Funeral industry should explore green burial, realize impact

By Lauren Kelly

Since the dawn of human civilization, we have faced a perpetual challenge—what to do with the remains of those who have passed on. Historically, burial practices have been enshrined in ritual. From the ancient Egyptian art of mummification to the Viking custom of burying warriors in full regalia, humans are full of ideas about the best way to care for the dead.

But today, Americans are disconnected from the ancient rituals that defined human civilizations for centuries. Many people have never seen or touched a dead body, and even thinking about corpses is considered, well … creepy.

Like many uncomfortable things in our lives, we’ve outsourced the process of handling death. Now, private companies take care of the deceased so we don’t have to deal with their bodies. But in exchange for not handling the dead and burials ourselves, we’ve paid a huge price—economically, emotionally and environmentally.

The average bill for a funeral is about $10,000, which contributes to the $25 billion-per-year industry. The business preys on grieving people, suckering them into buying overpriced boxes that have a huge impact on the environment because of the chemicals used to treat bodies. This is not just ridiculous, it’s also really depressing.

Salespeople also prey on grieving family members to guilt-trip them into buying expensive accessories for their departed loved ones. Fancy pillows, makeup and headstones cost thousands, but it makes no difference to the dead.

One “accessory” I found in my research was more than troubling. For a few hundred dollars, a grieving family can purchase a rubber seal that lines the casket to protect their loved one’s body from decay and bugs. But just as the seal doesn’t let anything in, it doesn’t let anything out either. The gasses from the natural decomposition process can’t escape and the coffin becomes a pressure-cooker that eventually explodes, with the corpse’s organ juices seeping out the sides of the once pristine casket. Gross. And again, depressing.

To bypass the financial burden and give respect to the deceased, some people choose other burial options such as cremation, but even that is relatively expensive. Some businesses charge $200 for a cardboard box to store the remains and $1,000 for a wood container.

As seen by historical evidence through texts and archaeology, funeral customs haven’t always been so removed from our everyday life. Even as late as the 1910s, people dressed and arranged their dead loved ones for viewing in their home, hence the name “parlor room,” like a funeral parlor. That room is now called a “living room,” which is quite ironic. In the U.K., many people still hold funerals in their homes, making full use of the parlor room.

Death is a natural part of life and in the natural world, animals decompose in the ground, renewing the soil and providing food for millions of creatures that survive on decaying matter. I, for one, like the idea of being buried while wrapped in a sheet of moss and having a baby tree planted over me. But many humans are now disrupting the natural process of death and renewal by outfitting coffins with new technology and pumping corpses full of toxic chemicals like formaldehyde. In response to this, some people are exploring alternatives to the “normal” burial practice.

The Green Burial Council is one group that is challenging the “deathcare” industry by exploring alternative burial methods. The council is a national nonprofit organization that aims to “reduce the carbon emissions, waste and the use of toxic chemicals in the cemetery/funeral field and utilize burial as a means of acquiring, restoring, and stewarding natural areas,” according to their mission statement.

The group advocates natural burial methods that help the earth such as using biodegradable caskets, or no casket at all, and not using embalming chemicals that seep into the ground.

Many people want to “go green” and be environmentally friendly, but not many think about their impact on the earth after they’ll be gone. Movements advocated by groups like The Green Burial Council may be the next trend in the environmental movement.