So you’re a green girl or boy. You take out the recycling, you watch your carbon footprint, and you glare at every Hummer that cuts you off in traffic. Green is your way of life. So that likely means it has occurred to you that it can be a way of “death” as well.
And if not, here are some afterlife details to get you thinking. More that 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid is interred in the earth annually and most of it is swimming in formaldehyde. Why is this bad? Formaldehyde is listed as a probable carcinogen by the United States EPA and as a “known” carcinogen by the World Health Organization. In the United States alone, the death industry buries 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 827,060 tons of toxic embalming fluid, 90,000 tons of casket steel, and 30 million tons of hardwood board each year.
And if you want a truly “ick” factor, consider this. (Read ahead at your own discretion!) Slate recently reported that “burying your bones six feet deep means that your corpse will decompose without the benefit of oxygen. Instead of producing carbon dioxide and water…your body will sludge-fy and be leaking out methane.” Wondering how you can sign up for a green burial?
Wonder no more! We have the details on what it means to have a green burial, and they are from none other than the Dean of Green Burial himself. Joe Sehee is the executive director of the Green Burial Council, and perhaps the foremost authority on subjects like low-impact burial, conversation burial, and greener cremation. And recently, we had the opportunity to speak with him.
Greenopia: A lot of people have an idea of what a green burial means, but not a clear understanding. So can you clear the cobwebs (so to speak) on green burial?
Sehee: A green burial is one that takes place without the use of formaldehyde-based embalming, metal caskets, and concrete burial vaults. Some green burials can be used to facilitate ecological restoration and landscape-level conversation. Traditional burial is about impeding decay. Green burial is just about ashes to ashes. We think of embalming as a convention, but actually only six or seven countries embalm. In fact, it is even illegal in some Western European countries.
Greenopia: So how does the Green Burial Council facilitate a green burial?
Sehee: We’re a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable death practices, providing a way for people to make the connection to a green burial. We’re really trying to work with the existing death industry, and we are not advocating that any current practices be made illegal. We’re just advocating a green option, an alternative to embalming. We’re focused on providing a completely independent, third-party oversight to the green burial industry. In doing so, we’re hoping this means that green burial can progress, not devolve as some green industries do.
Greenopia: Devolve? I would think that green burial would just move forward now that people are onto it.
Sehee: (Politely ignoring my extreme naiveté.) Well, we just want to make sure the green burial industry is independently certified. I mean, what if a green cemetery operator decides that he or she wants to go conventional? If a place as been permanently protected because it is certified green burial, what happens if the operator increases the density to a level that will degrade the local ecosystem? What if he or she sells? There are too many ways a green cemetery can devolve, and this is why third-party certification is important.
Greenopia: Got it. So what are some of the ways that the Green Burial Council certifies green burial grounds?
Sehee: We certify low-impact burial grounds, natural burial grounds, and conversation burial grounds. Low-Impact requires the adoption of burial and operational practices that are non-toxic and energy-conserving. Decedents have not been embalmed, (dry ice and refrigeration are used instead,) burial containers are non-toxic and biodegradable, and unnecessary pesticides are prohibited on the grounds. Natural burial grounds are low-impact, but also are operated to produce a naturalistic appearance. And conversation burial grounds are low-impact, natural, and also requiring that the land be conserved.
Greenopia: But what if you don’t want to be buried? Are there any solutions to an eco-cremation?
Sehee: Cremation has a lower carbon footprint than burial, but it still burns fossil fuels. We have recently begun to certify cremation disposition programs that create or protect habitat. We will also be requiring that mercury pollution (yes, from our teeth fillings) be mitigated by our approved cremation facilities by 2010.
Greenopia: How did you personally take up this green burial crusade?
Sehee: Well, I lived in Joshua Tree for a while, building an eco-retreat in the Mojave. We wanted death to be a part of that retreat, as it was in early monastic retreats. People who integrate nature into healing processes, so why not in death? When we quickly realized that the green burial movement needed third party oversight, we abandoned the retreat idea and focused on this. We knew enough about the green movement to know that when something is touted “green,” it doesn’t mean it actually is green. We were afraid the future of green burial would get a black eye. And so, the Green Burial Council…
Greenopia: Well, it is comforting to know that someone is keeping tabs on things. Just one last question. Who traditionally asks for a green burial?
Sehee: Surprisingly, it’s not just the eco-conscious who asks for green burial. It is more people who want ritual. It’s kind of like outdoor weddings or birthing without medication. People can feel good about what’s happening to their bodies after death. Your burial can protect land. That seems to be the main driver for those seeking green burial. But they also include religious traditionalists and stereotypical conservatives as well.
Greenopia: So it seems that everyone can be green in the afterlife.
Sehee: Well it does seem to be moving into the mainstream more quickly.
Want more information on an eco-friendly burial? Check out the Green Burial Council here.