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  • Liz Dunnebacke

What Makes Burial Green?

While traditions differ from culture to culture around the disposition of the human body after death, there is not a great deal of variation. To the degree that we contemplate death at all, we generally accept the notion that our bodies return to nature, in some way. And so, for millennia, we have buried our loved ones above - and below - ground, baptized them with fire, and scattered or saved their ashes, or cast the bodies off to sea, in a ceremonial parting with the vessel that once held life. Dust to dust.

Not so long ago, death was the purview only of the family, the community in which the person lived, and local clergy. In Europe and colonized North America, bodies were buried relatively quickly, usually below ground. The modern-day practice of embalming is a relatively recent tradition, which became popular in the U.S. after the Civil War, when soldiers’ bodies began to be “preserved” with arsenic for a trip home. Soon the burial process was professionalized and an entire industry grew up around death.

But the primary goal of embalming - a delay in decomposition - is offset by its toxic footprint and troubling aspects. The procedure entails the visiting of a violent incursion on the human body, the chemicals used are known carcinogens and extremely toxic, and, the process adds significant expense to the burial purchase. And yet, embalming has grown steadily in popularity, particularly in North America, over the past 150 years. Though cremation is now the most popular choice for disposition, throughout the 20th century, the majority of dead Americans were embalmed.

The ecological cost of contemporary disposition is staggering. Each year, the U.S. funeral industry uses over 4 million gallons of embalming fluid (including formaldehyde, methanol and benzene), 20 million board feet of hardwoods (including rainforest woods), 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel, to make caskets and vaults which leach iron, copper, lead, zinc and cobalt into the ground. And cremation, often believed to be more eco-friendly, is actually carbon-intensive, using fossil fuels to reach high heat, and releasing mercury into the air, water and soil. Cremations account for roughly 1.74 billion pounds of CO2 emissions each year in the U.S. and its byproducts include nitrogen oxide, dioxins, and acid rain.

Green burial, also known as natural burial, is simply the process of burying an individual, without first embalming the body. The body is placed in a plain, biodegradable container - like a simple wooden casket, or a shroud - and buried around 3-4 feet deep in soil; not, as most cemeteries today will do, in an underground cement vault. The practice ensures long-term sustainability of the land itself, and can be used to preserve, or even restore, a habitat.

Appending the word “green” or “natural” to the word “burial” implies an outsider-stance or a new take on something we understand to be tradition-bound. But really nothing could be more traditional than a green burial. It’s simply a return to the way we once buried all of our dead. Dust to dust.

From a burial at Larkspur Conservation in Taylor Hollow, Tennessee.

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