Will there be a greater demand for ‘green’ burial practices?
For those who spend their life dedicated to reducing their environmental footprint, it can seem contradictory for their final act of recycling to be having their bodies pumped full of toxic chemicals and buried in a metal casket that will take longer than an SUV to biodegrade.
According to Joe Sehee, executive director of the New Mexico-based Green Burial Council, this realization is leading an increasing number of people to re-think their final footprint and seek more sustainable alternatives to standard funeral industry burial practices.
This environmentally conscious demographic, says Sehee, considers the “industrial-preservative” standards of embalming and burial in vaulted metal caskets as misguided, resource intensive overkill in trying to delay the natural processes of decomposition. In addition, they disapprove of mining, processing, and then burying hundreds of tons of metal and concrete in traditional cemeteries each year.
Cemeteries and funeral homes across the country, including one in Santa Cruz, are offering eco-friendly “natural death care,” which use formaldehyde-free fluids in the preparation of the remains, and simple, biodegradable caskets made of untreated pine, wicker and even banana leaves as alternatives to “Cadillac caskets” made of sheet metal. The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit advocacy and information organization, lists nearly 300 funeral homes across the country that provide such options, up from only about a dozen at the beginning of 2008.
“We’re walking a fine line of working with the funeral industry and trying to initiate change in that industry,” says Sehee, “and at the same time trying to raise the bar and prevent the ‘green washing’ of questionable, unspecified funeral services labeled ’green’ by those who don’t really share the environmental ethic that is driving this movement.” The Green Burial Council advises funeral directors across the country on the preparation of the body for burial, biodegradable caskets and green, natural burial places.
Much like the controversy surrounding what can be reasonably labeled “organic” in super markets, widely recognized, certifiable standards for “green burial practices” are very much in their developmental stages, says Sehee. “At this time there is no way to certify that the funeral home is committed to the same ethic, but many funeral directors are very sincere and receptive to this new environmental ethic growing in the communities they serve,” says Sehee.
The Benito & Azzaro Pacific Gardens Chapel is the single, Green Burial Council-approved provider of green burial services in Santa Cruz County, offering several options for those who wish to “go green” in their final departure. Ellen Broddus, funeral director at Pacific Gardens Chapel, says that two key factors seem to be limiting the demand for eco-burial practices in Santa Cruz: the lack of awareness that green options are available and a lack of planning when families begin to consider these options.
“In a culture where we spend the majority of our lives denying death, most people have no idea how many decisions need to be made for funeral preparation, and this is especially true for green burials,” says Broddus. “If people are interested in green embalming methods, yet want to view the body in a memorial service a week or so off, we could have a problem.” The non-toxic chemicals used as alternatives to formaldehyde-based embalming fluids naturally result in a shorter time period to view the body, according to Broddus, and family members are typically unprepared for any “rush” in planning memorial services.
According to Broddus, it is the cemetery, not state law, which requires a casket be buried in a concrete fault. Concrete vaults prevent grave-size depressions and the toppling of headstones and grave markers when the casket and its contents decompose. Concrete faults thus reduce the cost of maintaining the manicured lawns that many visitors of cemeteries have come to expect.
Soquel Cemetery, which is affiliated with Pacific Gardens Chapel, is a “hybrid” cemetery allowing burials without concrete vaults, but the majority of graves are vaulted with headstones. While roughly 40 percent of the graves at Soquel Cemetery are without vaults, no one to date has been buried in an “eco-casket” available through Pacific Gardens Chapel. The Green Burial Council is advocating for burial places to be kept as natural as possible after burial of biodegradable caskets without vaults. “Imagine the potential for restoration and preservation of open green space with green cemeteries,” says Sehee. “Land that is simply set aside as a memorial parks, but left in its natural condition. Compare that to resource-intensive cemeteries that require constant maintenance, a lot of water, and concrete faults. Returning to the earth at nature’s own pace, without disturbing the natural landscape, is an idea that resonates with many.”
Sehee estimates that enough metal in caskets is buried each year to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, and enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit. “We also bury more than 826,000 gallons of embalming fluid, which contains formaldehyde that is regarded as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization and a ‘probable’ carcinogen by the EPA,” Sehee says.
Cremation vs. Green Burial: Which is Greener?
According to the Cremation Association of North America, the national average of deaths resulting in cremation, with a good deal of regional variation, has risen from 26 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2007, and the upward trend is expected to continue. Thirteen percent of those choosing cremation report doing so to save land, while 30 percent do so to save money.
Santa Cruz has one of the highest cremation rates in the country, according to Randy Krassow, president of Santa Cruz Memorial, a local mortuary, crematory and cemetery. Cremation is approaching 70 percent of all dispositions of the deceased in the county, he says.
When a housing project was proposed next door to the Santa Cruz Memorial crematorium on Ocean Street Extension, neighbors opposing the project became concerned about potential health risks of air-borne emissions of the crematorium, particularly mercury released from dental fillings of the deceased. The Monterey Bay Air Quality Control District did not have legal standards or testing equipment readily available to guide city decision-makers in this case, so the city required an expert study of possible health risks emanating from the chimney of the crematorium before further consideration of the project.
Inside the crematorium chamber at Santa Cruz Memorial, which houses two, truck-sized furnaces in which a total of 252 bodies were returned to dust between January and October of 2010, Krassow explains that Santa Cruz Memorial will fully cooperate with the testing required for the city’s study, and is confident that the crematorium is compliant with all existing regulations and safeguards. With one of the furnaces quietly roaring, Krassow points up to a three-inch pipe feeding the furnace with natural gas. “In terms of using resources, I’m not so sure how it compares with green burials, but it takes three hours-plus of intense heat to complete the process, and that’s a lot of natural gas for each cremation,” he says.
“I like the notion of green burials,” adds Krassow. “We’re struggling with issues of burial site definition and protecting the integrity of family graves, but we’re definitely looking into it.” Krassow is currently investigating how Santa Cruz Memorial may accommodate burials without concrete vaults or individual grave markers in the “undeveloped” portions of the Oakwood Cemetery close to Dominican Hospital.
Sehee, of the Green Burial Council, indicated that as green burials gain traction and credibility in the funeral industry, he expects they will be an increasingly attractive alternative to cremation for the environmentally conscious. “Our goal is to honor the dead, heal the living, and invite the divine with end-of-life rituals that reflect the new environmental ethic of our time,” he says.