People who are buried after death are most often embalmed. Their blood is replaced by a fluid that delays the natural decomposition process to maintain a life-like state — mainly for purposes of public display at funerals. The problem is that this fluid is a mixture typically consisting of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and methanol, which is neurotoxic to animals. These and other chemicals in embalming fluid are creating toxic environments around cemeteries. In the United States, more than 5 million gallons of embalming fluid are used each year. This has led to a quiet but steadily growing green burial movement that hopes to reverse this hazardous trend.
How did it get this way? For millennia, burial customs for most of the world’s cultures viewed death and the religious rites that managed it within the natural cycle. But that changed during the American Civil War, when the Union Army wanted to transport slain soldiers back home. Dr. Thomas Holmes, a mortician from Brooklyn commissioned in the Union Army Medical Corps, introduced a new embalming technique. Eventually sanctioned by President Abraham Lincoln, the innovative process is believed to have been used on more than four thousand Union soldiers. And thus, by successfully delaying the process of decomposition, the forces of nature were thwarted by modern science.
The dead’s chemical legacy
In his 2008 book Grave Matters, Mark Harris explores the environmental impact of the modern funeral industry and the rise of the green burial movement. He writes:
We call our cemeteries parks and lawns and fields and greens. Yet the American graveyard hardly qualifies as a natural environment. For all their landscaping aboveground, our cemeteries function less as verdant resting grounds of the dead than as landfills for the materials that infuse and encase them. The typical 10-acre swath of cemetery ground, for example, contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nine hundred-plus tons of casket steel, and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete. To that add a volume of embalming fluid sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer to keep the graveyard preternaturally green. Like the contents of any landfill, the embalmed body’s toxic cache escapes its host and eventually leaches into the environment, tainting surrounding soil and groundwaters. Cemeteries bear the chemical legacy of their embalmed dead, and well after their graves have been closed.
“Green burial may sound like another trend of the eco-chic, but it’s actually the way most of humanity has cared for its dead for thousands of years,” says Joe Sehee, founder of the nonprofit Green Burial Council (GBC) and CEO of the Green Burial Council International. “Remember that ‘ashes to ashes’ thing?”
But a truly green burial involves more than just avoiding embalming fluid. It means avoiding all non-biodegradable materials, like metal caskets and concrete vaults in favor of plant-based materials — and considering things like energy use, waste and our relationship to flora and fauna.
Certifying green cemeteries
As the primary environmental certification organization setting the standard for green burial in North America, the GBC certifies three categories of cemeteries.
The first rating, “Hybrid Burial Ground,” is given to conventional cemeteries that offer a burial option that doesn’t use a vault or concrete box and doesn’t require embalming.
The second rating, “Natural Burial Ground,” is given to cemeteries that actually prohibit the use of vaults and concrete boxes, utilize techniques that reduce or conserve energy and minimize waste, and have an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, which encourages natural pest control and limits to pesticides.
The third and highest level of certification, “Conservation Burial Ground,” is given to cemeteries that meet the “Natural Burial Ground” requirements, but “must protect in perpetuity an area of land specifically and exclusively designated for conservation [and] must involve an established conservation organization that holds a conservation easement or has in place a deed restriction guaranteeing long-term stewardship.”
“Though green burial is not a new concept, what is new is that it is being done in conjunction with restoration planning and conservation management techniques, providing a powerful new tool for protecting endangered habitat at a time when innovative, market-based solutions are sorely needed,” Sehee says.
The interest in green burials has grown rapidly in recent years, with the number of GBC-approved green burial providers in North America growing from just one in 2006 to more than 340 across 41 states and six provinces in Canada.
Death becomes a honeysuckle bush
The Urban Death Project (UDP), which offers a “new system for gently and sustainably disposing of the dead using the process of composting,” has capitalized on this burgeoning interest. Their first Kickstarter fundraiser was a success, with over 1,200 backers pledging more than $91,000 to help realize their compost-based renewal system, which transforms the human body into soil. “This soil can then be used to grow new life,” UDP states on their Kickstarter page. “Imagine if you could become a pine tree, a honeysuckle bush or a field of lavender after you’ve died.”
The Seattle-based UDP notes that in the United States, 2.5 million people die every year, with half of them choosing to have a conventional burial: either being embalmed and buried in a casket, or cremated, the latter of which emits some 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. “That’s the equivalent of more than 70,000 cars driving the road for a year,” according to UDP. “In other words, the very last thing that most of us will do on this Earth is poison it.”
“It’s an age-old idea: ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” said UDP founder Katrina Spade. “And yet we’ve completely lost touch with actually turning our bodies into something that’s beneficial for the Earth.” Spade’s idea for composting the human body was inspired by the concept of a “nurse log,” a fallen tree that nurtures new forest life as it decays. “Our bodies have nutrients,” she told the New York Times. “What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?”
A final act of kindness
Turning your death into life for other living things is a poetic idea, and one that is the complete opposite of today’s conventional burial method. “Burial areas can become areas threatening the environment, polluting underground water and creating negative effects on fauna and flora,” according to the UK-based natural burial provider Green Acres Woodland Burials. “In fact, cemeteries are very special ecological areas because of the fauna and the flora they shelter.”
The Inuit people of the Arctic region, who have always hunted because agriculture has never been possible on the frozen tundra, are keenly aware of the life and death connection between humans and non-human animals. For millennia, when they lived primarily as nomads, they used a natural burial custom that also helped other animals survive. The dead were washed, wrapped in wool or animal hide and were laid, face up, on the surface of the tundra, where their body provided sustenance for wild animals.
The Inuit have a proverb that reveals both a spiritual enlightenment and a respect for the natural environment: “We borrow the earth from our children.” This philosophy counters the Western idea of “ownership” of land, animals and the natural world. The Inuit, like many indigenous tribal cultures, view themselves as caretakers, not as owners of the planet — even in death.
You don’t need to let polar bears devour your body, but if you care about the environment, going out green and turning your death into life for other living things seems like a logical final act of kindness to Mother Earth and all her children, from honeysuckle bushes to polar bears.