We are constantly being reminded to consider our environmental impact while we are living. But, what about our environmental impact after death? How can we “die green?”
The “American Way of Death” (also the title of a book authored by Jessica Mitford in 1963) is to be buried in a cemetery in a lined wooden or metal casket, which is encased in a concrete vault, with a concrete tombstone marking our resting place. Some caskets are made of endangered wood, like mahogany and rosewood. In addition, every year 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are buried with the dead in the United States. Whether it is endangered wood, metal caskets where metals known to have detrimental health effects can leach into the ground, or embalming fluid containing formaldehyde, the environmental impact of this way of death is very real.
But as more and more people continue to think about their environmental impact, people are starting to want a “green burial.” According to a January 2015 survey, the demand for green burials has increased 72.4 percent at facilities that offer them. In response to this demand, the Green Burial Council is trying to make this choice a reality, rather than the inconvenience that it currently is.
How does the Green Burial Council help? This organization encourages three practices: (1) not embalming, (2) not using metal or non-biodegradable caskets, and (3) not using concrete vaults. However, some state laws prevent people from choosing these practices. For example, some states require that families retain services of a licensed funeral director. Licensed funeral directors are not obligated to offer environmentally friendly options (only 80 cemeteries currently will allow for burials without vaults. Therefore, making a green burial a reality will require a cultural shift, and work in state legislatures. However, articles like this one by the Huffington Post, and author Suzanne Kelly’s book Greening Death are possibly the start of this shift. We will have to wait and see.