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Every year around two and half million people are buried or cremated in the United States. What many people don’t think about is the impact that burials and cremations have on the environment. It is both that impact and the expense of traditional burial which has given rise to the natural burial movement. Natural or green burials forgo the traditions, products, and services that negatively impact the environment, in favor of simple environmentally conscious products and processes.
Modern Burial and Cremation’s Impact on the Environment
Did you know that each year in the United States nearly twenty (20) million liters (5.3 million gallons) of embalming fluid are buried each year? Typical embalming fluids contain formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. These chemicals eventually leech into the ground from the casket and can pollute the soil and groundwater with the embalming chemicals.
Chemicals going into ground soil and water is just one side effect of burials. Nearly thirty (30) million board feet of wood, one hundred thousand tons of steel, and one and half million tons of concrete (for burial structures) are buried each year because of traditional burials.
Cremation is not much better for the environment. Cremations on average use twenty-eight (28) gallons of fuel, which in turn emits five hundred and forty (540) pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. That means about two hundred and fifty thousand (250,000) tons of CO2 is released into the atmosphere each year from cremations alone.
It is against this backdrop that the rise in natural burials and green funeral options is beginning to proliferate as an attractive alternative.
What is a natural burial?
A natural burial is the interment of a deceased individual’s body in the soil so that it does not inhibit decomposition (no embalming or robust burial containers or vaults) and allow the body to decompose naturally. A natural flat stone marker may be allowed to mark where the grave is, but usually, headstones are not allowed. Some do not allow any markers and instead use GPS to mark the spot of a loved one’s gravesite.
Is a natural burial expensive?
No. The largest single cost in most funerals is the casket. Because natural burials do not use caskets or use very simple biodegradable ones, the cost of the funeral will be greatly reduced in general.
Natural Burial Locations
The laws governing burial are set on a state-by-state basis, so the laws governing where and how you or your loved one may be buried will be controlled by state law.
The Green Burial Council (GBC) is an independent, tax-exempt, non-profit organization that aims to encourage sustainability in the internment industry and to champion green and natural burials. They certify cemeteries using their own standards. Currently, there are 37 burial grounds certified by the Green Burial Council in 23 states and British Columbia.
While the Green Burial Council is the leader in certification, many natural burial sites, green cemeteries, and nature preserves allow for natural burials. You can also try asking a funeral home for advice regarding eco-friendly burial options in your area.
Natural burials are also being used in conservation. Conservation burials charge a fee, which is then used to acquire land to leave fallow or be restored to a natural state, and even to save and protect endangered species.
While natural burials are most commonly associated with ground burials, a loved one’s ashes can also be used to help build an artificial coral reef which will, in turn, provide habitat for fish and other marine life.
Natural Burial Process
One of the most important aspects of a natural burial is the forgoing of much of the objects that go with traditional burials, such as a steel coffin or casket and a concrete burial vault. With a natural burial, the body will be either directly deposited into a grave or the use of a biodegradable casket or urn (made of softwood, wicker, bamboo, cane, or other eco-friendly material) will be used. A startup called Coeio even offers a burial shroud that is seeded with mushrooms to help with the natural process of decomposition. A simple weight-bearing shroud may also be used.
As more people become aware of their own impact on the environment, it is likely that even the funeral industry will be impacted by this growing trend. Green funerals and natural burials are a logical solution to mitigating your environmental footprint on nature while being able to save money. No matter your choice in a funeral, remember that a funeral should be a celebration of the deceased and the funeral itself should reflect their wishes and beliefs. If the environment was something your loved one cared for, then a natural burial may be a fitting tribute to them.
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