Still learning to draw feet...
We need to understand how death impacts the land, and change how we bury our dead.
The modern commercial/industrial burial is the worst way to dispose of a loved one. It requires toxic chemicals for embalming; non-biodegradable materials for vaults and coffins; and irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and power equipment to maintain manicured landscapes.
It wastes resources. It’s environmentally selfish and unsustainable.
Modern commercial/industrial burial is a symptom of our unhealthy collective detachment towards dying, death, and grief. We’ve allowed an essential human experience to be replaced with products and services. Natural burial is one way we can begin to reclaim it.
“If you’re looking to avoid the whole ‘doomed to die and decay’ thing, you will have all the help in the world from the funeral industry. Its economic model is based on the principle of protection, sanitation, and beautification of the corpse… no matter what it takes, how much it costs, or how bad it is for the environment. We need new options.”
“The paraphernalia of the American way of death keeps people at one remove from their own feelings. ...funerals are custom-made only in the same sense automobiles are, and the price we pay for paying our last respects in the American way of death is the price of our personality, which we have purposely withheld from the funeral. By our passive role in directing our funerals, we have transformed an important rite of personal passage into an impersonal rite of impassivity.”
What are the elements of a typical modern burial?
The body is chemically embalmed using formalin and other agents, then dressed, groomed, and placed in a casket, usually manufactured from steel or finished hardwood. At the time of burial, the casket is placed within a burial vault manufactured from reinforced concrete. The vault is closed and covered with 1-2 feet of soil, which is subsequently seeded and landscaped consistent with the rest of the cemetery.
Modern grave recently-opened and ready for a burial at upper left
Concrete lid for vault protected with plywood in foreground
Concrete vault ready to receive casket (note rainwater)
What are the elements of a typical flame-cremation?
The (most often) unembalmed body is held in a container, often cardboard, which is then placed in a retort (oven) usually fired by natural gas. The retort is heated to 1800-2000°F for up to 2 hours, as required for the body to be combusted. Ash and bone fragments that remain are collected and ground to a uniformly coarse powder (cremated remains, aka ‘cremains’).
What are the elements of a typical green (natural) burial?
The unembalmed body is held in a biodegradable burial container, often made from wood, bamboo, or fabric (cotton, linen, silk). The unembalmed body can be safely cleaned, dressed, and held for viewing if it is kept cool, which can be achieved in several ways. At time of burial, the container is placed in direct contact with the soil, and buried at a depth of about 4 feet to support aerobic bacteria for decomposition. The length of time required for a body to naturally decay to a skeleton generally occurs within several months to 2 years, depending on the climate.
Natural grave recently-opened and ready for a winter burial
All photos taken at Cedar Brook Burial Ground
Body wrapped in linen shroud on pine boughs with lilies
Same grave in high summer
What are the elements of a more green (natural) cremation?
Alkaline hydrolysis (aka ‘aquamation,’ ’water cremation,’ ‘green cremation’) uses a solution of water and sodium or potassium hydroxide, pressurized and heated to 350°F for about two hours, in a process that accelerates the body’s decomposition to water and base chemicals. Small calcium fragments remain, and are ground to coarse powder.
What are the environmental effects of a modern burial?
Embalming exposes funeral workers to toxic substances and generates hazardous waste; embalming chemicals leach into the cemetery soil and water table; caskets and vaults are manufactured from non-biodegradable materials, transported, and buried; landscapes are maintained with irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and power equipment.
“For all its verdant landscaping, the typical cemetery functions less like a bucolic resting ground for the dead than a landfill for the materials that infuse and encase them. Over time, the typical ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground, for example, contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 houses, nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete. Add to that a volume of toxic formalin nearly sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer used to keep the cemetery grounds preternaturally green.”
“The modern practice of embalming replaces organic blood with various toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, particularly formaldehyde. Then the embalmed body is placed underground where, despite the casket, the body's fluids will inevitably leak into the groundwater. Alternatively, the body may be burned, releasing chemicals into the air. The initial reasons for the use of embalming and the rationale given for the continuance of the practice fail to justify the potential public health and environmental risks presented by embalming.”
What are the environmental effects of a flame cremation?
“Cremation releases about 880 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as pollutants like dioxins and mercury vapor. The energy required to fuel a cremation retort is equivalent to a 500-mile car trip.”
“The cremation of cadavers is another way metallic mercury vapour is emitted into the atmosphere even though crematoria operating temperatures are usually above 80°C, sufficient to vaporize the mercury from amalgam fillings. In addition, crematoria are usually located in densely populated areas, some having inadequate chimneys. The presence of the resultant mercury vapour so close to the ground facilitates more rapid conversion to soluble forms which are then deposited into the soil and water and eventually enter the food chain.”
What are the environmental effects of a green (natural) burial?
A natural burial that’s properly located and conducted presents no health hazards and is beneficial to the environment.
What are the environmental effects of liquid cremation?
About 15–60 gallons of water are required for a body weighing up to 250 pounds. Liquid cremation generates a harmless colored liquid containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts; and soft, porous white calcium phosphate fragments. The fragments are ground and returned to the next of kin. The liquid is either disposed through the sewer system or used in a garden or green space.
Liquid cremation uses about one-quarter of the energy needed for flame cremation, produces less carbon dioxide, and no mercury emissions. Alkaline hydrolysis has been adopted as an alternative to pet flame cremation. Because it inactivates viruses, bacteria, and prions, it’s used to sterilize animal carcasses that may pose a health hazard.
Liquid cremation is currently legal only in Oregon, Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, Kansas, Illinois, Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah. Additional rules are pending in New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The process was legal in New Hampshire for several years but amid opposition by religious lobby groups it was banned in 2008 and a proposal to legalize it was rejected in 2013. It has been used for cadavers donated for research at medical schools and universities.
What does a green burial ground look like?
“Ramsey Creek is a cemetery, but its grounds are so natural, so free of the usual funereal structures that you could wander into it by chance on an afternoon hike through these hills and never even know you've strayed into a graveyard. “Visitors are surprised when they first see Ramsey Creek because they expect it to look like a regular cemetery with a little bit of nature around it,” says Billy Campbell, a 50-something Westminster family physician who founded Ramsey Creek and serves as president of Memorial Ecosystems, the cemetery’s parent company. “We’re a woodland burial ground, an actual forest where burials also take place.”
Is there public interest in natural burial?
“Nearly 54 percent of Americans are considering a green burial, and 72 percent of cemeteries are reporting an increased demand, according to a survey released earlier this year by the National Funeral Directors Association.”
“Since it opened about 10 years ago, Cedar Brook has sold 207 plots and had 55 burials, said Joyce Foley, the owner. The rural, wooded burial ground is part of 150 acres owned by Foley’s longtime life partner, Peter McHugh. A family burial plot on the land that dates to the 1700’s sparked McHugh’s interested in being buried on his own land, in a green way. McHugh died in 2013.”
The Kennebec Land Trust (ME) “...has been working behind the scenes for at least two years to find a parcel where the soils and site are right for green burials. Officials said the site would also be developed with trails accessible to people with disabilities, for hikers, birdwatchers and other nature-lovers.”
“The Green Cemetery Initiative is a partnership between Mount Grace and Green Burial Massachusetts to establish the first green cemetery in Massachusetts open to all.... A green cemetery sets aside open space for natural habitat and encourages the public to visit a beautiful destination for generations to come. Combining natural burials with land conservation demonstrates another way that protected land can benefit people.”
What green burial options are available for someone living in Massachusetts?
Cemeteries in Massachusetts that allow green burial
Amherst (Wildwood), Brewster, Cambridge (Mt Auburn), Chesterfield, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Marion (cremains only), Shutesbury, South Wellfleet, Springfield (Hillcrest Park), Warwick, Wendell, Wenham, Westfield, Williamsburg (Mountain Street), Worthington.
‘Steelmantown’ (2013) Transformer Films. Confronting death and celebrating life at a green cemetery in southern New Jersey. This film weaves 3 stories about the owner/developer of a green cemetery, husband-wife funeral directors, and a naturalist facing end of life that come together in a moving account of a “new” way to care for the dead that’s really as old as history.Steelmantown from Transformer Films on Vimeo.
Links, References, and Resources
Nolo - Alkaline Hydrolysis Laws
Carlson, Lisa - Caring for the Dead - Your Final Act of Love. 1998 ISBN 0-942679-21-0
Chiappelli, J. Chiappelli, T. Drinking grandma: the problem of embalming. J Environ Health. 2008 Dec;71(5):24-8.
Chin, G. Chong, J. Kluczewska, A. Lau, A. Gorjy, S. Tennant, M. The environmental effects of dental amalgam. Australian Dental Journal 2000;45:(4):246-249 (PDF)
Doughty, Caitlin - A Burial Practice That Nourishes The Planet - TED Talk. 2017
Doughty, Caitlin - What Happens to a Body During Embalming?
from ‘Ask a Mortician’ - YouTube. 2017
Doughty, Caitlin - What Happens to a Body During Cremation?
from ‘Ask a Mortician’ - YouTube. Caitlin Doughty 2017
Doughty, Caitlin - ECO-DEATH TAKEOVER: Changing the Funeral Industry
Eggener, Keith - The Fascinating History of Cemeteries - TED Talk. 2018
Farrell, James - Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830-1920. 1980 ISBN 978-0877221807
Harris, Mark - Grave Matters: A journey through the modern funeral industry to a natural way of burial. 2008 ISBN: 978-1416564041
National Funeral Directors Association - Press release, “2017 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Study Reveals Inconsistency in Funeral Planning Practices.”
NY Times - Thinking About Having a ‘Green’ Funeral? Here’s What to Know. 03/22/18 Sonya Vatomsky
Portland Press Herald - Want to be ‘green’ even after you’re gone? Here’s how. 08/13/17 Ray Routier
Portland Press Herald - Kennebec Land Trust hears proposal for ‘green’ cemetery. 08/19/18 Keith Edwards
Reuters - Dying to be green? Try "bio-cremation." 12/01/09 Nicole Mordant
VOX - We need to change how we bury the dead - Why modern burials are awful for the environment. 08/24/17 Dean Peterson
Wikipedia - Alkaline hydrolysis (body disposal)