Lowering your final footprint? It’s all about the options available to the environmentally conscious – a way to stay green even after you die, a way to help push up the daisies, so to speak – a way to return as dust to the earth with minimal harm to the Earth.
It’s called a green burial – highly popular in England and beginning to gain attention in the United States. Green burial is a natural alternative to what has become a traditional burial – embalming, casket and marble gravestone. And it’s cheaper.
Back then and now
Once upon a time before the Civil War and funeral directors, it fell to family members and close neighbors to prepare and dispose of the remains of a deceased loved one. The body was lovingly washed, dressed and set in the parlor for visitation. Burials followed.
The Civil War, with soldiers dying far from home and the large number of deaths, changed that. Embalming with arsenic to preserve bodies for the train ride home became a trend. Then came formaldehyde, metal caskets, concrete for burial vaults and steel to reinforce the concrete.
“The current burial process, besides being expensive, wastes great quantities of natural resources. It separates us biologically and psychologically from our host planet,” according to Jane Hillhouse’s message at www.finalfootprint.com. “And, perhaps more importantly, it strives to keep us separate from our loved ones at an important time in both lives.”
Hillhouse owns the Half Moon-based Web company that offers biodegradable-receptitacle options for burials.
Cemeteries use vast amounts of fertilizers and water for expansive lawns. From casket to vault to
mausoleum, cemeteries degrade the natural landscape.
Today’s cemeteries and gravesites are here forever although no one will remember those who are buried there 50 years from now. That rankles Deborah Meckler, president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
“That land is useless,” Meckler said of modern cemeteries. “It’s destroyed as a natural ecosystem – as open space.”
But with cemeteries and plots filling fast and burial costs on the rise, another option for remains’ disposal has become popular. High heat
“The trend definitely is toward cremation, which I think is sad,” Meckler said. “Cremation has two downsides – the energy used in drying a body and the particulate matter emitted.”
You don’t want to be downwind of a crematorium, Meckler said.
With dioxins, nitrous oxide and concentrations of mercury from amalgam fillings in teeth, as well as smoke particulates, cremation is far from being Earth-friendly.
Go green gone
With a strong national lobby in the National Funeral Directors Association, Meckler said the FCA was established to educate the public about options for the disposition of remains.
“The funeral industry was packaging service options – people were being charged a lot,” she said.
The FCA successfully lobbied the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit the practice. Consumers are presented with individual options when burying loved ones.
With a bachelor’s degree in natural resource management and conservancy, Meckler’s mission goes beyond protecting consumers to protecting the Earth and educating the public about green burials.
“People seem very interested in this, but most people don’t know about it,” she said.
As open space is procured for green-burial sites – Forever Fernwood in San Mateo County is one such example – Meckler hopes laws can be changed to enable burial sites to be reused after 50 years, long after a body has decomposed. And grazing pastures are a waste of space, too.
“There’s no reason not to use agricultural lands (for green burials),” she said.
The rules for going green underground are simple – and cheaper on the pocketbook, Meckler said.
• Bodies cannot be embalmed. Contrary to popular belief, embalming is not usually required by law.
“It doesn’t stop the smell, it doesn’t stop the decay. It just makes you look better,” she said.
• Burial containers must be biodegradable. Untreated pine boxes, shrouds – Final Footprint offers wicker coffins – the container must return to earth like the body.
• Levels or horizons of the plot must be removed and returned, level by level. Meckler said it’s important not to mix the different layers of soil in order to protect the living organisms.
• Natural grave markers only are allowed, including a log piece or stones with written or chiseled names. Some green cemeteries issue GPS data on the location.
“But it should just look like open space,” Meckler said of a green-burial site.
And it’s important to understand the difference between a burial and a funeral – just because a burial is simple doesn’t mean the farewell needs to be, she added.
“You can have lavish flowers and music. A green burial doesn’t negate the excesses of a funeral,” she said.
For Meckler, it’s important to prepare a dead loved one for burial rather than handing the body over to strangers. The FCA’s Web site offers advice and guidelines in returning to the traditions of bygone days.
Surprisingly, people aren’t appalled at the idea.
“They’ve cared for loved ones in hospice – for many, they want to do it. It’s no big deal,” she said. “Touching is very important to get that sense of ‘goneness.’”
Others don’t want to discuss death.
“One of our taglines is, ‘Would it kill you to talk about?’” Meckler said.
But while older adults often do want to talk about their deaths and their disposition wishes, children don’t always want to hear about them.
“It’s good to put it in writing,” she said.
And as leaching arsenic from Civil War soldiers’ embalmed bodies becomes a problem in groundwater in the East, Meckler hopes green burials become the trend.