Rest in Peace, Not Pollutants: Green Burials Say ‘No Thanks’ to Chemicals in the Grave

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You couldn’t possibly count the number of places in Rhode Island where you can walk in pure silence except for leaf rustle, moving among drowsing wildflowers, and around shrubs and trees situated by the hand of nature, the landscape free of human objects except for a sliver of a path. 

But you can count the number of natural outdoor places that also serve as a place set aside and developed specifically for green burials, an eco-friendly way to bury the dead that is gaining acceptance across the country. 

That is the basic definition, but a purist definition may go farther. In a green burial, washing and shrouding of the body may be done by family members or friends. Family members may dig the grave by hand. A green burial may take place on private property.

One main driver of green burials is concern for the health of the environment, and also for workers in the funeral industry. Standard embalming fluids contain formaldehyde, which inevitably leach into the ground from the body, and also enter septic systems or sewers straight from a funeral home’s work rooms. These fluids also have been implicated in higher rates of serious illness among funeral home workers. Similarly, varnishes and metal parts of caskets degrade and leach into groundwater.

The exotic hardwoods for fancy caskets are harvested from sometimes- depleted tropical forests and transported around the world at a high cost of fuel. The cement for making underground vaults is a high-polluting material, because of the effects of mining, manufacturing, and transportation.

Green burials are chosen not only by people who want to protect the environment. Some families are turned off by what they see as the excess and expense of fancy caskets and elaborate staging of conventional funerals. Some are looking for an avenue for family members to play a bigger role in the moment, including washing and dressing the body. Some crave quietness and intimacy.

A simple wicker casket. (Photo courtesy, Swan Point Cemetery)

Before green burial started to become known and requested — in the past 10 to 20 years — people sometimes chose cremation because they saw it as a cleaner alternative to a full-dress funeral with embalming, tropical-wood casket, and underground vaults. In fact, cremation is a polluting process, in view of the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning. Emissions also contain pollutants from the body, such as mercury from dental fillings and medicines in the tissues.

Ed Bixby, president of the board of the nationwide Green Burial Council (https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/) (GBC), said lots of ordinary people, not necessarily environmentalists, are asking about green burial. He said families say, “I want something simpler; I want something that feels good; I want my family involved. I want a memorable experience with my loved ones.”

Green burials are conducted by funeral homes across the country, including in Rhode Island. Despite the DIY quality of a green burial, funeral homes are usually enlisted to help with things like securing death certificates and permits, submitting obituaries, hosting a memorial ceremony, finding a biodegradable casket, and arranging for flowers, music and transportation.

In Rhode Island, green burials are done at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, at Arnold Mills Cemetery in Cumberland, and at Prudence Memorial Park. The first two are “hybrid” facilities, in that they are traditional cemeteries that, in recent years, adapted plots and practices for green burials. Prudence is a conservation burial ground,… opened for service in 2019 by a three-generation Prudence Island woman, Robin Weber.

Weber calls the practices of contemporary traditional funerals “grossly wasteful,” but she also loves the idea of green funerals because they are “participatory. It is a healthier way for most people….”

Weber believes green funerals will become more popular in the future. “There is a kind of cultural denial of the reality that bodies decompose when we die,” she said. “We have managed to pretend it doesn’t happen. But in a green burial, over time, people will give back to the Earth by letting the nutrients in their bodies be taken up by the trees and shrubs.”

Swan Point Cemetery in Providence opened a green burial section called The Ellipse  https://swanpointcemetery.com/green-natural-burial/ in 2019, based on requests from families, said Anthony Hollingshead, president of Swan Point Cemetery. The Ellipse has 148 grave spaces, and half of them have been sold. The area is grassy, bordered by large, old rhododendrons. There are no memorials on the graves; instead, names, along with birth and death dates, are inscribed on three ledger stones in the center of the space.

People like the green option because it feels “like a return to nature,” Hollingshead said. “Families don’t strongly oppose the traditional burial, but they like the wicker caskets. They like the idea of a peaceful area under a tree. They like that this is plain, not ornate. They seem to be people who have a bit more concern for the environment. This is a very popular option.”

Past to Present to Past

Green burials have been gaining popularity for about two decades, but they actually resurrect the practices of an earlier America, say, before the Civil War….

The Ellipse at Swan Point Cemetery, Providence RI (Photo courtesy, Swan Point Cemetery)

During the Civil War, people wanted their men’s and boys’ bodies returned from the battlefield for burial. This was the start of embalming, in which blood and fluids are drained from the body and replaced with chemicals that prolong preservation….

Today, embalming is used to slow down decomposition and to restore a fuller and healthier appearance to the dead person’s face during funeral services. A side effect is preservation of the body, but funeral home directors quickly note that decomposition will inevitably happen.

Around the time of World War I, Olson continued, as the country became more industrialized, cemeteries turned to backhoes and similar heavy equipment to dig graves. Cemetery managers — not legislators — began requiring underground cement vaults to enclose the casket to prevent sinking of the ground….

The Green Burial Council says that, in the United States, vault manufacturing requires production of 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete annually.

The result of all of this: underground pollution and waste of resources. And, for some people, funerals that feel like a production, not a quiet celebration of a life….

Tom Olson (no relation to Olson of Wisconsin) is director of the Olson & Parente Funeral Home in Providence. “More and more people are not going for the [conventional] funeral. Families are looking for something more meaningful, smaller, and more progressive. People looking at green burial are more educated and conscious of the environment. It is more important for them to do what feels right than to follow what their parents did.”

He said Olson & Parente has done “a lot” of green burials.

Mark Russell, owner of the Monahan Drabble Sherman Funeral Home in East Providence, said, “It is a philosophical way out.” He noted his company has done only a handful of

green burials in the past five years, since Swan Point opened its facility.

Costs

Bixby, of the Green Burial Council, offered a few price comparisons. He said a conventional funeral costs about $12,000. A cremation costs about $3,000 to $3,500. A green burial costs about $4,500 to $6,000. Of course, these figures vary somewhat by region. Other funeral directors generally agreed with Bixby’s estimates.

In a green burial, the major reductions in cost are the embalming, the cement vault, and the exotic-wood casket; eco-friendly caskets in pine or commercially made shrouds also may cost in the hundreds of dollars. Funeral homes are used in almost all green burials.

At Swan Point in Providence, a space for a basic conventional double-depth burial — that is, for two caskets, one on top of the other, presumably for married couples — costs $4,300, according to Hollingshead. A green burial costs $4,825. The higher charge is because green plots, in the absence of cement vaults, may settle. They may require more inspections, and more filling and reseeding….

“Funeral homes have no need to feel competition from green burials,” Bixby said. “Green will never grow unless the funeral industry is included. People are asking for this.”

Hollingshead, of Swan Point, agreed. “We want whatever makes the family comfortable.”

The Power of Dirt

The Green Burial Council was formed in 2005, largely to educate people about end-of-life choices. The council gets plenty of questions about whether bodies in the ground will pollute soil or water resources….

The council assures questioners that animals cannot smell or be attracted to bodies underneath 24 inches of soil.

Asked if bodies can contaminate groundwater in the absence of embalming, a heavy casket, and vault, the council states: “With burial 3 1⁄2 feet deep, there is no danger of contamination of potable water that is found about 75 feet below the surface. Mandatory setbacks from known water sources also ensure that surface water is not at risk.”

The council emphasized, “soil is the best natural filter there is, binding organic compounds and making them unable to travel. Microorganisms in the soil break down any chemical compounds that remain in the body.”

A closing comment is reserved for the writer Mark Twain, from an 1879 essay in which he defiantly confesses his various misdeeds: “The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose.”

Mary Lhowe is at her best when she is turning complicated environmental concepts into clearly explained stories for ecoRI News readers. She has done a little bit of everything in her storied career, from reporter to city editor to producing a community newspaper. She also plays the saxophone.

This article is condensed and reprinted with kind permission from ecoRI News, August 17, 2022. To read the article in its entirety please visit: https://ecori.org/rest-in-peace-not-pollutants-green-burials-say-no-thanks-to-chemicals-in-the-grave/