Keeping the Green in Green Burial

Over the last two decades, this question of green has moved beyond our living and into our dying in the most explicit of ways in the US, as a movement for environmentally friendly deathcare builds steam.
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Today, green is everyday code for environmental health, protection and wholeness. But because greenwashing has become a problem in a profit-driven market that cares nothing for nature, it's also a word that's sometimes scorned.

Think of just about any part of our lives that intersects with business - what we eat, how we clean, where we live, what we wear, how we travel - and the worry that companies or organizations might be spending more time advertising environmental benefit rather than actually benefitting the environment is real. We have some major offenders to thank for our wariness over what's actually green and what's not - GE, ExxonMobil, DuPont, Monsanto. But minor ones exist too, often making it a challenge to tread as lightly as we'd like to on this planet so in peril.

Over the last two decades, this question of green has moved beyond our living and into our dying in the most explicit of ways in the US, as a movement for environmentally friendly deathcare builds steam. This movement that aims to care for the dead with minimal impact to the environment while ritually tying us back to the land, began in the late 1990's in response to an unsustainable, polluting and alienating funeral industry. People, places, and time have richly expanded the movement's identity. However, its moniker - the green burial movement - has remained steadfast.

With burial grounds bearing names like Greensprings, Greenview, Greenhaven, Green Hills, and Greenacres the movement's affinity for green seems crystal clear. And yet, the market's misuse of the word has also left many advocates skeptical and opting for the word natural instead.

Indeed, natural has become nearly interchangeable with green when talking about eco deathcare in the US. This is also true in Canada, although less so in the UK where green has taken a backseat to natural with little fuss. Of course, the nature in natural leaves little to quibble about and, if anything, using one word for the other seems to have only deepened our ecological deathcare sensibilities. Not diluted them.

But in the face of such potential greenwashing within the green burial movement and beyond, we have to wonder: what will ultimately become of green? Might the market so successfully empty the word of any real meaning that we'll be inclined to let it go? And if we do, how can we be sure any word we come to call upon will not eventually go the same route? In fact, natural is enduring some of the same problems as green these days, especially when it comes to how foods are marketed. GMO manufacturers, for instance, freely use natural to sell their products. As a result, some consumer food groups have been petitioning the FDA to establish a more restrictive use of the term or even ban the term altogether.

As I've written elsewhere, it's a shame green faces such a crisis of meaning as it's a word that's long evoked growth and life. Such symbolic associations extend far back and beyond our current usage, across world mythologies and traditions that understood that green is synonymous with nature. The market did not invent the word, but the cooptation of its meanings for corporate profit should surely remind us of its power.

After all, the basic building blocks of human life, bacteria, are blue green algae. Green was the color of the fire that died in the eyes of the wolf Aldo Leopold killed, a moment that birthed an environmental consciousness that grew contagious. We've also seen how the Green Revolution- which sought to feed the world through the spread of monoculture and, more recently, GMO seeds- has not only been a catastrophic failure but also a way of assuming the real green of the earth for monetary gain. Environmental leader Vandana Shiva has argued that efforts to patent strains of rice by corporations like Monsanto are perhaps the worst examples of this appropriation. "Green," she has said, "has to be reclaimed."

With its rich past of denoting environmental origin, action and connection, it does seem to be the word that best captures the heart of the growing movement to do deathcare differently. Rather than let the market have it, we ought to do more to save it.

What this means is doing our best to nurture and give back to the earth in all of the ways we can imagine, to "feed the green," as Jane Caputi has said. Surely, green burial advocates have been doing as much. But what it also means is fighting back greenwashing whenever and wherever we see it and getting behind efforts to curb it. The good work of the Green Burial Council, who under the early vision of Joe Sehee implicitly understood the value of green, has been setting standards for green burial ground providers and products over the last ten years. As Sehee has said, "How does a green economy emerge if we can't legitimately certify whether what's being offered furthers ecological aims?"

This is our human work, born of a prevailing culture that has yet to realize our inherent ties to the earth and that what we do to it determines our fate, too. Only that kind of vigilance, care, and concern can deflate the deceptive green claims of companies and organizations determined to rob us of something so significant. And essential.

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