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What Is a Green Funeral?

A simple, green funeral is a return to time-honored traditions


green funeral

A green funeral is often followed by a burial in an eco-friendly, green cemetery.


A green funeral? Isn't that a little creepy?

On the contrary, a green funeral has a lot in common with some of the most traditional funeral rituals, and what most people in North America think of as a "typical funeral" is in fact a rather recent invention. In traditional Jewish burial rites, for example, embalming is a desecration, and coffins must be made completely of wood -- metal coffins would be a disrespectful effort to preserve a body. In most of the world, people don't embalm, and they pay their last respects to the deceased at a home wake.

How did the American funeral become what it is today?

Largely due to the efforts of the commercial funeral industry, the typical North American funeral has become a very energy-intensive, very polluting, and very expensive affair. Critics of the funeral industry -- and there are many -- have charged that the industry takes advantage of consumers when they're at their most vulnerable, charging exorbitant fees for procedures and products that are not only unnecessary but also unhealthy.

What's so unhealthy about a funeral (except for the deceased)?

Consider formaldehyde, a key ingredient in embalming. Embalming was unheard of until the Civil War, and wasn't widely practiced until the 1900s. The National Cancer Institute has found that embalmers and anatomists, who face daily exposure to formaldehyde, are at an increased risk for leukemia and brain cancer, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. It can also leach into drinking water supplies near cemeteries long after the dead are buried.

But isn't formaldehyde required by health codes?

Not in most places, because there's almost no reason to fill a body with formaldehyde. The laws that do exist are often there because of lobbying by the funeral industry. Human remains can instead be safely refrigerated, or kept on dry ice. And it's a myth that a human body starts to decompose immediately upon death -- most bodies are stable for two or three days if kept reasonably cool.

What about the coffin? Wood is biodegradable, so that's OK, right?

Many caskets are made of metal or metal parts, which don't biodegrade. And wood caskets are often made of tropical or non-sustainable hardwoods that can costs many thousands of dollars to import and manufacture. Advocates of green funerals say a simple box made of cardboard, bamboo, or locally harvested wood, or a burial shroud made of linen or cotton, is a much better choice. And many cemeteries force consumers to pay for concrete burial vaults, which serve no purpose whatsoever except to support the ground beneath heavy construction equipment.

But aren't these funeral practices -- coffins, embalming, etc. -- required by law?

Not in most places; in 45 states, caring for the dead at home is perfectly legal, and many people have found that this traditional practice helps them through the mourning practice. Some funeral home directors are happy to help with alternative or green funeral arrangements. There are, however, some unscrupulous operators who will insist that all arrangements must be handled by licensed funeral home directors (who charge substantial fees for their services).

These corporate funeral homes sound a bit sleazy. How can I find one who'll handle a green funeral?

You can ask for local references, or contact groups like the Green Burial Council, the Funeral Consumers Alliance or GreenBurials.org. They maintain a nationwide network of sustainable burial grounds and funeral directors who can assist with making arrangements. As an additional step, the Green Burial Council also certifies a handful of green funeral homes and cemeteries as conservation-minded businesses that meet their criteria.

Maybe I should just get cremated and skip all these funeral and burial hassles.

There are crematoriums that have greener practices, like double burners that reduce emissions, but any burning practice is going to add pollutants like sulphur dioxide, hydrochloric acid and dioxin to the atmosphere. It's especially problematic when people have mercury fillings in their teeth or other metal body implants -- the burn-off from these can be particularly hazardous.

So what exactly happens at a green funeral?

Whatever you and your friends and family would like to happen. A green funeral is usually a simple affair, but they can be elaborate, too. The most significant part of a green funeral is the green burial ground itself. Many of these function as nature preserves, and avoid the artfully manicured look of the typical cemetery grounds, which use immense amounts of pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides like Roundup, plus a lot of gasoline and oil in their maintenance equipment. Green cemeteries avoid most or all of this by allowing the site to stay as natural and wild as possible -- many, in fact, have become de facto wildlife sanctuaries, preserving land that might otherwise be turned into housing or commercial development.

Can I still have a headstone in a green cemetery?

You can in some green cemeteries, but many people choosing green funerals want to be remembered with something other than a quarried marble or granite grave marker. A living tree is a popular choice for marking a grave, and folks often pick either a favorite ornamental tree or, as a greener option, a native tree that's indigenous to the region.

Who's opting for green funerals?

A growing number of people have seen the benefits of a green funeral and a green cemetery. The movement started in England a few decades ago, and there are now over 200 green cemeteries there. Though the idea has been slower to take root in the United States, it's catching on quickly and there are more than a dozen green cemeteries nationwide. A recent AARP poll found that over 20 percent of people age 50 and up support green funeral practices -- but at least two percent of them also admitted to having no clue about what sustainable options were available.

Is a green funeral expensive?

Actually, most green funerals and similar burial practices cost thousands less than the typical funeral, which can easily run $6,000 to $10,000. A green funeral, however, usually costs a fraction of that -- around $2,000 to $3,000.

But there isn't a green cemetery located near me.

You may want to consider a home burial, another time-honored tradition that many families are now reconsidering, especially if they have enough land and their local government allows it. Contact your municipal or county government to see what requirements exist for home burial.

After I go, how can I make sure my green funeral wishes are respected?

Talk to your family and friends about your preferences, and consider writing up an advance directive, a relatively simple legal document that will ensure your wishes are carried out after you're gone. Most law firms can easily handle such requests.
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