A growing movement advocates 'green burials,' which allow our earthly remains to leave a light impression on the land
by DEREK REIBER | posted 12.16.03 |
In Tibet, the ancient ritual of 'sky burial' sounds grisly and barbaric to most Westerners. According to tradition, the body of the deceased is transported to a sacred spot, where a monk performs the task of stripping flesh from bone while mumbling Buddhist prayers. The corpse -- bones and all -- is cut up into pieces suitable for vultures, which swoop down from circling high above the Tibetan plateau to devour the body until nothing remains.
"When the body dies, the spirit leaves, so there is no need to keep the body," said a monk, Garloji, in a New York Times article describing the sky burial ritual. "The birds, they think they are just eating. Actually they are removing the body and completing part of life's cycle."
For Tibetans, the sky burial is a reflection of the peoples' strong adherence to Buddhism, which views life and death as parts of the same timeless cycle. Death is seen as natural, a part of life. That view couldn't be further from how we in the West typically approach our own eventual demise.
In the United States, the standard funeral burial means people have their remains embalmed, sealed in a metal, plastic or wood casket and buried in a cement vault. Each year, Americans bury more than 2.5 million loved ones in the nation's 23,000 cemeteries in just such a fashion. But along with those burials comes more than 14,000 tons of steel and 90,000 tons of concrete in casket vaults, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze in coffins and more than 30 million board feet of hardwoods. And don't forget to tack on about 800,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid.
As depicted in an E Magazine article, caskets are offered in an array of colors, often lined with plush velvet and reinforced with thick fiberglass, "thereby protecting the body from the environment, and the environment from the body, for countless tomorrows," as one funeral company says on its Internet web site. And that fine casket can be enclosed in a burial vault made of special concrete designed to withstand 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, resisting penetration by soil, air, water or anything else that might contaminate the body.
A new concept, however, is beginning to walk the middle ground between the two extremes of the Tibetan sky burial and the American tradition of perpetual preservation. The growing 'green burial' movement calls for respectful body disposal that has as little impact on the environment as possible and doesn't require setting aside large cemeteries solely for the dead.
So far, the idea has caught on mostly in Great Britain, where about 180 green burial sites have cropped up. These sites usually are tracts of unkempt wildlands, where the deceased --sans embalming and often in a biodegradable casket -- are buried amongst the forest's trees. Grave markers are usually simple, a small shrub or seedling. Advocates of green burial say it's the ultimate statement an environmentalist can make. After a life dedicated to living lightly on the land, one can now die lightly on the land too.
"Our belief is that the most humane and natural thing is to let bodies return to the Earth and be recycled into trees, grass and shrubs," said Barbara Butler, owner of the UK funeral shop "Green Undertakings" in E.
Such an attitude flies in the face of many Americans' perceptions about how to be treated after death. Most of us think nothing of isolating and preserving the corpse from the earth, tucked away in a vaulted, velvety coffin. As detailed in a San Francisco Bay Guardian article, Batesville Casket, the largest coffin maker in the U.S., says on its web page: "The urge to keep our loved ones protected and safe is fundamental to all of us. No wonder so many families are comforted by the ability to protect their loved ones with the Batesville Monoseal protective casket."
Indeed, the funeral industry is big business -- after all, each one of us is a potential customer. From the 2.5 million annual deaths in the U.S., the industry pulls in more than $16 billion. The average cost for a full funeral now runs more than $5,000, according to the National Funeral Directors' Association, and that's without the usual $4,000 or so of cemetery charges. And more than half of the funeral industry is now corporate-owned. For example, out of 3,000 cemeteries and crematoriums in California, just 300 are independently owned.
"Your body now belongs to Wall Street," said Karen Leonard, a researcher on the funeral industry exposé "The American Way of Death Revisited," in the Bay Guardian. "[Death] has become nothing more than a commerce of corpses."
Such crass capitalism surrounding what most of us view as a spiritual event might explain some of the interest in green burial, which typically costs less than half the standard funeral. But the fledgling green burial industry is banking on its environmentally friendly angle as the key selling point.
So far, just a handful of green burial sites are scattered around the country. The first, Memorial Ecosystems Inc., started in 1996 near Westminster, South Carolina. Aside from providing environment-friendly burials, Memorial Ecosystem's founder, Billy Campbell, also believes the green burial movement can serve as a stand-in for controlling suburban sprawl, "harnessing the funeral industry for land protection and restoration."
"Cemeteries turn beautiful places into a monoculture of gravestones, really, a landfill of embalmed chemicals and cement," said Mary Woodsen, vice president of the Pre-Posthumous Society, on MSNBC. "Then backhoes, lawnmowers and tree pruners put diesel emissions into the air and pesticides and fertilizers into the water -- for what?"
Campbell's initial site has spawned a few followers around the nation. In Huntsville, Texas, George H. Russell, founder and bishop of the Universal Ethician Church, has opened an 81-acre swath of woods for family green burials. Don and Barbara Blehm run Mountain Wilderness Memorial Park, a green burial site in the shadow of Pike's Peak near Woodland Park, Colorado. And Hollywood entrepreneur Tyler Cassity, who owns a handful of cemeteries, has purchased a suburban San Francisco cemetery with 20 pristine, wooded acres for green burials. Outside magazine reports at least a dozen states have sparks of interest in green burial sites.
"If there were a national association, there would be many jumping on board," said the Pre-Posthumous Society's Woodsen in the magazine.
The green burial movement is just one aspect of how Americans' attitudes toward death are slowly changing. Cremation -- incinerating the body -- is growing quickly in popularity, tripling since 1972 to almost 600,000 funerals per year, reports E Magazine. By 2010, industry predictions put cremation as the procedure of choice for 40 percent of funerals.
But green burial proponents point to the air pollution impacts of cremation as reasons why it isn't the 'truly' environmentally benign option.
Nicholas Albery, an editor of The New Natural Death Handbook, is quoted by E: "Anyone with green pretensions should think twice about cremation," which pollutes the atmosphere "with dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide," byproducts of the container one is cremated in and the process itself.
Aside from the air pollution question, at least one company is offering what it claims is an ecologically friendly solution that incorporates cremated remains into artificial reefs.
Eternal Reefs of Atlanta mixes funeral ashes with cement, then molds them into giant, hollow spheres that look like Wiffle balls. The balls are donated to state and county reef restoration groups, which sink them offshore. After the reef module is placed, the family of the deceased is given certificates and the exact coordinates of the memorial. So far, more than 100 eternal reefs, ranging from $850 for a spot in an intermingled, 100-person community reef to $3,200 for the private, 4,000-pound "Atlantis" model, have been deployed along the coasts of Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, writes E.
Whether on land or sea, greener burials appear to be catching on with a small and growing segment of the American public. But don't expect the funeral industry to give up its guaranteed market without a fight. As E reported, several years ago a man named Ken Ulrich tried to open several green burial grounds in the U.S. He soon ran into stiff opposition from the Montana Board of Funeral Services, which convinced the state legislature to change burial laws that effectively ended Ulrich's plans.
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