If you or a loved one lived life in the green lane, you’ll want the final curtain call—funeral and burial—to be kind to the earth, too. Traditional services not only bury the body but also harmful chemicals, metals, and cement. A green funeral skips the use of embalming fluids, metal caskets, and cement vaults. The goal is to use as few resources as possible to allow your body to decompose quickly, returning to the earth to nourish the plant life that lives on.
In the US, more than 2.4 million people die each year. A typical funeral and burial costs thousands of dollars and uses many resources. Cremation—chosen by approximately 33 percent of the population—also has it’s own ecological concerns. (See Cremation below.)
Resources used for traditional funerals and burials
- Chemicals: More than 830,000 gallons of embalming fluid are used to preserve bodies that are buried in the ground. Embalming fluid is a mix of formaldehyde and ethanol.
- Timber: More than 39 million board feet of hardwood lumber are used to build approximately 300,000 caskets each year. Laid end to end, those boards would reach from Los Angeles to Cairo.
- Steel: More than 90,000 tons of steel are used to make more than 800,000 steel caskets each year.
- Concrete: Cement and metal burial vaults, designed to keep the ground from settling as the casket and body decay, require 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete each year. The metals and concrete used to make coffins and vaults annually is greater than that used to build the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Rock: Thousands of head stones are made from granite and marble, which are quarried using fossil fuels. Jet burners, heated to 3,000°F, are used to remove the rock from the earth.
- Water: Traditional cemeteries maintain the landscape with gas-powered mowers, as well as synthetic fertilizers and water irrigation systems.
To counter these intensive uses of land and resources, the green funeral and burial route skips the embalming, calls for biodegradable caskets or shrouds and urns, and ends in cemeteries on land that remains in its natural state. Going green will also save you money. A conventional funeral—including embalming and a metal casket—costs between $5,000 and $7,000. There's also the cemetery and transportation charges, which run about $2,000.
Embalming is not required by law. Funeral directors recommend embalming to preserve the body for viewing. However, refrigeration or dry ice is considered an appropriate alternative, especially for the first 72 hours after death. During the embalming process, blood and other bodily fluids are replaced with formaldehyde and other chemicals. The fluids, as well as some embalming fluid, are released, untreated, into the sewer system. In 2004, the International Agency for Research on Cancer released information that formaldehyde causes nasopharyngeal cancer and may cause leukemia, putting embalmers at risk. Research is ongoing at the National Cancer Institute due to reports that funeral workers have excess malignancies of the lymphatic and central nervous systems.
Cremation reduces a body to its elements and eliminates the need for a resource-intensive burial—no metal or hardwood casket, cement burial vault, or land for a cemetery. In Britain, cremations account for 70 percent of funerals, largely because land is at a premium. Cremated remains can be simply strewn in scattering gardens or other suitable locations. They may also be buried in cemeteries, but with far fewer resources.
The energy needed to accomplish the cremation process is significant, however. Cremation chambers are heated to between 1,400 and 1,800°F for approximately two-and-a-half hours. The use of alternative fuels is being explored as well as the use of carbon offsets to minimize the energy impact of cremations.
Air pollution, notably mercury emissions, is also a factor. The mercury comes from a body’s dental amalgam fillings, which may contain as much as 50 percent mercury. How much mercury is emitted during the cremation is debated. In the UK, cremation is responsible for 16 percent of mercury pollution. Based on a study of one crematory, the agency estimates 0.8 tons of mercury was released from crematories in 1995. Mercury in the air eventually settles into water where it can build up in fish, shellfish, and animals that eat fish. Wildlife that eat the contaminated fish may die, or suffer slower growth and development, and abnormal behavior. High mercury exposure in humans can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system.
According to the American Dental Association, the use of mercury in dental amalgams is declining and is currently at 30 percent, down from 45 percent in 1999. Therefore, mercury emissions from crematories are expected to eventually decrease.
The Funeral Rule
In 1984, the Funeral Rule was put into effect by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Essentially, the law ensures families are not misled into making extravagant or unnecessary purchases (including embalming). The law also gives families the right to purchase caskets or other goods from vendors other than the funeral director.
Organ and body donation
Fitting into the green category of reuse, organ and body donation delays the burial of your remains while making them available to others for valuable uses. Organs and tissue can be removed at the time of death and provide the living with prolonged and better quality of life. After the organs and tissue are removed, the funeral can then proceed as planned. Whole body donation to medical schools or research facilities is also possible. Medical schools need bodies to teach future health care workers about anatomy and research facilities use them to study diseases and find cures. These bodies are used for a period of time and are then cremated. For more on organ donation see OrganDonor.gov, Donate Life America, and the National Living Donor Assistance Center.
- formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC (volatile organic compound) family of chemicals. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death.
- Grist - Lye and Let Die
- MSNBC - Green Graves Give Back to Nature
- Mail Online - Why Dad’s Eco-Funeral Went Horribly Wrong
- The US Environmental Protection Agency - Burial of Human Remains at Sea
- The Natural Death Center: A nonprofit in Britain that operates as an independent funeral advice service. The Center provides information on family-organized, environmentally friendly funerals.
- The US Environmental Protection Agency - Mercury: State Legislation and Regulations: Check to see how your state deals with mercury emissions from crematories.
- US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Press Release: US Deaths Down Sharply in 2006
- Cremation Association of North America - Final 2005 Statistics and Projections to the Year 2025 Page 6
- Low Impact Living - Fade to Green: Eco-friendly Burial Options
- Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America - About the Casket Industry
- The Center for Natural Burial - It's not easy dying green
- Green Burial Council - Frequently Asked Questions
- Monument Builders of North America - How Monuments Are Made
- International Agency for Research on Cancer - Press Release: Classifies Formaldehyde As Carcinogenic To Humans
- International Cemetery and Funeral Association - Cremation FAQ
- The Guardian - Should I ... be buried or cremated?
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Locating and Estimating Air Emissions from Sources of Mercury and Mercury Compounds, Section 8-4
- American Dental Association - Environmental Risks of and Regulatory Response to Dental Mercury Amalgam