Sustainable Death and Burial Practices

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By Steph Villano

Sustainable Death and Burial Practices

Let’s have a conversation that some find uncomfortable. Actually, I think it’s safe to say that most people find this conversation unpleasant as our culture tends to evade this topic until it’s absolutely necessary. The conversation I’m talking about is death and how we care for the body of a loved one after he or she has died. And, what it means to participate in sustainable death and burial practices.

This is a very sensitive and personal conversation to have, but I think it’s crucial to acknowledge the environmental and sustainability issues connected to the current standard methods of caring for the dead. In doing so, we might make choices that are better for the environment, but also reconnect us to a natural process and bring an intimacy and reverence back to after death care.

When we think of death we imagine hospitals, funeral homes, caskets, and perhaps the strange but vaguely familiar smell that seems to permeate the air in funeral homes.

We’re not terribly connected to death and the process of burying our loved one’s like our ancestors were.

Home funerals were the norm and the body of a loved one was washed, dressed, and laid out in the home by family members who then invited friends and members of the community to pay their respects. The body wasn’t feared or reviled. Instead, the process allowed for loved one’s to ritualize the process in a way that fostered closure and acceptance. In many ways it was therapeutic.

Sadly, nowadays, the bodies of our loved one’s are whisked away, treated like contagions that require sterilization, and when it’s time to be buried we see vague approximations of their faces as they rest in their caskets embalmed and painted so that we don’t actually see any physical evidence of their decomposition.

We’d prefer if it looked liked they’re only sleeping. Not dead. Not gone. 

We try so hard preserve what is, in reality, no longer there. In fact, one can choose to be buried inside a casket which is specifically intended to stave off decomposition; To protect nature from reclaiming what should be returning to the Earth.

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Embalming Chemicals are nasty.

Embalming is the process of replacing bodily fluids with chemicals in an effort to delay decomposition. Embalming fluids contain formaldehyde, which is known to have adverse health effects including cancer, which means that embalmers themselves are especially at risk. Embalming fluids also contain methanol, which is known to be harmful to animals. These fluids ultimately leech into the ground, contaminating the soil and groundwater. There is growing concern that they might end up reaching water supplies.

Adverse environmental effects of embalming fluids leaching into the ground following a body’s burial have yet to be adequately established, but over 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid are introduced into U.S. soil every year through burial, sometimes disconcertingly close to animal and plant life
The conventional lawn cemetery is a resource-intensive, inefficient use of space and uses herbicides and pesticides.

Conventional cemeteries are intended to look like peaceful park settings; A place to take a quiet walk and visit our deceased loved one’s while immersed in nature. Unfortunately, a natural environment it’s anything but. Extensive maintenance is required to keep conventional cemeteries looking as pristine as they do, which means that herbicides and pesticides are used, which introduce pollutants into the soil and prevent native flora from growing. But, what resides below ground is problematic, too.

According to National Geographic,

American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid.

All of this below ground makes it quite difficult to ever use the land again. The space is condemned to hold the concrete and steel vestiges of one’s existence long after their last friend or recent family member or anyone who might care enough to visit has passed on. In fact, Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters, contends that cemeteries are more like landfills.

Those caskets are doing more damage than simply taking up space, though.

Most studies of noxious chemicals leeching into burial grounds tend to focus on fluids emanating from bodies and do not address any chemicals that might come from caskets. A 2012 study in South Africa looked at the mineral contamination from corroding and degrading metals used in caskets. From the study,

“Indeed, recent studies conducted found the highest contamination arising from cemeteries originated from minerals that are released by burial loads [1]. The minerals that are used in coffin-making may corrode or degrade releasing harmful toxic substances [2]. These may be transported from the graves through seepage and diffuse into surrounding soils. From there they may leach into groundwater and become a potential health risk to the residents in areas surrounding the cemetery [3,4,5,6,7,8]. Most existing cemeteries were sited without thinking about potential risks to the local environment or community [9].

Toxic chemicals that may be released into groundwater include substances that were used in embalming and burial practices in the past as well as varnishes, sealers and preservatives and metal handles and ornaments used on wooden coffins.
Indeed, it would seem as though the caskets intended to stave off decomposition are themselves no match for nature and erode their chemicals into the soil.

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Luckily, natural and green death care is a quickly growing industry as the environmental consequences of conventional death care and burials become more and more apparent.

There are some pretty innovative movers-and-shakers within the death care industry who are quite knowledgeable about more natural methods of burial, and are even creating new methods of disposition (like this Mushroom Death Suit!).

I really love Caitlin Doughty, mortician and founder of Order of The Good Death, who, along with her Order members, is a wonderful resource and really helpful in learning about death acceptance and natural burial. I encourage everyone to check out the website.

Anyway, in addition to yearning to be more connected to the end-of-life process, people want to be buried in a way that is in line with their values.

The funny thing is that green burial is not a new concept. If you think about it, it’s the way humans have handled their dead for thousands of years. Some cultures still do.

It was only as recently as the Civil War that we began to commercialize the death process. Family members wanted to preserve the bodies of their loved one’s killed during the war, so they were embalmed in order to be transported back home for a proper burial. This quickly became a booming business and the funeral industry as we know it grew from there.


Don’t embalm.

The easiest and most obvious choice is to bypass embalming. With rare exception, embalming is not required by law. Contrary to what some funeral directors may have you believe, embalming provides no public health benefit and is merely used to delay decomposition.

Choose an eco-friendly casket, urn, or shroud…

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Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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