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Arrange for a green funeral and burial

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Leaving this world the green way is easier on the environment than burying a body embalmed with harmful chemicals in a metal casket surrounded by reinforced cement. The green way uses fewer resources and does little to interfere with the natural decomposition process, so the body can quickly become part of the earth. Green funerals and burials are lighter on the pocketbook as well, costing several thousand dollars less.

How to arrange for a green funeral and burial

Before you start

Your ability to arrange for a green funeral and burial depends largely on what services are available in your area. Eco-friendly cemeteries are few and far between (although growing in popularity). Additionally, local funeral directors may not offer biodegradable caskets, nor be open to visitation services without having the body embalmed first. Therefore, it helps to know various laws and rights before you initiate a dialogue with a funeral director.

  • In the US, you're not legally required to use a funeral home to plan and conduct a funeral.
  • Embalming isn't required by law. However, many funeral homes lack refrigeration and may require embalming if you plan for a viewing.
  • A family has the right to purchase goods and services from third-party vendors. For example, a funeral director cannot refuse or charge a fee to handle a simple wicker casket purchased elsewhere.
  • State laws don't require a cement vault or grave liner to be buried with the casket. However, most cemeteries require the installation of some type of outer burial container to prevent the grave from sinking in the future.
  • Each state has specific laws governing the funeral and burial trades. The Natural Burial Cooperative lists the names of each state’s regulations.
  • For additional information, review the Funeral Rule and visit the Funeral Consumers Alliance website.

Green funeral and burial options

Traditionally, a funeral director helps the family make decisions about a memorial and burial. Therefore, it’s important to find a funeral director who is willing to accommodate your green intentions. Turn to the Green Burial Council and the TheGreenFuneralSite.com to find one. And even if green funeral directors are scarce in your area, you can consider these steps to lighten your load in the earth.

  • Arrange for a direct burial without a viewing or visitation service. A quick burial avoids the use of toxic embalming fluids.
  • Ask for the body to be refrigerated instead of embalmed. Traditional funeral directors will want to preserve the body if you desire a viewing or visitation service with an open casket. If refrigeration isn't available, ice or dry ice can be used to preserve the body until burial. Note: dry ice is solid carbon dioxide that's harvested as a byproduct of the petroleum industry. When exposed to air, it releases this greenhouse gas.
  • Reduce the number of cars in a funeral procession. If you arrange for a graveside service, rent large passenger vans or suggest that families carpool to reduce carbon emissions. For formal funeral cortèges, green limo services are an option.
  • Choose a biodegradable casket for burial. Or, if being buried in a green cemetery, you may also wish to consider a simple cloth shroud.
  • Ask for donations to charity instead of flowers. If you do display a few arrangements, choose organic or local flower growers. Seventy percent of cut flowers in the US are imported, and likely to be sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals. Buying local or organic reduces your carbon and chemical footprint.
  • Consider a home funeral. Family-directed funerals where family members care for the body and transport it to the cemetery or crematory avoids the use of embalming fluids and other chemicals used by traditional funeral homes.
  • Be buried in a green cemetery. With an emphasis on maintaining a natural setting, these cemeteries don't use irrigation or resource-intensive lawn care. Nor do they allow metal caskets, vaults, or elaborate headstones.
  • If possible, decline the use of a cement vault. Buried around the casket, these vaults are designed to prevent the ground from sinking in when the casket and body decompose. Unfortunately, most mainstream cemeteries require either a vault with a lid or a simpler grave liner.
  • Choose a headstone quarried locally. Most cemeteries have restrictions on size and placement of memorial stones. Choose the minimum size and try to find a local monument builder who gets stone locally, reducing the amount of fuel used to transport it. If burial is in a green cemetery, choose to plant a native tree or other vegetation.
  • Be buried at sea. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows bodies and cremated remains to be slipped into the sea where they decompose naturally. It may also be possible to be buried in a lake or river but these burials are regulated according to the Clean Water Act and a permit may be required.

Find it! Resources to help you arrange a green funeral and burial

These resources can help you define what funeral services and traditions are important to you, as well as help you stay true to your green leanings.

Arranging for a green funeral and burial helps you go green because…

  • It avoids preserving the body with harmful chemicals that may eventually enter ground water.
  • The use of simple caskets, urns, and shrouds for burial reduces the use of natural resources in the manufacture of these items.
  • Green burial practices don't inhibit the natural decomposition of the human body, allowing the body to harmlessly become part of the earth.

The traditional funeral and burial industry uses many resources in an effort to inhibit the natural process of body decomposition. Embalming fluid, sealed caskets, and cement vaults may slow the body’s decomposition for a short time, but eventually even the vaults fail and the metal caskets break down.

Embalming fluid

Each year traditional burials pump more than 830,000 gallons of embalming fluid into the deceased in an attempt to preserve these bodies, a practice not required by law.[1] During the embalming process, blood and other bodily fluids are replaced with formaldehyde and other chemicals. The fluids, as well as some formaldehyde, are released, untreated, into the sewer system. The International Agency for Research on Cancer says formaldehyde causes nasopharyngeal cancer and may cause leukemia, putting embalmers at risk.[2] In fact, research is ongoing at the National Cancer Institute due to reports that funeral workers have excess malignancies of the lymphatic and central nervous systems.

Groundwater contamination near cemeteries is also a concern. Unfortunately, contamination from decaying bodies and embalming fluid has not been well studied in the US. Based on one Canadian study of six cemeteries, the International Programme on Chemical Safety notes that releases of formaldehyde from embalming fluids are expected to be very small.

Caskets

According to the Casket & Funeral Supply Association of America, 47 percent of caskets are made of gasketed steel, which amounts to 90,000 tons of steel buried in the ground each year.[3][4] Another 18 percent is made of hardwood, such as mahogany and oak. It requires more than 39 million board feet of hardwood lumber to build approximately 300,000 caskets each year.[5] Laid end to end, those boards would reach from Los Angeles to Cairo.[6] A green burial eschews these resource-intensive designs, opting for modest pine boxes or even a burial shroud.

Vaults

Most traditional cemeteries require the casket to be placed in either a sealed vault made of cement and metal or a bottomless grave liner. Both are designed to keep the ground from settling as the casket and body decay. They also require 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete each year, enough to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.[3][7] In contrast, green cemeteries do not allow vaults or liners, allowing the body to decompose naturally.

Home funerals

Home funerals may not be for everyone but they offer an alternative to using a funeral home. By bringing the body home, embalming is avoided and family members are able to prepare the body for burial themselves. Family members wash and dress the deceased, and may even build a simple casket themselves. When ready for burial, family members can transport the body to a cemetery themselves or call a funeral home. Burial on private land may also be possible, although some counties have restrictions. Home funerals are legal in all states except five. Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Nebraska, and New York have restrictions. The Home Funeral Directory and HOME FUNERAL.info offer further information.

Glossary

  • 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.

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