I've been meaning to write this post now for a couple weeks after seeing something in the New York Times Magazine about green burials.
I surely didn't realize what an environmental nightmare dying is. You figure there is probably some medical impact and a whole lot of plastic tubing unless you are fortunate enough to expire happily in bed. But then what? I don't like the idea of burial - we can't all be buried without running out of space eventually. But what about cremation? It seems pretty harmless, no?
Well, neither of them leave no footprint. Here are some fun facts to regale your friends with:
Cemeteries are an environmental problem just as a golf course is - there are gallons of water used to keep the grass green, tons of pesticides and herbicides used to keep the grounds clear of weeds, critters and trees, not to mention the gas fumes from all the mowing that goes on. And that's just what's above ground.
Cemeteries across the U.S. bury each year about 30+ million board feet of hardwoods (for caskets), 104,272 tons of steel (for vaults and caskets), 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (for caskets), and more than 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete (most cemeteries require a plot liner to prevent sinkholes when the coffins eventually decay). Before placement, 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, which most commonly includes formaldehyde, is used on the bodies.
If you're looking at being green on the way out, a standard cemetery burial is probably not the way you want to go. What about cremation?
Cremation potentially causes air pollution due to the mercury in people's teeth. Don't have any fillings? You'll still be a pollutant strictly because cremation requires a container. They don't just huck your lifeless body into a big wood-fired pizza oven, you have to be in something. Most people generally don't choose the plain, unlacquered pine box, but opt for the formaldehyde kinds with plastic, brass-like handles which, when incinerated, release all sorts of toxins.
If you want to have the most environmental passing as possible with cremation, you'll want to go with a plain pine box. I believe you can also get a biodegradable cardboard coffin, but you'll have to check if this is acceptable at your local crematorium. Finally, let's not forget the amount of fossil fuels required for the cremation. Newer retorts (the pizza oven) use 50% less energy than older ones, so if this is the way you want to go, make sure you do your research while you still can.
Another option is to try to find an eco-cemetery, one that will bury you (unprocessed) in a relatively wild area with no headstone (an engraved small flat stone is okay) and plant trees nearby. You can be buried in a shroud, your favorite quilt or just straight up. Alas, there are only about 5 eco-cemeteries in the U.S. right now. So, if you plan on departing to a more natural environment, you'll have to hold off for a while.
Finally, you can do a home funeral, but just remember that it's illegal to bury a human's remains on private property not designated for burials.
Now, go update that will.