Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What to do when you're dead

Ramsey Creek PreserveI'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.


Anonymous said...

I am so glad to see you talking about this subject. I asked lots of questions recently about ego-alternatives when my mom passed away, but our local funeral directors had nothing to offer and, when these things are not planned ahead, they are hard to pull together at the moment of truth. We did finally opt for a cardboard box and cremation, but mercury is a big problem, and I understand that cremation accounts for most of the mercury in the atmosphere. That's a legacy that I do not want to leave my grandchildren. I hope I will be here for a long time yet, but I am talking to my own kids about alternatives for my disposal. The green cemetaries sound like a wonderful alternative, but there are none near us yet.

Anonymous said...

You may find the Funeral Consumers Alliance interesting. I don't think their concerns are especially eco-related, but they keep up on what costs and practices are un/necessary so that consumers don't get taken in when they are emotionally very vulnerable...
Right now there's a book on their main webpage that addresses eco issues.

Jennifer said...

I've been thinking about this for years. My husband wants nothing more than to be buried under a tree with no "preservatives". He's wanted this for years... he's not very "crunchy" in many respects (although probably more than the average person), but he feels that it is very important that his life force and energy NOT go to waste after he is dead... that something else USES it like the soil/etc.

This would be completely illegal, but the other way he would be happy being "buried" would be the "body on a platform for the vultures" thing... too bad I would likely end up in jail!

(He's not in ANY danger of passing anytime soon... we just like to talk about our future/plans/etc).


Didn't notice you posting anything about the coral reef version of burial. I've seen it touted as a way to "give back"... it still involves cremation, but then your ashes are mixed with concrete and placed where scientists are trying to regrow a coral reef as an anchor. I don't know how green it actually is, but it might be something else to research.

Thanks for bringing this important issue to to our attention!

Olive said...

so glad that you are tackling this subject. it's something we all are going to deal with at the very least, indirectly by actually kicking the bucket. i expressed interest in a green funeral but i dont know if there are services that do it for you here in ohio. i told this to my parents and my dad said he was at best, very uncomfortable being so intimate with my body after death. (like my whole family schleping my dead body out into a nature preserve naked or wrapped in a shroud he meant). i'm going to contact the green funeral services for more details. thank you!

Chile said...

Check out this interesting book: Caring for the Dead. It's probably a bit outdated now as the last edition was from 1997, but it is still a very interesting read.

Thanks for bringing up the subject! Used to be a nice fantasy to head out on an ice floe when about to die, but I guess too much of the ice is melting away now for that to be a long-term option. ;-)

Patty said...

I just heard about this recently and was amazed by the impact of burials. In Tibet, some of the more religious folk, just have their body laid out for the wild things to eat, no negetive environmental impact but...
I suspect more green cemetaries will be popping up around the country. Thanks for posting this.

DC said...

I like the idea of compostable urns that contain seeds. Cremated remains go in the urn, and a tree grows where it is buried and becomes a living memorial. If mercury fillings are not an issue, I think this would be a beautiful way to honor the life of a loved one. Our society makes death into such an ugly thing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. From my perspective, nothing in this world ever truly dies. The opposite of death is not life -– but birth. Nature shows us that there is only perpetual transformation. Molecules are constantly shifted around from one form to another. Giant sequoias grow, decay and return once again as seedlings. In the course of only hours, a zephyr becomes an immense thunderstorm, lights up the night sky, and then turns to a gentle, nourishing rain. Limestone formed from ancient sea life is carved into vast canyons and caves by wind, water and time. All of the cells in the human body are replaced every seven years. Things aren't really destroyed -- only reborn. Birth and death are simply markers in a never-ending journey –- windows that lead from one mode of being to the next. The same power that animates and cares for the natural world also does so for us. I can’t think of a better reminder of these things than watching new life grow from ashes.

Anonymous said...

My choice would be the tree/platform/birds option jennifer mentions. When I learned years ago that some native Americans used to dispose of their dead this way, it instantly appealed. With humans consuming a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, it somehow seems incredibly selfish to lock up our remains in a tomb or coffin or whatever so that we remain apart from the natural world. Anyhow, appealing as it is to some of us, I suspect it's a definite no go!

The real problem with how to live (and die) in a sustainable manner is that there are just WAY too many people. It seems strange that this is so seldom mentioned. No matter how inconsequential something might be, when it is repeated millions or billions of times, the effect of it becomes huge.

Cave-Woman said...

What about donating your body to science? Eventually your remains may end up incinerated---but for a bit longer, maybe you are putting your parts to good use. (:

I thought it would be nice to be donated to the Body Farm. I know I would decompose naturally, and it would provide good forensic data for students.

Anonymous said...

Here in Vermont, home burial is allowed with few regulations (certain distance from power lines and drilled wells, for example.) You may also care for, prepare and transport your own dead. The family cemetery is an honored tradition here. I plan to be buried under a tree in my woodlot.
Thanks for this post. It is a subject that's hard to think about at the last minute. We need to prepare!

JacquiG said...

Years ago I watched a Vincent Price movie about a young girl being buried alive and I decided that cremation was for me. I know, neurotic but I can't help it! Now, I haven't given it an awful lot of thought, I just know that I don't want to take up that much space when I'm gone.

Anyway, a friend of mine is involved in a natural burial co-op. Thought some might be intersted, so here is the link.

Unknown said...

thanks for bringing this subject up. i've had "update will" on my to-do list for too long. ideally, i would love to be buried on my family's farm, out in the virgin woods. yet, i would never want to do anything that would cause incarceration for my husband or mother.

yet, my mom and i have decidedly different views. i've expressed to her for years that, if home or eco burial are not options, i want to be cremated. my husband is cool with it, but my mom feels that my mortal soul is in danger and i won't rise in the second coming. (she's also against organ donation, another argument.) as i'm the only child and will be the one responsible for her last affairs, i have mini panic attacks about what will happen. if eco or home burial aren't alternatives by then, do i do what i think is right for the environment and thus what she would feel puts her in danger of not enjoying her afterlife with Jesus and her other loved ones?

Tracy G said...

I made arrangements some time ago to donate my body to the Nebraska State Anatomical Board. I've been involved in various forms of teaching for most of my adult life, and I like the fact that my body will continue to be a classroom tool for a bit longer after I expire. That will involve nasty preservatives, though, and ultimately cremation. I wasn't aware of the mercury filling problem—now I'm especially glad I don't have any!

From the lion's mouth said...

You might be interested in reading Jessica Mitford's book The American Way of Death - an eye-opening book about the way the funeral industry exploits people.

I want to be buried, but in a cardboard coffin, and I certainly won't have any embalming fluid or anything. And I have signed up as an organ donor - so there may not be much left inside me either! And I'll probably be buried in a shroud made from some natural fabric.

As for running out of space eventually - not really. Nothing stops the land being used for farming a couple of hundred years after you've finished burying people in it. There tends to be too much organic matter in the soil for building to be a good idea, but it's perfect for farming. I rather like the idea that one day I may be part of someone's tomato.

Amanda said...

Thanks do much for this post! My husband and I have been trying for years to come up with the right arrangements for us. I also wasn't aware of the mercury issue and am glad to know it. Cremation was at the top of our list...may hve to look a bit more into eco-burials.

Also...tons of great info right here in the comments.

Unknown said...

My husband and I recently discussed this. I told him that when I die, i want him to donate me somewhere, even if it's just to be hacked up by med students in anatomy, and if no one wants me or he can't organize it, to eco-bury me (there's an eco-cemetary about 10 miles from our house). He told me to do whatever's cheapest with him
(either cremate or ecobury - he's also against the whole pickle me so I live forever in my toxic tomb paradigm) :-)

So glad you brought this up!

Anonymous said...

Lynne Marie's comment made me think: we can specify our wishes (green burial, cardboard box, no preservatives) but what's to guarantee that what we say we want will happen? For that reason alone, it seems like perhaps a good idea to honor the wishes of the deceased (i.e., you may be a strong believer in cremation, but if your parents aren't, is it "right" to do what you think is best, or to do what they expressed they'd want done with their remains?).

As for the broader issue of what happens to your body when you've died, I highly recommend reading Stiff by Mary Roach. She's got a whole chapter on eco-friendly burial options, but also talks about what bodies are often used for when they're "donated to science." Fascinating reading...

Unknown said...

Eh, I think ultimately, I would hope that I would have options to honor her requests without doing too much damage. I.e. bury her in a cardboard or pine box and get around embalming (though the last might not be an option; need to research that further).

It's just the scenario of "no options" that worries me. Still, I have come to a compromise where I promise I will bury her, with her head facing the right way and all that, if she promises to not interfere with organ donation if my husband is not near. We all pick and win/lose/compromise our battles.

Anonymous said...

I am in the process of starting a memorial society in NS where I live (eastern canada) and am also working on getting green burial options available here. As for mercury in cremation, pulling teeth before cremation works. In europe crematoria are installing better scrubbers which deal with a lot of the pollution issues.
For coffin options, check out the ecopod:
and for green burial this site is fabulous:

Fresh and Feisty said...

How appropriate! I am attending my Aunt's Father's funeral on Saturday and we spoke about this at my meditation group last night. My husband and I are both quite young but left the Mormon church about 2 years ago. I am afraid his parents will try to pull something (they don't believe in cremation) if he dies before they do. Perhaps living wills are appropriate for people of all ages! I hadn't really thought of it as an ecological issue but now I need o focus on it a bit more, I suppose. Thanks for reminding us. We all poop (there's a book) and we all die!

Anonymous said...

There are actually quite a few states in which you can definitely be buried under that tree out back. Although this certainly wouldn't be true in an urban enivronment. But if you're luck enough to have a family farm or a small plot of land some place, bury away!

Anonymous said...

Sunny, living wills ARE definitely appropriate, especially for younger people, but yes, all ages!!! Think of the cases that brought living wills to the forefront: Nancy Cruzan, Terri Schiavo - people in their 20's who no one expected to die for many years... And no one really knew what they wanted. Everyone ought to have a living will of some sort! We had my dad cremated. I shutter to think how much mercury was in his mouth... I want to be cremated as well. (My fillings are amalgam.) And I want my cremains, sprinkled somewhere, not buried.

Natural Louisville said...

Don't we get ourselves into a pickle as a human race? Creating a society in which you can neither live nor die without becoming part of a huge problem.

Unless, of course, you go completely off the grid while alive and then manage to expire and decompose peacefully and unnoticed on non-cemetery property.

Sounds daunting! Thanks for publishing something about a halfway point between traditional burial and ... well, something with a twist tie.


Shelley Sargent said...

And Im just lucky enough that we have a green cemetery less than an hour away from us.
They will bury you in a pine or cardboard box if you wish, or directly in the ground with a shroud.
They also dig by hand and mark with a sapling.
They only charge $100 but if you want to donate more you are welcome too!
Hubby and I are planning on cremations and being out there!
But there are also other options out there. Like being made into a new coral wreath replacement. Its to help rebuild the great barrier reef.

Skulleigh said...

Just FYI - do update your will, but NOT for this! In some places, will aren't read and executed until after after the funeral. The place to do this is in a living will and/or talking to your family about your wishes.

Jenni said...

Someone told me just this weekend that when her stepmother was cremated, they were also sent a bill for embalming. That's right. They embalm bodies *before* cremating them. This is because many people want to see the body before it is cremated. They don't ask if you want this done, they just do it and bill you an extra $3,000. You must ASK to be "directly cremated". Crazy.

It is not illegal to be buried on private property in every state. If this is something you're interested in having done, you should check your state's laws. Here in Kansas it's legal, and I plan to be buried right here on our property. Not for quite some time though! There are already trees, but I'd like a new one planted and a simple marker made from one of the many boulders on our land.

You can probably tell I've done some checking on this recently. I think something on NPR spurred it on, but I can't remember. It's not the kind of thing I normally think about though:o) I even talked told dh we should start an evironmentally friendly cemetary here in Kansas. There's a lot of open space to start planting a memorial forest.

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

This is the first time I've read this post. It's not entirely accurate that home burial is illegal. In Oregon, each county has jurisdiction over the laws. In the case of Clackamas County, you are allowed to bury on your property. My baby was stillborn, and I chose to bury her on my property. I chose this because I wanted her near me, and I don't believe in cremation.

It wasn't an easy process to pick her up from the morgue and bring her home with me. Not many folks opt for home burials anymore and people thought I was nuts (except I do see a lot of home cemeteries in this county). But it was probably simpler because she was a baby... since she wasn't born alive she wasn't technically given a name or a social security number or anything. I didn't have to get a permit or file paperwork... but the morgue gave me hell for not having proper paperwork. I finally contacted the HAAS (a special name for the hospital supervisor) who went down into the morgue and brought her out for me.

Not a fun subject.

Well, anyway, I could talk a lot about this subject. If anyone wants advice or to talk further you are welcome to contact me.

Vegetable Garden Cook said...

OH, and, by the way, there was a girl I met several years ago here who was getting a degree at PSU in ecology and specializing in green burial. I want to say her name was April. She did find some land and started a green burial ground. I'm sure if you poked around on google you could find her. She was totally fascinated by the subject.