Unless science or some other form of modern-day magic can stop death in its tracks, we’re all going to return to the earth, the spirit world, or the endless void – however you want to look at it. Death’s coming for us all, so how do we put this mortal flesh-and-bone machine of ours to rest?
Admittedly, this started out a little morbidly but hey, you are here to read about burial after all, aren’t you? We’ve ascertained that death is inevitable, but there’s no one way to lay our bodies to rest once we’re gone. If you’re in the West, the traditional idea of a funeral and subsequent burial goes a little something like this: your loved ones and friends gather at the social congregation that is your wake, where your body lies in a casket, dressed in your best with a peaceful countenance made to look like you’re asleep by a skilled mortician who also embalms you so that decomposition is kept at bay. Words are said, tears are shed, and then it all moves to the cemetery where you and your casket are lowered into a 6-foot hole in the ground and then covered up by earth.
On the other hand, you might also opt for a cremation. Here, your mortal body is transformed into ash to be kept by your loved ones or have them scatter those remains or inter them in a meaningful place.
Let’s look at a few key points here. We’ve mentioned a casket, embalming, and ashes. There’s a whole lot that can be unpacked here, so let’s move onto how these play a part (or don’t play a part) in what makes a green burial.
In a Nutshell - What Is a Green Burial?
In many ways, we’ve come full circle as a civilisation. The last few years, in particular, have served to wake us up to how we’re progressively ruining the environment through industry and personal choices. There are many of us out here trying to turn things around and shift perspectives in the hopes of alleviating the stress that humanity has been putting on the environment for a long time.
Natural burials are one way that we’re doing this. As a society, we’ve come to realise that we need to return to the earth, in the most literal way possible, with as little excess as possible. Simplicity and minimalism are the key here, so the green burial movement is a way for us to minimise our carbon footprint – even in death.
Green burials are a way to minimise the resources necessary for both the care of the body after death and in its interment. With natural burial, the aim is to leave the world with as little (or nothing) extraneous done or applied to your body before returning to the earth. This also applies to the vessel you’ll be buried in – a natural burial may use no casket or coffin at all, instead opting to be buried in a simple shroud. Of course, your family will end up saving on funeral costs, too – in most cases.
There and Back Again - Of Coffins, Caskets, and Shrouds
Reading the above, you might be on two sides of a proverbial fence. Either, you’re thinking “but we’re just throwing tradition out of the window” or “none of this is new; we’ve always been doing this in my culture/religion.”
If you’re in the second camp, this is true. Listing all the religious or cultural traditions that have been practicing natural burial all this time would be impractical, but we can tell you that traditional Muslim and Jewish customs have been burying their dead this way all this time. In the traditions of both religions, the body is washed – but not embalmed – after death, before being dressed in a plain burial shroud and then buried in the ground. In some areas, especially in cities, you might find that the enshrouded body is carried in a wooden or metal casket of sorts into and out of a hearse to the graveyard. While this does occur, the deceased is almost always buried simply in a shroud if religious traditions are practiced.
If you’re in the first camp and find that green funerals are just a way to rail against tradition, many might remind you that it’s only really been in the last two centuries or so that this tradition has been practiced. For most of human history, the funeral process has been more closely linked to nature, without the use of chemicals and other environmentally harmful materials seeping into the ground.
It’s just that lately, we’re really beginning to see the issues that “traditional” burial methods have had on our environment. Projects like the Burial Belt by Other Architects and Earth Funerals in Australia are trying to create awareness around the environmental impact, logistics, and experience of the way we bury. Ultimately, there’s an increasing need to respect and restore the environment, coupled with a spiritual desire to reconnect with the earth at the heart of green funerals.
Weighing It Up - Why Go Green?
Those key points we’ve told you to keep in mind earlier on? Those are some of the most significant elements that this type of burial is trying to minimise both in principle and practice.
Let’s take a look at caskets and coffins for a minute. We’ve become accustomed to commercially-produced caskets, but we often don’t realise that they’re treated chemically with paint or veneer and contain metal parts – all of which gets buried into the earth’s precious soil. In the United States, for example, the funeral industry buries about 15 million litres of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 64,500 tons of steel, and 17,000 tons of copper and bronze into the ground with the deceased – every year. And with every cremation, the energy equivalent of 40 litres of petrol is spent, while also emitting other pollutants like dioxin and mercury into the atmosphere.
The embalming fluid that we’ve mentioned is harmful enough since formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals seep slowly into the earth. Of course, this happens over a really long time, constantly polluting as the fluid drastically delays the time your body takes to decompose. While keeping the environment free of pollutants is a major concern for the natural burial movement, the move to prohibit embalming also served to protect the health of funeral home workers. Those embalming fluids might prolong the decomposition of the dead, but the formaldehyde inside is a proven carcinogen with adverse effects on those who are exposed to them regularly.
Ways to Go - Your Natural Funeral Options
The coffins and caskets that we’ve become used to make up about half the cost of every funeral. You’re not obliged to be buried in these as you do have the option of using coffins made of sustainably-harvested wood or to simply use an organic, biodegradable cotton shroud. Remember, in most places, funeral homes are required to accept what you, the customer, provides. And when it comes to embalming, this is almost always done away with. In the case that you would want to be embalmed, green embalming is an option. Instead of formaldehyde, environmentally-friendly essential oils can be used to preserve the body for a few weeks or so,
while dry ice or a refrigeration unit is suggested while transporting the body. Fundamentally, the point of the movement is for the body to decompose naturally.
An awareness of green practices in the funeral industry in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and other parts of the world is growing. With this, comes numerous green funeral options, including green cemeteries or hybrid cemeteries. Hybrid cemeteries, like Bendoc Cemetery in Victoria, Australia, reserve space for both traditional burials and natural burials as perspectives towards returning to the earth begin to shift.
Where Conservation Burial and the Digital Realm Converge
If you do wish to depart to return to the earth in more than just a shroud, Earth Funerals has moved away from traditional coffins to eco-pods – just 9kgs of handcrafted wicker without the use of any paint, veneer, or lacquer that would usually just harm the soil. Earth Funerals emphasises carbon positive burials by contributing to the restoration of acres of wildlife corridors and funding of native greenery with each funeral.
You’ll find that conservation burials like this are moving further and further away from large, elaborate headstones, choosing instead to survey the site and use a set of GPS coordinates to mark and locate the grave site. Cemetery mapping faces new possibilities – or challenges, perhaps – with restorative natural burial grounds, but our digital platforms have already taken up the task of online memorialisation in the green funeral space.
As notions of how our mortal vessels are laid to rest are evolving once again, or reverting to the ways of old, digital tech will still play a part in keeping legacies alive. As natural burial grounds become more popular, movements like these are beginning to rely more so on the technology of today to remember those who have passed. It’s all about balance. How do we visit our loved ones without headstones to mark their resting place? How do we connect with their memories? Learn all you need to know about digital mapping for your cemetery with the best of our digital cemetery experts!