Thursday, January 24, 2008

Die Green--Eco Funerals

There's this free pub in UNL's student union I pick up once in a while, Prairie Fire. In December's issue is an article on green funerals. I'd never heard of this. Isn't death inherently green? What IS a green funeral? In sum:

--It's very personal and private. Often, the body is displayed in the person's home for a very intimate and familiar send off.

--No embalming. A green funeral thus costs roughly $1,000-2,000 or less, while a typical full service funeral is around $10,000.

--The casket is often a basket (it rhymes!), or simply wood like bamboo, or any other cheap or renewable materials (seagrass, willow, pine--all certified by the Fair Trade Organization so you know pandas don't depend on the bamboo, the forests are managed right, and kids aren't working as slave labor). Basically, the coffin and the body will degrade naturally in the ground and help to push up more daisies.

--There are 6 operating green cemetaries in the country: wooded graveyards that ban chemicals and not-easily-decomposed coffins.

Let's say it's winter and you live in Duluth, MN. How do you keep mom from not stinking up the family room? One person who had a green funeral propped a door open to lower the room temperature, while another used ice. Burial can often be achieved by heating the ground with portable space heaters, which many cemetaries use, though many more keep bodies "on ice" until spring.

If you're Jewish, you've apparently been green for a long time; you use wooden caskets and don't embalm.

So, is cremation green? Not really. Burning the body can realease mercury into the air, which comes from amalgam in dental fillings. Besides, Maine alone releases 20lbs of mercury into the air each year.

The funeral industry believes this is a fad. People want their loved ones preserved, to last longer, a tradition of sorts the Egyptians started (I'm paraphrasing the article here). In addition, embalming can can help protect against the spread of disease and bacteria.

Obviously, a green funeral is cheaper, perhaps more intimate and controlled, and would help fertilize the soil. I'd like to know just how much fossil fuel and pollution not using a traditional coffin would save, as this seems kind of relevant if we preach and practice something "green."

Still, it's odd to think that death is now--suddenly perhaps, but not without being obvious--not so green as we thought, not so sacred and "dust to dust," and so we have to make it TRULY green.

Our legacy, what we choose to leave and how we lead our lives, echoes in how we die and what we become after death. I find this disturbing. I find this eco posturing invasive during a time of intense grief and introspection. I find the funeral industry, in general, appalling.

There is nothing sacred or natural about the body in our modern world--and so as I garden and the dirt clings to my skin, perhaps that transience is the closest I will ever get to being part of the earth, part of something much more honorable in its brutal and graceful nonchalance about living and death.


Stuart said...

Thought provoking post Benjamin. While it's all green the trade-off between the land necessary to bury people as opposed to cremating them must be a consideration though. And while 20lbs of mercury sounds significant it pales in comparison to the US' annual ouput of more than 150 tons per year.

Interesting summary of thoughts here. Great read.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Stuart--most certainly, the land space issue is a significant consideration, as is expense. And I made a mistake, I think; that 20lbs--and I agree it is very small--is only emissions from crematoriums. I am unable to find what Maine's total emissions are (from power plants, recycling plants, forest fires, etc).

A wildlife gardener said...

It matters more how we live our lives and how we show our love and respect to our families, our friends, and, more importantly, to strangers we meet along life's highway than how we choose to be buried.

Having said that, whenever the subject of death has arisen, I have always preferred to think of myself being buried in the earth rather than being burned...

The wish is not for the idea of having flowers placed on my grave...for the 'me' that I was won't be there anyway. I will live on in the hearts and minds of those whom I have loved, and who have loved me in return.