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Green Burials

Ok, I know, most of us don’t really want to think about death and the logistics of what happens when someone dies, however, the reality is that there are numerous environmental issues with the way we handle funerals and burial. And, there are plenty of ways that we can do better! It turns out there is a growing green burial movement to help us out.

Death is a fact of life that is dealt with in many different ways across different cultures and religions. In Western society, funerals often include flowers, expensive caskets, often embalming of the deceased, cremations, cemetery plots, and more. These funeral elements are chosen in order to pay respect to the deceased, but it is also important to consider whether these elements reflect the wishes and values of the deceased.

Not only do caskets, flowers, and other embellishments cost thousands of dollars, but they also have quite a significant negative impact on the environment. Traditional funerals aren’t green, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be. Green funerals use fewer resources and eliminate some of the traditional steps, allowing us to remember our loved ones in ways that are much less harmful to the environment.

What exactly is a green burial?

Green burials can vary significantly from person to person, but they all aim to limit waste and protect the environment at each stage of the death care process. Funerals have significant impacts to the environment, so there are important considerations. Planning in advance for yourself and your loved ones will help to take away the uncertainty when the time comes for planning a funeral.

The biggest considerations when it comes to environmental impact are the use and release of toxins, the carbon footprint, wasteful practices and land use.

Toxins use and release

Our bodies are natural and biodegradable, so no need to worry there. However, the traditional use of embalming chemicals (a hold over from war-time when deceased need to be transported long distances before burial), is not necessary in modern processes, however, it is still a common practice that uses hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde, a suspected human carcinogen. These chemicals will eventually leach into the surrounding environment and also pose a risk to the people who work in the industry and those who manufacture and handle the chemicals.

Another source of toxins released is during cremation. The older silver coloured dental fillings are dental amalgams, containing mercury. Mercury is a heavy metal that is very toxic and can also enter the food chain in its methylated form. When mercury from dental amalgams is incinerated during cremation, all of this mercury is released into the atmosphere are there are no controls on these emissions in North America. A cremated body with dental amalgam fillings can release 1-4 grams of mercury. One recent study in British Columbia, Canada found that these emissions accounted for 7% of local atmospheric mercury pollution. (1)

Finally, burial containers including urns and coffins should be biodegradable to prevent the paints and solvents in traditional caskets and urns from entering the surrounding soil.

Carbon Footprint

When considering how to reduce the carbon footprint of a funeral, the cremation process should be considered as it is very energy intensive. A lower carbon cremation technique such as alkaline hydrolysis or aquamation are available now in some jurisdictions, but are still not universally available.

Other considerations when it comes to carbon footprint is the burial container and the distance travelled by the materials used. Local and biodegradable materials are best for reducing the carbon footprint.

Reducing Waste

Funerals can be wasteful when we just want what will show our respect to our loved ones. A simple casket or urn can help to reduce this waste.  Instead, people often opt for a simple casket made out of sustainable wood or other fully biodegradable materials.  Another alternative method is a direct earth burial which consists of the remains being wrapped in a shroud made of natural and biodegradable fibres.

Food waste is very common at funerals, so carefully considering the food required and then having a plan to donate or distribute any excess food is helpful in reducing food waste and the carbon footprint of a funeral.

Protecting Land

Cemeteries vary significantly around the globe with Europe already having grave leases rather than perpetual site purchase due to decreased land availability and increased environmental concern. Efficient use of land by carefully planning out cemeteries as well as maintaining the grounds without the use of herbicides can help to create healthier ecosystems.

Other green burial practices include ecological restoration and conservation of gravesites. In some cases, once a green burial is completed, local indigenous plants such as groundcover, shrubs, and trees are planted. These plants add to the aesthetic value of the graveyard, as well as enhance the ecosystem.

Green memorials tend to be either biodegradable or group commemorative markers. These are much smaller and leave the land more intact. Considering planting a tree as a memorial is a wonderful way to commemorate a loved one, and can be part of enhancing the local environment.

When considering spreading ashes, make sure that it is not a fragile at-risk ecosystem so that the ashes do not pose a threat to the ecosystem. Alpine ecosystems and vernal ponds that only have water in them for a portion of the year are not suited to spreading ashes due to the more fragile nature of these systems.

What about pets?

Green burials aren’t just for humans either! The Green Pet Burial Society offers information about environmentally friendly burials for your beloved pets as well.

Green Burial Council

The Green Burial Council is a non-profit organization that provides certification programs for burial grounds, funeral homes, and products in order to create sustainable practices in the funeral industry. Some characteristics of green burial cemeteries include:

  • Forego toxic embalming
  • Eliminate vaults
  • Biodegradable container, caskets, urns
  • No herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
  • Support of land conservation efforts

The Green Burial Council website allows people to find certified funeral homes, cemeteries, and products with their interactive provider maps.

Why opt for a green burial?

Of course, the main reason for a green burial is to decrease one’s impact on the environment. Now that green burials are becoming more popular in Western cultures, there are funeral homes and cemeteries that will honour your burial wishes. Making these deviations from traditional burial methods will result in decreased environmental and financial costs.

Aside from the environmental and financial reasons, you may also find that the concept of a green burial is comforting. The idea of being returned to the earth naturally without harming the environment, and in some cases contributing positively to the environment, can feel really good, even if the topic is uncomfortable.

Planning a Green Funeral?

Here is what to consider:

  • Greener burial
    • no embalming
    • simple biodegradable casket or shroud
  • Greener cremation
    • low carbon alternatives
    • remove dental amalgam fillings
    • avoid spreading ashes in alpine environment or vernal ponds
  • Protect natural habitat
    • restoration of the burial site
    • optimize land use
    • rethink memorials
    • trees as living memorials
    • collective memorials
  • Service

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