- Green burial less expensive, more environment-friendly
- March 17, 2014
Death is going green. A growing number of people are eschewing traditional end of life rituals for simpler, more environmentally friendly, and in many cases, less expensive green burials. Some casket manufacturers and funeral directors are responding to the trend.
Toxic embalming fluids, metal caskets and concrete vaults are prohibited, instead the deceased are buried in biodegradable caskets made of wicker or pine, or simply wrapped in a shroud, says Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, a New Mexico-based nonprofit organization that encourages sustainable death care.
Green burial sites are aesthetically pleasing, often offset with towering trees and fields of wildflowers. Headstones are replaced with small fieldstone markers or no markers at all. The difference between a traditional burial site and a green cemetery is that they are designed to protect and restore the land, Sehee says.
“People want to be buried under a tree or in a field. It’s nothing new. They’ve been doing this for more than 100 years. People find solace in being buried in a peaceful surrounding,” Sehee says. He adds there are no state laws mandating the use of burial vaults or embalming fluids. It’s usually the cemetery’s policy.
The manner of burial makes no difference as far as life insurance or burial insurance is concerned, according to Steven Brostoff, spokesman for American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), a Washington, and D.C.-based trade association. “Life insurance is for financial protection; it pays benefits upon death,” Brostoff says.
There are no statistics on green burials. However, in a 2007 survey by AARP 21 percent of Americans older than age 50 said they would prefer an eco-friendly burial, Sehee says. He says a March 2010 survey commissioned by the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association found 25 percent of those polled like the idea of environmentally- friendly burials.
Normal burials use toxic embalming fluids that contaminate the soil, concrete vaults, large headstones and caskets made of wood or steel that never degrade, staying in the ground forever. Cremations using older methods spew carbon emissions into the air, according to Sehee.
“It is definitely a growing trend. It is equivalent to what cremation was 20 to 30 years ago,” says Edward Bixby II, proprietor of Steelmantown Cemetery Natural Burial Ground in New Jersey.
Bixby says it’s not just baby boomers, environmentalists and those looking to save a dollar fueling this trend. “A good 80 to 85 percent of my business doesn’t come from environmentalists. They’re just everyday people who don’t want to be embalmed,” he says.
Bixby says the average cost of a burial at his cemetery ranges from $2,500 to $4,000, compared to the $8,500 average cost of a traditional funeral in New Jersey, but Sehee says costs of a green burial can increase if a person chooses a more expensive biodegradable casket such as a seagrass casket. It may be cheaper to use an old blanket or shroud, or be buried at a cemetery in a different state. Only 40 states have green cemeteries to date.
Bixby says in 2006, the first year he opened, he did six green burials and about a dozen pre-needs. The burial number is the same, but the pre-needs are growing substantially. He says his average customer is between the ages of 30 and 55. As they reach the natural dying age, he expects the number of burials to jump.
Bixby’s cemetery is one of 23 certified green cemeteries by the Green Burial Council. It has 10 acres, nine of which are wooded. Graves are marked by fieldstones and Bixby knows exactly where every one is buried if families can’t find the location.
Sehee has a list of more than 300 certified green providers, including cemeteries, funeral homes and products such as biodegradable caskets, shrouds and urns. This is up from only a dozen providers total at the beginning of 2008.
DIFFERENT SHADES OF GREEN
Green burial is described by the Green Burial Council as a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact. It conserves of natural resources, reduces carbon emissions, protects worker health and restores and/or preserves the habitat.
Just how green you want to go is up to you. Burial grounds come in various shades, according to Joe Sehee, executive director of the council.
Hybrid burial grounds: Perhaps the most common form of green burials today, they are conventional cemeteries that prohibit the use of formaldehyde in embalming, metal caskets and concrete vaults.
Natural burial grounds: They have the same requirements as hybrids, but are designed, operated and maintained to be aesthetically pleasing, as well, Sehee says. They use plants and materials native to the region.
Conservation burial grounds: In addition to meeting all the requirements for a natural burial ground, these must also adhere to a number of protocols that ensure burials never degrade an ecosystem. Where possible, they must facilitate ecological restoration. An established, independent conservation organization must serve as steward of this land to guarantee that the standards for conservation burial, set forth by the Green Burial Council, will be upheld in perpetuity.
Cremation: While purists denounce cremation due to its burning fossil fuels, Sehee says a $4 donation to a carbon fund offsets any emissions created from cremation. Also, the council has been working with the Cremation Association of North America to set standards for more environmentally friendly cremations by making available options for recycling medical parts such as dental fillings, choosing a more fuel-efficient cremation container and participating in a program that has some environmental purpose, such as generating money to facilitate conservation.
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