HOW SUSTAINABLE DEATH PRACTICES ARE MAKING FUNERALS GREENER
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By Michelle Moore
WaterToday has published many stories over the years about sustainable living practices, but what about sustainable death practices?
Sustainable death practices or green burials are on the rise in North America and are being promoted as a more ecological and natural alternative to conventional western funeral practices.
In April 2017, the National Funeral Directors Association's Consumer Awareness and Preferences Study revealed that 53% of people surveyed said they would be interested in exploring green burial as an option.
Conventional funerals often involve embalming a person in formaldehyde, placing them in a metal plated casket and then sealing them in a concrete vault. Most cemeteries have heavily manicured lawns that require a lot of water, fertilizer and mowing to maintain.
Green burial on the other hand consists of a formaldehyde-free embalming process and the use of only biodegradable products. Advocates also encourage a more natural landscape including woodlands or using wild flowers to encourage pollinators instead of grass.
Cremation is also seen as an environmentally sensitive choice but it is not without it's impacts. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that crematoriums emit 145 kilograms of mercury per year, mostly from dental fillings.
In addition, while many people choose to plant or scatter their loved one's ashes as a means of returning to nature, the practice may actually be harming it.
A study commissioned by Let Your Love Grow, a resource for eco-friendly memorialization, found that ashes have extremely high pH levels as well as a sodium range 200 to 2000 times higher than what plant life can tolerate.
Accordingly, green burial is becoming a popular choice for people who want to minimize the impact their death will have on the ecosystem. In a green burial, things are kept simple; a person is buried in their natural state, in a plain wooden casket or shroud.
While the practice is a new concept for many in North America, other parts of the world are already doing it. The Worldwatch Institute found that over 10% of people in the United Kingdom choose green funerals and notes that there are roughly 180 natural or woodland cemeteries in the country.
People in the U.K. can choose from fair-trade bamboo caskets, biodegradable coffins made from recycled newspaper and shrouds made from natural fibres. In Japan, choices even include urns made from vegetable protein and capsules made from tea leaves.
The popularity of green burial is increasing. However, as Assistant Director David Ponoroff of Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery pointed out, what we now call green burials is how people were buried for millenia.
Ponoroff said one of the questions he gets from people is whether or not they can have a Christian burial. He said "we try to explain that really this is fundamentally traditional burial. What we are doing here is in many ways what we've been doing for millenia and it's really only in our very recent history that we've been separated from death."
Some cemeteries offer green burial sections but the landscaped lawn is still the norm. The Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery takes green burials to a whole new level. Located in Gainesville Florida, the space is a at once a non-profit community cemetery and a protected conservation area.
Ponoroff said their's is different from regular green cemeteries because they also do land conservation. He said "doing funerals allows us to upkeep the conservation efforts on the land."
Because the land was heavily farmed in the past, they do a lot of land restoration including restoring wetlands and planting native prairie grass. The 93 acre cemetery is a natural wild space where visitors can hike, observe wildlife and follow the path by bicycle or horse.
Ponoroff shared one of his memorable stories, he said "we were preparing for a funeral and the first person to arrive was a minister who drove up and asked for help finding the cemetery but he was standing in the middle of it. That's what we are trying to accomplish."
As a conservation area, the cemetery follows certain guidelines when burials take place to ensure they do not have a negative impact on the land. Ponoroff said "we do have a distance barrier for ecologically important mature trees, and we have to be a certain distance from water."
Rather than use bulldozers, graves are dug by hand and instead of large stone monuments, the cemetery uses simple brass plates that are fixed to the ground. Visitors can also find a particular grave by using a GPS application on their smart phones.
Michelle Acciavatti is an end of life specialist and founder of Ending Well based in Vermont. Acciavatti said a lot of the people interested in green funerals are of the baby boomer generation who famously began green movements and events like Earth Day.
She said people who strived to live in ecologically friendly ways are now interested in seeing how they can die that way too. Acciavatti said it makes sense because "green burial is doing the least you can to interrupt the natural process a body goes through when it's placed in healthy soil."
She explained that the "soil already has everything human bodies need for healthy natural decomposition." Bacteria, fungi, worms and other insects all contribute to the natural process of decomposition.
Unlike conventional burial, Acciavatti pointed out that people cannot be buried six feet deep because the substances needed for decomposition like bacteria, heat and oxygen are most concentrated in the first couple feet. Instead bodies are buried no deeper than three and a half feet.
Acciavatti said one of her favourite epitaphs chosen for a green burial site really sums up the spirit of the practice and the importance of life cycles; I fed off the earth now the earth can feed off me.