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.

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