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In today’s world of “going green” where “green” means environmentally-friendly, nearly every industry is trying to find ways to function while causing a lesser disturbance on the local environment.
The funeral industry, encompassing funeral homes, cemeteries and burial planning, is not exempt from this trend. In fact, the National Funeral Director’s Association (NFDA) reports that more than 50% of Americans are interested in environmentally-friendly funeral options, and this trend is only likely to grow.
Many might not realize, but there are a lot of chemicals involved in various processes that take place (e.g., embalming, cremation) as well as a lot of materials, space and land that is used for final resting places for individuals who have passed. It is a gigantic industry with a large footprint. Luckily, there are a growing number of “greener” options that you can choose to help minimize the environmental impact.
What is a “Green” Funeral?
Let’s begin by defining what constitutes a “green” funeral.
According to the NFDA, a “green” funeral “may include any or all of the following: no embalming or embalming with formaldehyde-free products; the use of sustainable biodegradable clothing, shroud or burial container; using recycled paper products, locally-grown organic flowers or food; carpooling; arranging a small memorial gathering in a natural setting; natural or green burial.”
The Green Burial Council (GBC), a non-profit organization that encourages environmentally sustainable deathcare, takes the standard of a green burial further, however: “Green burial is a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that furthers legitimate ecological aims such as the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.”
There are different versions of a “green” or natural burial as well. Some families may be content to use a biodegradable shroud or container and forego embalming and call it “green”. Some families may go a step further and use a “green” cemetery without a vault and using a natural, flat rock or tree as a grave marker. There are varying degrees of what is considered green, much like how some families consider themselves green for simply recycling plastic while others utilize solar panels for their home energy.
One of the most interesting ways of having a positive impact on the environment after death is to have your cremated remains become part of an artificial reef.
How to Have a Green Funeral
There are four aspects to having a “green” funeral: eliminating toxic chemicals, using biodegradable burial materials, avoiding concrete vaults and using a natural grave marker.
- No toxic chemicals mean just that. No embalming, no cremation. The funeral home may use dry ice or an eco-friendly embalming fluid to preserve the body. Having the funeral within 48 hours of death also helps keep the body presentable for viewing.
- Biodegradable burial materials. Using something made out of bamboo, wicker, silk or hemp should be used in place of metal or concrete. Whether a coffin, casket or shroud, the material used should replenish the soil as it degrades over time.
- Avoid concrete vaults. This item may require you to look at a specific cemetery or burial site. Many cemeteries require vaults to prevent the ground from sinking over time, but the production and transportation of the vaults cause carbon emissions and uses a lot of energy. If the cemetery requires a vault, ask if it can be placed upside-down so that the body and casket/shroud may return to the earth as it degrades over time while still preserving the cemetery’s landscape.
- Natural grave markers. Many green cemeteries suggest using natural objects, like a rock, tree, shrub or perennial flowers to mark a grave as opposed to a headstone. This will preserve the integrity of the natural environment while still giving you a place to visit your loved one.
Many people wonder why cremation isn’t “green”. The reason is the cremation process requires a lot of energy and the process can produce airborne emissions that are harmful to the atmosphere.
A Growing Trend
Many religions, such as Jewish and Muslims, already practice a version of “green” funerals based on their religious beliefs in how to care for their dead. But the rise in environmental awareness across the United States is making waves among other people as well. In 2006, there was only one funeral home in the US that allowed and practiced green funerals. By 2017, there were over 300. That number is expected to continue to rise as interest piques.
As more and more people consider “going green” in various aspects of their lives, it stands to reason that these same people would consider a “green” funeral upon their deaths. With the rise in popularity, so will funeral homes and cemeteries which cater to these desires. If there isn’t a “green” cemetery or funeral home in your area, there are ways to reduce your own carbon footprint anyway. Forego embalming, choose a biodegradable burial container and ask the cemetery to place your vault upside down. All of those options will limit your carbon footprint and help keep the local environment and landscape intact.