Green Burials: Thinking Outside the Box

When Bonnie Ramey buried her husband two years ago, she knew she didn't want to have a typical funeral ceremony at a landscaped cemetery plot.

"The commercialization of funerals is getting out of control," she said. "They get you at your weakest point. In my opinion, they're just ripping off the dead."

Bonnie and her husband, Charles, both nature lovers, spent many hours hiking through the wooded Appalachian foothills surrounding their home in rural South Carolina.

So after Charles died, Bonnie's choice of burial spots was an easy one -- down the road from her house is Memorial Ecosystems, one of the only places in the United States devoted to environmentally sensitive or "green" burials.

Simple Living, Simple Dying

The ideas behind green burials are simple. Bodies are not embalmed. Elaborate caskets made of metal or rare tropical hardwoods are replaced with fabric burial shrouds or simple, biodegradable coffins made of wood or cardboard. Concrete grave liners or vaults that prevent the ground above the coffin from settling are avoided.

Perhaps most significantly, in lieu of carefully manicured cemetery grounds, native plants and wildflowers are allowed to flourish, turning the burial ground into a nature preserve. "It preserves the land and the habitat for the animals," said Ramey. "Our habitat is going quickly, and if we don't preserve it, we won't have any."

Though there are over 200 green cemeteries in Great Britain, the movement is relatively unknown in the United States. South Carolina, Florida, California and Texas have the only four green cemeteries currently operating here. Several more green burial facilities are being planned throughout the country.

Everything Old Is New Again

"A green burial is not about extra work -- it's about not doing extra work," said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a group of grassroots organizations interested in alternatives to the choices offered by the funeral industry.

And for advocates of green burials, these aren't unique or unusual ceremonies. "What people need to remember is that this is not new," said Slocum. "This is a return to what we used to do before the commercial funeral industry came along."

Indeed, many religious traditions follow the basic tenets of green burials. Traditional Jewish burial rites, for example, view embalming as a desecration of the deceased. And only coffins made completely of wood are allowed -- a metal coffin would be a disrespectful effort to artificially preserve the body.

The modern practice of embalming is relatively new. It was largely unknown until the Civil War, when bodies of Union soldiers were often embalmed in preparation for the long trip home from Southern battlefields.

Civil War-era embalming fluids contained poisonous arsenic. Formaldehyde is now used as a preservative, but formaldehyde is not without its risks.

Does Embalming Cause Cancer?

Studies by the National Cancer Institute have found that embalmers and anatomists, exposed daily to formaldehyde, are at an increased risk for leukemia and brain cancer. NCI investigators concluded that exposure to formaldehyde may particularly cause myeloid leukemia, though further studies are needed.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen. It is listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a suspected carcinogen, and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has established a permissible exposure limit of 0.75 parts per million averaged over an 8-hour workshift.

Consumers are often confused about state and local requirements for dealing with dead bodies, and it's generally assumed that health codes require embalming.

Not so, according to Slocum.

"Embalming is never routinely required by law," said Slocum, adding that refrigeration is an acceptable alternative for preserving a body, in addition to being much safer and less invasive.

"No law requires a casket," Slocum adds. "And [a] grave liner or vault -- nowhere are they required by law."

Voicing Environmental Concerns

In addition to concerns over formaldehyde exposure, some suspect that the preservative may be leaking into groundwater supplies from the millions of bodies buried every year. The fact that elevated levels of arsenic have been found in the groundwater near Civil War-era cemeteries buttresses the argument.

And formaldehyde has been found in groundwater sampling wells near cemeteries. But scientific data are limited, and formaldehyde's long-term health effects in the environment are believed to be minor -- formaldehyde evaporates readily and is biodegradable.

But the environmental effects of cemeteries go beyond formaldehyde. Some land use planners are concerned about the impact of turning vast tracts of land into heavily landscaped cemeteries, and the resulting use of fertilizers, pesticides, water supplies and gasoline-powered landscaping equipment.

"Cemeteries just seemed like an ecological wasteland," said David Schroeder, a landscape architect-in-training who specializes in green burial sites.

"There was a period of time in the 1800s when cemeteries were designed like parks," said Schroeder. "They were like an arboretum. Now, most are about economics."

As an example of the economics that drive burial practices, Schroeder points to the cemetery vaults and grave liners that are not required by law, but are required by most cemeteries. "Cemetery vaults are designed to keep the ground flat to make things easier for the lawn mowers," he said.

In Schroeder's model for green burials, the topsoil is separated from other layers of soil, and is returned to its original place after the body is placed in the grave. "The top layers are a biological hotbed. Seeds and microbes are kept near the surface," he said.

A Practical Benefit -- Saving Money

Preserving undeveloped land was foremost in John Wilkerson's mind when he and his brother created Glendale Memorial Gardens, a green burial site in north Florida.

One of the last wishes of Wilkerson's father was that the family farm be protected from development. Both of his parents are now buried on the site. "It was the best answer we could find to keep this farm from being developed," said Wilkerson. "It took their death to precipitate action.

"They did not relish the idea of the circus, the modern-day funeral," said Wilkerson. "They thought it was out of control, it was ridiculous."

But in addition to the environmental benefits, most families participating in green burials agree that the cost savings are significant.

"There is, in fact, a large percentage of American people who are resistant to the large $10,000 funeral, especially the embalming. We don't even allow it," said Wilkerson.

Estimates vary from state to state, but the average cost of a typical funeral in a commercial cemetery is between $5,000 and $10,000. A green burial, however, is usually less than $3,000.

"We have allowed the commercial funeral industry to convince us that the only way to measure our love for our dead is through the amount of conspicuous consumption that we lavish on them," said Slocum.

An Industry Under Criticism

Echoing Slocum's concerns, a steady stream of criticism of the funeral industry runs through most conversations about green burials. Most criticism focuses on the profit motive behind funeral service providers.

"The industry is a breeding ground for fraud and greed," said Wilkerson. "The funeral industry has deliberately taught the American people to ignore death."

He describes the industry's approach to death the following way: "Just write us a check and we'll take care of everything."

And when Ramey was asked if she felt she missed out on anything by choosing a green burial for her husband, she responded, "Missed out? Yeah, on a bunch of expenses."

Service Corporation International, the nation's largest provider of funeral home services, issued the following statement regarding alternative funeral and burial methods: "While we recognize that alternative approaches to funerals and the disposition of remains exist, our experience is that an overwhelming majority of families are more comfortable seeking the assistance of funeral and cemetery professionals."

It's Not for Everyone

Most advocates of green burials understand theirs is a service not everyone would appreciate.

"We are certainly not a threat to the industry," said Kimberley Campbell, who founded Memorial Ecosystems with her husband, Billy. "This is not a choice for everyone."

A surprising number of individuals in the green burial movement are quick to defend funeral homes. "For some, doing what the commercial funeral industry provides is right for them," said Slocum, whose group is in touch with funeral directors nationwide who can facilitate green burials.

And many in the commercial funeral industry, he believes, are honest, reputable people who respect the wishes of families and offer alternative services.

"Funeral directors across the country try to accommodate families' wishes," said Mark Musgrove, president of the National Funeral Directors Association.

"We believe in memorializing, we believe in ceremony, we believe in visitation and viewing," he said. "Typically, funeral directors want to help families and accommodate their needs. That's what we've always done and as families' needs change, we're trying to accommodate those needs."

Making the Choice

Some relatives of Ramey's were skeptical of her choice of a green burial, but changed their minds once they saw the wooded burial site. Ramey said of her husband's sister, "When she went and saw the spot where he was going to be buried, she came back and said that [it] was the prettiest spot she'd ever seen."

The funeral became more of a family reunion. "Just about the whole family stayed after [the funeral service] by the body and shoveled the dirt onto the grave. They talked and laughed and reminisced."

For those considering a green burial, Ramey has a bit of advice.

"I would say go to a regular cemetery and sit for one hour," she said, "and then go to Memorial Gardens for one hour and sit and just see which is more peaceful and which is more stressful.

"Ask yourself, 'Where would your loved ones want to be buried?'"

This article is the first of a three-part series.