Issue 61: Green Burial

By: Rachel Davis

With springtime, the world renews itself. We reconnect with land that lay under winter’s snowy blanket and are reminded of our relationship to it’s beauty and resources. Farmers start to bring in early offerings and tulips rainbow the yards. Each year we encounter this rhythm and build our health, hopes and joys on it.

Here, in midcoast Maine, the drama of the seasons and the immediacy of nature, has encouraged an intimacy with our environment that is expressed in the choices we make buying food or disposing of trash. Many Mainers emphasize local food sources and look for ways to make them sustainable, from blueberries and apples, to lobster and beef. We care for our parks, beaches and trails, and work toward minimizing our impact on the environment.

Maine has an aging population. Though for some, contemplating death is uncomfortable and difficult, there is a growing awareness of the importance of these preparations. Opportunities are increasing to talk in supportive spaces, for example at a ‘Death Cafe’, to preplan and prepay for our own services, or to attend a workshop to write our own obituary. As we make decisions about after death care for ourselves or that of family members, we can consider the values we hold in life to inform the choices we make for after death.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are over 130,000 workers in the ‘death care industry’, from morticians to cosmetologists, embalmers to landscapers. In 2016, 50.2% of Americans choose cremation and 43.5% burial with the median cost of an adult funeral in 2017, including viewing, burial and a vault, being $8,755. For the last half century, funeral and cemetery industry has provided beautiful spaces for laying to rest our loved ones. They offer services at a difficult time, helping us navigate through grief and the confusion of legal work, burying our friends and family with honor and love. However, the practices of the industry are now being called to adjust, as we look at the the implications of how we live and how we die on the environment and those working in the industry.

Do we need perfectly manicured lawns that require concrete vaults? Do we want to preserve the bodies of our loved ones in formaldehyde based embalming fluid or place them in lacquered caskets? What exactly is the legacy we are wishing to leave for our families? How are we hoping to be remembered? Visited? Celebrated? These questions are very individual, and sensitive.

Every year, 90,000 tons of steel, 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid and 1,600,000 tons of concrete poured for vaults are used for American burials according to National Geographic. (“Embalming”, National Geographic Partners, LLC. 2016.)

Embalming fluid is listed on the top 10 most hazardous chemicals for the environment according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is a known carcinogenic in humans and animals. Cremation releases vaporized mercury, dioxins and furans, as well as greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

There are a growing number of alternative options available. If a traditional burial seems most appropriate consider bypassing embalming or asking if a different preservation method, such as chilling the body, is a possibility. Look for biodegradable caskets or shroud options. For example, local pine boxes, woven wicker caskets, cotton cloth, or non-toxic, recycled purpose made containers. Some cemeteries allow burial without a vault, and there are a growing number of ‘green burial’ cemeteries available. Ask crematoriums for information about their emissions and look for biodegradable urns if you wish to bury remains. Recycle medical parts and find ways to offset the carbon impact through planting or donation. It is possible to donate your body to science. And finally, when choosing flowers to plant or lay at a grave, look for native species and local growers.

We are part of a local and global community that spans generations. Let us look at ways to live beautifully and die with conscious consideration.

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