Living green has been hip for some time. But now dying green is also catching on.
The movement to be environmentally friendly, even in death, is so established within the funeral industry that it has its own arbiter of standards, the Green Burial Council. The organization certifies urns, caskets and other products used in burials, as well as facilities like funeral homes and cemeteries, based on whether they account for the impact of toxic materials and carbon pollution on the environment. They also assess burial facilities' efforts to preserve natural landscapes.
A January 2015 Green Burial Council survey of 70 cemeteries found that demand for green burials has increased 72.4 percent since the facilities started offering green options. And subscriptions to the council’s email newsletter have tripled in the last 18 months, according to the group’s executive director, Kate Kalanick.
But isn't death the ultimate carbon footprint negator?
Actually, no -- the use of conventional burial methods, such as a casket and cement vault, can mean we're still negatively affecting the environment, even in the afterlife. In terms of carbon pollution, choosing a natural burial technique over a conventional one is the same as keeping the average American driver off the road for four months, according to the Green Burial Council’s products compliance adviser, Samuel Bar.
Greener Ways Of Going Out
The Green Burial Council has tried to make it easier to opt for a greener death by issuing ratings -- on a scale of one to three "leaves" -- to vendors who sell products made from natural materials. These ratings are based on factors like whether a product contains finishes or adhesives that release toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process, or whether producing or transporting the product entails traveling more than 3,000 miles.
The council uses the same system to certify funeral homes. GBC-certified funeral homes must, at a minimum, offer GBC-approved containers and “post-mortem fluids” -- those that don’t contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen -- for preserving the body, and must disclose all the “green” offerings on their price lists. To achieve the highest rating of three leaves, a funeral home must offer refrigeration or dry ice to preserve the body non-invasively, as an alternative to embalming it.
Embalming relies on formaldehyde and other chemicals to slow a body's decomposition, and can endanger workers' safety because formaldehyde has been linked to leukemia and other cancers. It can also leach into waterways. Every year, 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are buried with the dead in the United States alone, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The EPA regulates formaldehyde as hazardous waste, one that is “dangerous or potentially harmful to human health or the environment.”
The materials used for caskets are another source of concern. Many caskets have copper and bronze elements sourced from environmentally problematic mines. And they're sometimes made of endangered wood, such as mahogany or rosewood. Twenty million feet of hardwood and 64,500 tons of steel are used to make caskets each year, according to the Green Burial Council. Furthermore, caskets made of treated wood can contaminate soil by leaching arsenic, and metal caskets can leach lead and zinc -- all heavy metals that have been linked to health problems.
“It boils down to three things: No embalming, no metal or non-biodegradable casket and no concrete vault.”
In addition to rating burial products and funeral homes, the Green Burial Council has a separate rating system for cemeteries seeking green certification, based on 20 criteria in six different categories. Cemeteries must meet at least 10 of the requirements to be certified, and can receive three possible ratings based on how proactive they are about going green.
For example, cemeteries that make concrete vaults optional get a lower rating than those that don’t offer vaults at all -- since cement, an ingredient in concrete, accounts for a large portion of the emissions that stem from burial. The cement industry is the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries, according to the Energy Information Administration, and produces 41 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year -- about as much as 11 coal-fired power plants emit in a year, according to the EPA. The Green Burial Council estimates that cemeteries in the U.S. bury 1.6 million tons of concrete, a composite of cement, water and other materials, every year.
The council's highest rating goes to cemeteries that work with conservation organizations to preserve regional ecosystems and have areas set aside exclusively for conservation.
Do You Need To Go Officially "Green"?
What constitutes a green burial is not that complicated, at least from a consumer perspective, said Joshua Slocum, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a watchdog group for consumers. A "green burial," he said, “is not about what you buy, it’s about what you don’t buy."
It boils down to three things, Slocum said: No embalming, no metal or non-biodegradable casket and no concrete vault.
But if that's the case, wouldn't we all be better off just burying our loved ones ourselves -- finding a nice, quiet spot out in the country where they can be laid to rest without any of those arguably unnecessary accessories?
While that's perfectly okay in many parts of the U.S., 10 states -- Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York -- have laws requiring families to retain the services of a licensed funeral director.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance and the National Home Funeral Alliance, a nonprofit that works to educate the public on home funerals, has called on legislators to undo laws that force consumers to buy from private businesses, thereby obstructing a more environmentally friendly, do-it-yourself process. The "right to choose," they wrote, "is a fundamentally American idea -- that individuals, families, and households are best equipped to decide for themselves how to carry out the duties, joyous and sad, that we will all experience."
The laws that require enlisting funeral directors’ services differ by state. In Alabama, for example, even a memorial service must be supervised by a licensed funeral director. In that case, the National Home Funeral Alliance is organizing consumers to protest the law as currently written.
“A green burial "is not about what you buy, it’s about what you don’t buy."”
Another option is cremation, which has gained popularity in recent years. More than half of America’s dead are now cremated, up from 35 percent in 2007. (Though that's still lower than in the United Kingdom, which cremates about 75 percent of its dead.)
Standard cremation is generally the least expensive way to go out, starting at about $500, but it is not as environmentally friendly as a green burial, due to the carbon emissions cremation produces. The emissions released during the process are about equal to the emissions produced by the average living person's energy use over a month, according to estimates from The Guardian.
There are alternative cremation methods available, such as a chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis, which dissolves everything except bone fragments. Those are reduced to an ash-like white powder that can be buried or scattered. Proponents estimate the process reduces the carbon footprint of a cremation by as much as 75 percent. But at costs ranging from about $2,395 to $4,000, it’s not the cheapest option. And currently, it's only legal in nine states.
In some places, alkaline hydrolysis has generated controversy. In 2013, Ohio lawmakers attempted to pass a measure to permit it, but faced opposition from the Catholic Conference of Ohio, which argued that the practice is “not a respectful way to dispose of human remains.” The state legislature is now reconsidering it in new legislation.
Other green alternatives to standard cremation are also making their way to the market.
Bios Urn, a Spanish company, has developed a biodegradable urn that contains not only the ashes of the deceased, but also a seed that will germinate into a tree. Over its lifetime, the tree will offset carbon emissions caused by the cremation process, the company says.
But reducing greenhouse gases was never Bios Urn's main goal, according to CEO Roger Moliné, who said the company is ultimately aiming to spur a re-conception of death.
“We’ve never wanted to be connected to the death care industry,” Moliné told The Huffington Post. “We want people to rethink the concept. That person has just had a bad moment in their life.”
Moliné expects to sell 30,000 urns in 2015, a 33 percent increase over 2014 sales. The company is expecting a substantial influx of cash from Bay Area investors following Bios Urn's debut at a tech conference in Las Vegas earlier this year, Moliné said.
Challenges For The Green Burial Movement
While more people are seeking greener options for their final resting place, the funeral industry still has a long way to go. There are more than 120,000 cemeteries in the United States, but only about 80 of them offer burials without concrete vaults, for example. And the industry has long resisted major changes, even those aligned with consumer demands.
In her 1963 book, The American Way of Death, author and investigative journalist Jessica Mitford wrote extensively about the death care industry and funeral directors' erroneous claim that embalming protects public health.
Conventional funeral homes have since fought measures to make it clearer that embalming is not a necessary expense: In 1984, the funeral industry objected when the Federal Trade Commission enacted a new rule that, among other things, required funeral homes to explicitly state that embalming is not required. And in 2008, when the commission considered updating the rule to require itemized price disclosures, the industry successfully opposed those changes.
The conventional funeral industry has already lost business due to the growing popularity of cremation. Now it's trying not to fall even further behind because of the green burial movement. The National Funeral Directors Association now offers its own green certification program, which it markets as a way to capitalize on the movement and stay competitive.
“[The funeral industry] lost the battle with cremation, and now they’re looking at green burials as a way to hold on to some profits as they’re less and less able to sell conventional burials to consumers," Slocum said.
He warns consumers about potential “greenwashing," such as advertising formaldehyde-free embalming fluids when forgoing the process entirely would be just as green, if not greener.
“It’s very easy for your environmental concerns to be co-opted by a commercial enterprise,” Slocum said. He advises consumers to ask for an itemized price list. “Marketers are promoting green packages that end up costing as much as a conventional process.”
““When people are seeking funeral services, they aren’t in a rational frame of mind, they’re vulnerable.””
Like many environmental issues, there’s also a social justice angle to the steep figures on those price lists.
“The people who are spending the most money on these elaborate funerals -- up to $20,000 -- are these poor, uneducated people in the Southern states in the Bible Belt who can least afford it,” said Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance and education coordinator on the board of the Green Burial Council.
According to data from the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the U.S. has 9,882 more funeral homes than it needs, based on the number of people dying each year. That, the group says, creates a situation “ideal for price abuse.”
With so many options, that may seem counterintuitive, but it’s precisely what the FTC's rule requiring price disclosure was designed to address. There's actually little competition in the funeral industry due to a lack of transparency in the marketplace. And grieving people looking to bury a loved one are not inclined to shop around, as Barbara Baylock, president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maryland and Environs, a state affiliate of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, explained.
“When people are seeking funeral services, they aren’t in a rational frame of mind, they’re vulnerable,” she said. “Because they don’t have enough customers to pay their overhead, businesses take advantage of that.”
Green burial proponents point out that the experience can be a lot cheaper than a conventional setup. A casket costs about $5,000, and embalming generally costs about $1,300. By comparison, an immediate burial with a simple shroud could cost as little or even less than an immediate cremation, according to the National Home Funeral Alliance.
But Schlocum says many consumers still equate cost with sentiment. “What’s the best casket? It’s not going to make mom any less dead," he said. "Money doesn’t mean love.”
Overcoming that would require a cultural shift. In her book, Greening Death, author Suzanne Kelly argues that an emotional and philosophical adjustment in our outlook toward death is fundamental for advancing the movement.
“The green burial movement is not only about securing death care rights we’ve been stripped of,” Kelly wrote in her book. “It’s about recouping ways of caring for our dead that bespeak a different way of knowing death, and ultimately, a different way of knowing nature.”
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