to remember that there are varying levels of Green Funerals.

The providers of Green Funerals focus on family-centered burial practices in a location that reflects the beauty of life, rather than the devastation of death. Providers may allow the family to carry the body to the gravesite, adorn the grave before the burial or close the grave.

A beautiful location is a common feature to green burial sites. The scenery of these burial sites can include stone bridges, streams, open fields and wooden benches.

The sounds and sights of the peaceful environment can aid loved ones in the process of accepting death and appreciating the memories they cherish with the departed.

Additionally, many green funeral providers offer affordable pricing as a feature of their commitment to sustainable practices and values.

GREEN FUNERAL RULES & REGULATIONS

While the options in your state may vary (for example, home burial may not be as feasible) green funerals are legal in all states. However, there are certain rules that may apply depending on the state where you reside.

  • Funeral director.  A funeral director is required to oversee the burial of the body in nine states, those being New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana Louisiana and Nebraska. Aside from those nine, a family member can serve as the funeral director.
  • Burial container.  Despite common belief, it is not a legal requirement to bury a body in a vault or container. It is common practice, however, because it prevents the ground from settling unevenly after burial. Discuss your desire to bury a body without a container with the burial home, as you are not obligated under law.
  • Embalming.  Embalming is also not a legal obligation in most cases. This changes in some states if it is necessary that the body be transported across state lines on a common carrier. Alabama and Alaska require embalming when the body is transported across state lines while New Jersey, California, Idaho, Kansas and Minnesota require embalming only when the body is transported across state lines on a common carrier, such as an airplane.

It is feasible, affordable and always an option to have a green funeral.

4 STEPS TO PLANNING A GREEN FUNERAL

While the principles and characteristics of green funerals are essentially the same, options for a green funeral can vary slightly depending on the wishes of the family. Having an idea ahead of time and knowing the wishes of the deceased can save a lot of time and heartache for the family and make the decision making process much easier.

There are four important steps that families should take when planning a green funeral: choosing the funeral director, choosing the vessel for burial, deciding on embalming and where to bury the body. We will tackle each step one at a time.

Step 1: Choose A Green Funeral Director

Your preferences for a Green Funeral director will depend on your personal wishes for your loved one’s funeral. Funeral directors who practice Green Funerals undergo educational training by the Green Burial Council and therefore are familiar with many preferences people may have for the planning.

Some are pricier than others, and so it is important to shop around and consider the options in your area.

As stated above, the National Funeral Directors Association now offers a Green Funeral Practice Certificate. Looking for accredited directors can help ensure that you are receiving the best information about your options.

Step 2: Choose The Vessel For Burial

There are a couple of different options for families when it comes to selecting the vessel their loved one will be buried in. Some families may opt for a biodegradable casket while others may choose a simple shroud placed around the body. Let's examine both options.

Casket

One option is the vessel of burial, as caskets can be constructed from wicker, wood or cardboard. Often, local craftsmen of biodegradable caskets are entrusted to personalize the casket with designs reflecting the creativity or spirit of the deceased.

Burial Shroud

Another option is to bury the deceased in a simple cloth fiber shroud. The Infinity Burial Suit made by Coeio is made from a variety of mushrooms and microorganisms that aid in decomposition while neutralizing toxins from the decomposing body(4).

Families looking to save money with their Green Funerals can look into making burial materials themselves. Homemade wooden caskets do not have to be elaborate, but they can be sentimental and ultimately much cheaper than artisan ones. If the shroud is the desired option, a hand-sewn cloth shroud is a less expensive alternative.

Some cemeteries allow a family member to carry the deceased to the burial site. This feature of the ceremony can be deeply spiritual and aid in the family’s acceptance of the death, despite its unconventionality.

Allowing people to feel close to family and friends while appreciating the circle of life is encouraged and a priority to most Green Cemeteries.

Step 3: Decide On Embalming

Again, there are varying levels to how green a burial is. An option is refrigeration or dry ice in place of embalming. The family may still choose to bury the body in a closed, non-biodegradable casket, but forgoing embalming can still be significant.

Step 4: Pick A Burial Spot

When selecting a burial plot for the body for a green burial, families have two options: a green cemetery or to bury the body at home. Both are environmentally conscious when adhering to green burial practices.

Green Cemetery

If your loved one's wishes are to be buried in a green cemetery, do your research ahead of time if possible. The Green Burial Council is a great resource and has a list of providers and cemeteries by state.

Knowing what your options are ahead of time can save a lot of last minute decision making during a time of grief.

There are different options with green cemeteries as well. They can be classified as hybrid cemeteries, natural burial grounds or conservation burial grounds. Understanding the differences and similarities of each can help families make an informed decision.

Home Burial

Home funerals followed by home burials are more unconventional in today’s society, more environmentally conscious and, most importantly, considered to be completely green. The Home Funeral Alliance is an organization that guides people on conducting home funerals.

Of course, there are some necessary legal obligations implicated in having a home burial. In most states, it is completely legal with the exceptions of California, Washington and Indiana. Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, and New York require families to hire a funeral director but it is not necessary in the remaining states.

Local zoning laws are the only determinants in burial restrictions. They may have a minimum on how far the grave can be from neighboring properties, how far the grave can be from water sources and the depth of the burial.

These guidelines, however, should not prevent the average person from carrying out their wish for a loved one to be buried on their property.

CREMATION & GREEN BURIALS

Flame-based cremation is technically not green. The process of cremation releases greenhouse gases, vaporized mercury, dioxins and furans into the environment - all of which are pollutants.

Cremation, however, is less harmful to the environment than traditional funerals, which involve embalming fluids, lacquered caskets and manicured burial sites. Despite not being completely environmentally neutral, cremation is still a viable option for those wanting to bury their loved one in an urn while being conscious of their carbon footprint.

A different type of cremation that is increasingly being utilized is called bio-cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis. Alkaline hydrolysis is a relatively old practice, however has only recently been offered to consumers. Instead of oxidation, bio cremation involves water and an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide.

These compounds are pressurized in a stainless steel chamber at a high temperature in order to break down the body into bone ash. The process takes 13 to 16 hours to complete.

Potassium hydroxide is a non acidic inorganic compound commonly used in everyday products and the only byproduct is a sterile fluid. It uses one-eighth of the energy used in flame-based cremation and there is four times less carbon impact (5).

People choose bio cremation because the process is perceived to be gentler and more environmentally friendly than fire cremation. There is 32% more cremated volume than traditional fire cremation, so a larger urn could be needed.

Although it is perceivably the best cremation option, it is not commercially available across the United States. Bio cremation is legal in less than half of all U.S. states. Even in states that permit bio cremation, providers can be scarce.

To find providers, visit the Cremation Association Member Directory and search for a business classified as “Crematory, Alkaline Hydrolysis”(5).

Differences Between Cremation & Green Burials

Although you are returning ashes to the Earth, there is a vast difference between cremation and green burial. Cremation may be a better option for those looking for a more eco-friendly option than a traditional funeral but it is not without challenges that impact the environment.

  • Pollution.  While cremation may be less harmful to the environment than traditional funerals, it is still a toxic process. The process releases carbon monoxide, soot, heavy metals and mercury from dental fillings into the atmosphere, all of which are pollutants and aggravate the greenhouse effect afflicting our atmosphere.
  • Nutrients.  When ashes are buried, they are sterile and do not add nutrients from the body to the soil nor negatively affect it. Thus, once cremated, remains are neutralized and can be safely buried. In the instance of Green Burials, nutrients are given back to the earth.
  • Burial.  Green Burials may require more investment of time spent looking for a burial site, whereas cremated remains are mobile if placed in an urn.

What To Do With Cremated Ashes

Some families are comfortable burying their loved one in an urn biodegradable in either earth or water. The type of urn chosen can reflect the values and wishes of the deceased if they made it known to those around them before their death.

Burial Urns

Biodegradable urns can be buried so as to take up less space in the ground. These urns can be vegetable-based, cornstarch-based or made from wood, bamboo, sand or another natural material.

These urns are designed for ground burial and allow for the ashes to return to the soil over time.

Plant Urn

Some urn companies create egg-shaped urns containing a budding tree or other type of identifiable plant growing from the top(6).

This plant-urn option is a symbol of life growing from decay, and some people take comfort in the idea that their remains serve as nutrients for the nature that surrounds their final resting place.

Family and friends can visit the tree and feel closer to a physical representation of the deceased person’s life.

Water Urn

Another unique idea is to have one’s ashes be placed in an urn biodegradable in water. Eternal Reefs is an urn company that designs artificial coral reef balls to mimic natural reef formations(7).

They are made from earth-friendly materials and support ocean life by providing a place for microorganisms to land, subsequently supporting the predators that feed on them.

Ashes are integrated into these ocean-urns and the deceased can be forever surrounded by ocean life and the sparkling sea, knowing that they are making a contribution to the coral reef environment.

Cremation Jewelry

Cremation ashes jewelry keeps the ashes of a loved one close to the heart of someone who wants to eternalize their memory. This option is fantastic for people who want to sustain the connection they had with their deceased loved one and the respect for their life.

An interior compartment of the jewelry is filled with a pinch of ashes, roughly of a teaspoon, and screwed shut to place the remains to rest, forever keeping a loved one close to their heart and body. Alternatively, cremation necklaces for ashes integrate the ashes into the makeup of the pendant and are highly personal remembrances.

Many people find comfort in knowing that they can discreetly cherish the remains of someone within the confines of a beautiful piece of jewelry.

LAYING OUR LOVED ONES TO REST NATURALLY

Western culture has begun to reexamine how we cope with and manage death. There is a movement towards embracing death and integrating it into a part of how our culture thinks of and appreciates life. Green funerals are a method of recycling the nutrients and minerals within our bodies to thank the earth for the gift of life.

Funeral planners can customize the ceremony and burial to their liking and the desires of the deceased person. Biodegradable urns, handcrafted woven caskets and native plants can be featured to represent one’s individuality.

Green Cemeteries can be a place of remembrance as opposed to one of grieving. They are not grey places adorned with solemn patterns of tombstones, but rather have the appearance of a serene park or nature reserve. Family and friends can be more involved in how the burial takes place, aiding in their acceptance of the death.

Helpful Reading:

What To Do When A Parent Dies

How To Make An Online Memorial

Letting Go - A Complete Guide To Scattering Ashes

October 6, 2020 by Jeri K. Augustus