By: Dan Isard
When you take a long-term view, green burial is not new. It’s just the way burial used to be. But that was a long time ago, and some cemetery professionals and families need to be educated about what it means today and what it offers.
What exactly is green burial and why should a cemetery consider offering it?
Dear Cemetery Impossible,
I hear a lot of people talking about green or natural burial. Frankly, I don’t get it. Can you explain it so that a country undertaker can understand why I should consider it?
Dear Country Undertaker,
Green or natural burial is not new. From a religious perspective, this is the burial requirement of Jews and Moslems. Biblically, it is established as “dust to dust.” This is what all burial was, regardless of religion, before the Civil War.
During the Civil War, methods were discovered to preserve bodies so that soldiers could be shipped home for burial. The original chemicals used were very dangerous, but at the time, we did not understand that these “preservatives” were poisonous. In any case, that started us on the road away from simple and natural burial.
We further strayed from simple methods of interment as the demand increased for structurally sound caskets. Wood caskets gave way to metal caskets. Caskets began to be made of steel, stainless steel, bronze and copper. The last three were prized due to their anti-corrosive characteristics. While steel provides better protection than wood, it does so at a cost of not breaking down, breaking away from the “dust to dust” concept.
Recently, as a society, we have moved more toward environmentally insightful decisions. Over the last 50 years, the Clean Water and Motor Vehicle Air Pollution acts focused on cleaning up and protecting our environment.
Today, many people consider themselves “green” or “environmentally conscientious” consumers, at least to some extent. The Green Party has even had an impact on presidential elections.
Ultimately, death customs change based on what is going on in society. That includes the funeral, the care of the body and the interment of human remains. It is ironic that many people who choose cremation do so because they perceive it as more environmentally beneficial. Anyone who understands hydrocarbons sees that “cremation = most environmentally conscious” is not necessarily true.
When you talk about “green” funeral and burial practices, you should realize that there are many shades of green.
There is one organization whose purpose is to encourage ethical and sustainable practices in the funeral and cemetery profession, the Green Burial Council
(www.ethicalburial.org). To gain the GBC stamp of approval, you must have in place certain rules and practices. But even the GBC recognizes shades of green.
Environmentally beneficial standards can be applied to both the funeral and the cemetery sides of the business. Let’s take a look at three different areas where one can apply “green” standards:
The care of the body. While embalming, especially with traditional chemicals, might not be used in many cases, there are preservative efforts that can be considered green if people want to view a body before interment. In some cases, families want to be involved in the care of their loved one after death, using essential oils to prepare the body and styling hair.
The casket should be decomposable. There are some beautiful “kosher” caskets, caskets made of reeds and hemp or wood. One can also simply use a shroud to transport the body (with thought given to proper support and how the lowering into the grave will be done).
The interment is a more complex issue. Obviously, you want to start with a consecrated location or a cemetery. The GBC identifies two different types of locations for interment: conservation and natural burial grounds. I suspect that when an existing cemetery owner wants to enter the green burial business, the result is going to be to start a natural burial section, not a conservation burial ground.
In short, you set aside a part of your land and make it an area where only “green” burials will be allowed. Within this area, you restrict who can be buried due to the way the body is preserved and the container in which the body is placed.
You make certain the opening/closing are done with little impact to the area, so a manual opening/closing is best. You might also bring the body to the site in a horse-drawn wagon or wheeled cart pulled by family and friends rather than via a hearse or other modern vehicle.
Instead of the type of memorial seen in a regular cemetery, the green area might use natural stones, native plants and/or GPS positioning to mark and locate graves.
Rather than fitting 1,000 or more graves in an acre, a “green” acre might accommodate only 500 graves. Think about this and you can see that green burial costs more “green” than a typical interment. A grave opening could take two people one hour rather than one person 20 minutes. Closings often involve the mourners taking turns to shovel dirt into the grave opening as part of the ritual.
Economically, the whole model is different. I compare the sales involved in a typical modern versus a green cemetery model in the chart at the top of this page.
For a green section, the cemetery should charge more for the interment right (maybe double or triple the cost of a routine grave), charge for the processional, charge more for the opening/closing (maybe double or triple the cost of a routine grave opening/closing) and charge for bringing a boulder or other natural marker into the marker area.
Endowment care is probably required in a green cemetery (as opposed to a conservation burial ground), but the cost is going to be less for maintenance. (There will be some cost, though. Make sure you have a maintenance plan so you can explain it to families and so you know what costs will be involved.) Even with fewer graves per acre, profit can be the same or greater per acre in a natural cemetery than in a traditional one.
We have seen green cemeteries, when marketed effectively, reclaim families to burial who were convinced they would choose cremation. When they see the high degree of personalization that green burial brings to the discussion, some go back to burial.
The television show “Six Feet Under” featured a green interment of one of the young funeral directors, though not in a cemetery. (The show aired before the green burial movement took off in the US.)
If you have more land than you can use in 100 years, take an acre and experiment with it. Check the GBC website for information. Survey your families. Educate the community and local clergy about green burial. Be committed to it.