It’s easy today to choose sustainable products, to share information digitally instead of in print, or even to compost in your backyard. Ironically, though, the business of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” has become much more harmful to the environment than you might think. If you or someone close to you strives to “live green,” you will want to explore today’s growing number of alternatives to embalming (preserving a body to prevent decomposition before burial).
According to National Geographic, traditional burials are responsible for felling 30 million board feet of wood and depositing 90,000 tons of steel and 800,000 gallons of cancer-causing embalming fluid into the ground yearly in America alone.
Change is coming, though. Informational sites like the Green Burial Council and the Funeral Consumers Alliance are making green burials easier, more accessible, and more popular. Between 2010 and 2015, the percentage of Funeral and Memorial Information Council survey respondents who would consider a green burial rose from 43% to 65%.
Younger generations in particular are beginning to think it futile to preserve bodies in chemicals before placing them in the ground, and are exploring alternatives to embalming that embrace more sustainable, affordable, and personalized options.
Here are a few reasons why a green burial might be a better alternative to embalming for yourself or someone you know.
Select sustainable embalming alternatives
Green burial options eliminate embalming fluid, which can leak harmful carcinogens into the soil, and use natural or plant-derived caskets or shrouds, rather than steel or treated wood coffins or concrete vaults that aren’t biodegradable. And there are other ways to lessen the burial’s ecological impact: graves (in green cemeteries) can be dug by hand rather than by machine, and, rather than marble or concrete headstones, rocks or plants are used to mark gravesites.
Minimizing ecological impact is great, but giving back to the earth in death is even better. Alternatives to embalming include burial at sea—of either cremated remains or an untreated body—and, in some cultures, sky burial: leaving a body to decompose on a mountaintop or in the tops of trees where it can provide organic nutrients for animals or soil. In the United States, sustainably minded folks are choosing coral reef burials. Companies like Eternal Reefs and the Neptune Society incorporate cremated remains with other pH-neutral materials to create man-made coral reef systems that support marine life.
Save money on burial options
Funerals are expensive, including headstones, caskets, and the embalming process (none of which are eco-friendly). Nixing these traditional components and choosing to let the body decompose naturally in recycled, biodegradable cardboard or other natural, plant-based material can save you upward of $5,000. Instead of an expensive marble or concrete headstone, consider planting a tree at the burial site. It’s cheaper, more sustainable, and gives relatives a picturesque setting to visit.
Choose artisanal burial accessories
Green doesn’t have to mean recycled cardboard caskets and homely boxes. Kinkaraco, a green burial company founded in 2005, sells artisanal, biodegradable burial shrouds. The shrouds come in beautiful silks, linens, and cotton, with options embroidered in delicate floral and peacock patterns. Companies like The Green Man Casket Company and Nature’s Casket sell handcrafted caskets of sustainably sourced, untreated pine, poplar, and bamboo that can be engraved with your design of choice. If your loved one prefers to be cremated but still wants to minimize ecological impact, look to In the Light Urns for unique, biodegradable natural salt urns, sand art urns, and decorative urns that slip underwater for a burial at sea.
Celebrate a spiritual transition
To many, the funeral and burial process is impersonal, and for close loved ones, thinking “he would have hated this” just adds insult to injury. If the deceased spent a lifetime trying to minimize his or her human footprint, or perhaps even volunteering time and extra cash to save marine life, a personalized green burial can be a positive, fulfilling experience for relatives and friends. Traditional burials are sometimes infused with an unsettling sense of finality—but going green gives human life an extended purpose, a way to give back to the earth that sustained the life.