While we may be aware of making eco-friendly choices in our day-to-day lives, many of us aren't aware of greener options at end-of-life. Every choice has some environmental impact --however reclaiming the practices of our ancestors may be the most earth-friendly. The Industrial Revolution brought us formaldehyde-based embalming and the rise of the modern funeral industry with a plethora of manufactured merchandise -- caskets made of painted steel, precious metals or hardwoods; concrete burial vaults and granite cemetery markers. Cemetery lawns now doctored with chemicals and manicured by exhaust-spewing lawn mowers to look like golf courses. The deceased transported in gas-guzzling luxury coaches. It's not uncommon for such funerals to now cost as much as a new automobile-negatively impacting not only the environment, but also a family's pocketbook.
However, throughout most of human history, families and faith communities simply cared for their own dead. In most cultures, what we now call green burial was standard practice. Green burial involves no chemical preservation of the body. The deceased is simply placed into a biodegradable casket or natural fiber shroud and directly into the soil with no concrete grave liner. There is no manicured lawn or sea of monuments in a green cemetery. Instead, the grave may be marked by a native tree or shrub. On the surface grows vegetation that is native to the ecosystem. Ultimately, a natural burial ground becomes a green space which is preserved for future generations to enjoy. A true natural burial ground also has a conservation easement held by a land trust to prevent future development of the land. There are currently two natural burial grounds in Washington State--The Meadow located near Ferndale and White Eagle near Goldendale. Some other cemeteries in the state allow natural burial without a grave vault or liner.
Home Funeral Vigils
It has always been legal in most states, including Washington, for families to care for their own dead. However, the vast majority of us were taught to be good consumers -- if we really loved someone, we would hire a professional and purchase their merchandise to show honor for the deceased. Well, just as the Baby Boomers brought back the home-birthing movement in the 60's and 70's, now that generation is old enough to collect social security and they've begun bringing back home funerals as well. There are books and weekend workshops to educate families about how to direct their own funerals. Using dry ice, a body may be preserved for as long as three days, allowing time for a funeral service to be held. Clearly this approach requires advance planning, preparation and a willingness to roll-up your shirt sleeves. Most families wishing to have a home funeral rely on the services of a Doula or Home Funeral Guide. There are several trained Home Funeral Guides in the Puget Sound region, including one who is also a licensed funeral director. In addition, there are funeral homes that have been certified by the Green Burial Council to handle green burials if you're not wishing to keep the body at home.
Cremation, which is the choice of 7 out of 10 Washington residents, is also relatively green when compared with conventional burial involving a metal casket, concrete vault and formaldehyde-based embalming. Formaldehyde is also a known carcinogen. A typical cremation uses about the same amount of fuel as tank of gas on an SUV. Given the amount of fossil fuel the average American consumes during their lifetime, their cremation makes a relatively minor contribution. A few funeral homes offset the carbon produced by their cremations to minimize the impact on global warming. Even the natural decay of the body in a green burial has some environmental impact, including the release of methane gas-a potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Our cremation or burial arrangements are really the final statement we make on this earth. Stop and think about what kind of legacy you want to leave for your loved ones and for future generations.
John Eric Rolfstad, Executive Director of People's Memorial Association, a nonprofit funeral consumer organization serving Washington State residents since 1939. He can be reached at 206.245.8548 or firstname.lastname@example.org.