Green Goodbyes

By Catherine McNulty

April 15, 2015 5 min read

As the nation's environmental conscience has been raised, many people make daily choices to live simpler and greener. Canvas tote bags for groceries? Check. Recycling thoroughly sorted before it's put out for pickup? Of course. But how many people think about what happens when they are no longer alive to make these kinds of choices? The American funeral industry is not known for being environmentally friendly. But is it possible to have a green death?

Yes, it turns out. As more and more of the boomer generation go into that good night, many are making the choice to have a funeral and burial with less environmental impact. No one wants a last act to damage the planet.

What makes a funeral so bad for the environment? Embalming fluids are toxic, particularly formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. Caskets are rarely made from sustainably sourced wood. And burial plots are concrete lined. And that's just the burial. What about all of the funerary accouterments? Cut flowers and flower arrangements, for example, are beautiful but flower farms use lots of resources. And many flowers need transport, which can require burning fossil fuels.

If burial is bad, is cremation better? While neither is particularly good for the environment, strides are being made to improve both to make them less a problem. Cremation surpasses traditional burial in the better-for-the-environment department, but only just. A side effect of cremation is that it releases pollutants into the air, particularly carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Many crematoriums do use air filters, but they may not catch all pollutants.

If you do get cremated, your ashes do not have to spend an eternity in a dusty box or urn. Let them do some good! Eternal Reefs is a company that will take your cremated remains and turn them into an artificial coral reef. Coral reef degradation is a huge problem in the world's oceans. By becoming a coral reef, you could help preserve the marine environment.

But if cremation is not for you, how can you green your burial?

Rethink the process. Sometimes it's easier to start at the end. As more consumers are taking their environmental awareness to the end of their lives, more cemeteries are offering environmentally friendly burial options, such as burial plots that are not lined so the body can decompose naturally and become a part of the environment again. While this is an emerging trend, there are still a lot of cemeteries that do not have this option available, so be sure to ask.

Another trend is to have a tree or flowering shrub planted at your burial site. There is even an Italian company designing a burial pod -- call it a biodegradable casket -- that will decompose and feed a tree of your choosing.

Some people want to forgo cemeteries entirely, preferring to be buried in a beautiful or meaningful spot. That's admirable, but if you are considering this please check local laws. The burial of human remains is highly regulated.

If you decide to be buried in an unlined grave, you need a biodegradable casket or a burial shroud. Traditional caskets are usually metal-lined, as they are not meant to break down. There are companies that offer pine or bamboo caskets, solely for the purpose of decomposition. Burial shrouds are another popular option.

Of course, if you are going to recycle yourself back into nature, you cannot be embalmed. Though not required by any law, the majority of the American funeral industry uses formaldehyde as a preservative in the embalming process, despite it being a known carcinogen. Refrigeration can help sustain, but a non-embalmed body will need to be interred faster than an embalmed one. This means the funeral and burial will have to happen rather quickly, so it's best to have your plans ready.

Which brings up the final point: make sure your wishes are known to your friends and family. Make a will or have as many of the plans finalized as you possibly can. When your loved ones are grieving, they might not be thinking clearly. Or they might not understand your wishes. It's best to leave as many details as possible.

Whatever you choose, make sure you understand all of your options and make the right choices for your own beliefs.

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