WASHINGTON– The idea of being buried in a detoxifying mushroom suit or in a biodegradable pod that becomes a tree was once the stuff of science fiction, but a growing trend toward eco-friendly burial practices is making such things a reality.
Advocates for green burials say alternative practices have a positive impact on both the environment, and are also changing views of death itself. However, making the transition isn’t easy – in part, due to a lack of awareness.
America’s first green conservation burial ground— The Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina — was opened in 1998. Now there are more than 120 cemeteries across the U.S. that offer eco-friendly services. They range from hybrid cemeteries – conventional cemeteries that have converted part of their land for green burials – to conservation burial grounds – a natural burial ground that also acts as a wildlife preserve.
For a burial to be considered green it must meet three requirements set by the Green Burial Council: the body cannot be preserved with traditional embalming fluid, man-made vaults are prohibited and only biodegradable burial containers or shrouds can be used.
The rising trend of green burials parallels an increased concern for the environment, said Lee Webster, treasurer of the Green Burial Council, a non-profit organization that certifies green burial grounds, funeral homes and product manufacturers.
A study last year by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council says 64 percent of people 40 and older expressed interest in green burials, a 21 percent increase from data collected in 2010. Data were collected from more than 1,500 people.
“More and more people have lived doing recycling and being environmentally friendly,” said Webster, who is also president of the Home Funeral Alliance. “They discover that the final process includes toxic chemicals and cement being buried in the ground. It’s abhorrent to them.”
A report from the Green Burial Council says conventional burials – embalming, funeral home viewing and placing a steel casket in a cement lined hole – result in the annual use of 77,000 trees and 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid containing cancer-causing chemicals. On average the entire process can cost $7,000.
Although cremations are considered to be a greener and more-affordable option, one cremation uses as much energy as a 500-mile car trip and releases 250 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the National Death Centre, a Britain-based funeral consulting group.
“All of these things don’t make any sense when the most natural thing to be doing is putting the body into ground and letting nature take it’s course,” Webster said.
A green burial falls between a conventional burial process and a cremation in terms of pricing, said Kate Kalanick, executive director of the Green Burial Council.
For the past 100 years, care for the dead has been the province of churches and funeral homes. A change is overdue, said Shelia Champion, owner of The Good Earth burial ground, a green cemetery in Alabama.
“Our funeral industry has taken family out of the death process,” Champion said. “At the time of death we have the body whisked away to this strange place. It’s not a hands-on effort. The body disappears and you see it again in a day or two after it’s been in embalmed and all waxy looking.”
Green burials and home funerals – not using a funeral home to care for a body after death –return a sense of intimacy to a sad event by giving family members the chance to have an active role in caring for their loved ones after death, said Merilynne Rush, a green burial and home funeral consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“When families tap into this possibility whole realms of meaning blossom within them to be able to connect with this in a wholesome and healing way rather than having the whole thing yanked away from them,” Rush said in a phone interview.
Even though the funeral industry plays a role in expensive or environmentally harmful burial practices, consumers are the ones who choose how they want their dead to be treated, said Robert Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, a trade association.
“We don’t tell people what to buy,” said Fells in a phone interview. “We show them the options and we help them choose what has value for them.”
There is no tension between the conventional funeral industry and green burial advocacy groups, Fell said.
“Everybody’s on the same page as far as green burials are concerned,” he said. “We all understand the purpose and the need for this.”
But the alternative burial method is plagued by fears and misconceptions about death, including worries that bodies can spread disease during decomposition if they are not embalmed or contained in an airtight conventional coffin or tomb.
Prior to becoming a supporter of green burials, Champion said she feared dealing with the deaths of loved ones. That’s typical, and one of the reasons people choose conventional funerals and cremations, she said.
“The funeral industry wants you to think that it’s doing this great service, but in reality it’s a service now because people are afraid of death and they just don’t want to handle it,” she said.
Another major challenge the green burial industry faces are costs, said Fell.
“Everybody is in favor of clean air,” he said. “People are willing to do some things, but they may draw the line at some point. As far as green funerals are concerned, the public seems to draw the line at how much more they’re willing to spend.”
Some biodegradable caskets can cost more than standard ones, said Fell, whose association provides the public with funeral products.
Advocacy organizations such as the Green Burial Council and the Home Funeral Alliance are working to dispel myths about green burials – beliefs that the process is illegal, or that decomposing bodies can contaminate water – and raise awareness about its benefits, said Kalanick.
“As we are able to get out there and educate people more, we let people know that this is an option for them,” she said. “It’s just getting the message out there.”
New technology like the mushroom suit – a burial covering that aids in decomposition and removes environmental toxins from the surrounding soil – is helping to start conversations about eco-burials, said Mike Ma, co-founder and president of Coeio, the company that created the suit.
“We’re letting people know that there’s choices to what the traditional funeral practices are,” Ma said. “Anything that questions the existing practices or presents alternatives is a great thing.”
Raising awareness about the benefits of green burials may lead to the creation of more natural burial grounds because the movement is hampered by a lack of available green cemeteries, said Rush, who is advocating for a green cemetery in Ann Arbor.
“We have one green cemetery in our county 25 miles away,” she said. “Why would people want to go to a town they’ve never been to before. The whole point is to be local.”
Existing green cemeteries not only serve as a final resting places, but also provide space for recreational, agricultural and community activities because they function as nature preserves or park land.
“People like to feel that when they’ve left, they’ve left a legacy,” said Webster.