Minnesotans are continually making choices for a greener life and now, with the reemergence of green burial, it is becoming easier to make environmentally aware decisions regarding our deaths.
What are the problems with standard burial practices?
Embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, a “probable” carcinogen according to the US Environmental Protection Agency and a known carcinogen according to the World Health Organization. Exposure to formaldehyde has been associated with several diseases, including leukemia and nasal cancer, and is creating unnecessary risks for funeral directors. The wide use of concrete vaults and non-biodegradable caskets is tremendously wasteful. Every year, enough metal is buried in the United States to reconstruct the Golden Gate Bridge and enough concrete is produced for vaults to build a two-lane highway from Detroit to New York City.
Cremation is also a valuable option; however, for environmental reasons it is a less than ideal choice. The process of cremation requires a significant amount of non-renewable energy and emits toxins, such as mercury, into our atmosphere.
Green burial allows for natural decomposition to take place, respecting the ecological cycles of life and death as well as keeping the land environmentally safe for native plants and animals.
A conservation cemetery – sometimes called a green burial ground – is an environmentally sustainable alternative to modern funeral practices. It is a natural space where the body is returned to the Earth, creating a living memorial as well as a protected nature preserve. Green burial avoids toxic embalming fluids (which are not legally required) as well as non-biodegradable and wasteful materials such as metal caskets and concrete vaults.
Grave markers can be used with consideration of the natural surroundings: stones from the area may be engraved or native trees may be planted. Fortunately, once a conservation cemetery is established, it is protected forever by law, preserving thousands of acres of land in the process. This land not only becomes a conservation cemetery but can also add to the community as a place for local recreation such as hiking and bird watching, much like any other nature preserve.
In addition to its clear environmental, community, and spiritual benefits, green burial is also extremely cost effective. Embalming, modern caskets, markers, and concrete vaults can be expensive. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average funeral in the United States costs $6,500. Add in the costs of the burial plot, flowers and other expenses the sum can easily exceed $10,000. A standard green burial costs approximately $2,500 and typically includes the space, the opening and closing of the plot, the casket, a natural marker, and native plants to be planted atop the grave. Specific prices and options vary cemetery to cemetery.
There are only a handful of conservation cemeteries currently operating in the United States. None of these exist in Minnesota, however, efforts are underway to find a suitable site. There may be some conventional cemeteries allowing for green burial (bio-degradable caskets, no concrete vaults and no embalming fluid) on their premises, but none that have established or committed to establishing natural burial areas within a larger, protected natural area. The Trust for Natural Legacies is currently evaluating potential sites for Minnesota’s first green cemetery.
Death is a significant and meaningful event and we should be given every opportunity to ensure that our end of life decisions can be compatible with the choices we made throughout our lives.
Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris. Scribner 2008.
Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Natural Burial by Bob Butz. Spirituality & Health Books 2009.