Forever Green

Eco-friendly burials let people become one with the earth.

By Eric Schneider

April 2009


About 15 miles southwest of Ithaca, New York, off a country road in the state’s placid Finger Lakes region, a lovely expanse of hilltop meadow is punctuated by occasional clusters of trees. It is the kind of spot that is ideal for a leisurely hike—a place that quietly and gently asserts the beauty and simplicity of nature.

This peaceful setting is also a cemetery, a fact that might be lost on anyone who misses the subtle markers that designate the area as a burial ground. There is not a stone in sight: no monuments, no mausoleums, no statues, no tombstones. All that meets the eye is the flora and fauna of the field and the forest. This is Greensprings—or, as the charmingly rustic sign announces, “A Natural Burial Preserve.”

Greensprings is one of a growing number of cemeteries across the United States that has wholly embraced the concept of “green burials,” an alternative to conventional interment methods that does not use embalming chemicals and only incorporates eco-friendly, biodegradable materials.

Mary Woodsen, president of Greensprings and a science writer at nearby Cornell University, explains that there are generally three kinds of people who want natural burials. About half the clients are from a “traditional ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ background”; others want to keep things simple, often citing cost as a key issue. Not surprisingly, the last group comprises environmentally conscious people. “The greenies are strong,” Woodsen says. Of course, these rationales can, and do, easily overlap, but the eco-friendly aspect of green burial is certainly one of its main draws.

Few people know about the growing popularity of eco-friendly burials better than Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council in Santa Fe, New Mexico (www.greenburialcouncil.org), who has been promoting the idea of green cemeteries across the country. “For many, getting in sync with the natural cycle of life, death, decay and rebirth provides a great deal of solace,” Sehee says. The GBC has more than 140 approved providers nationally, up from a handful in 2008.

Unnatural Endings

Every year burials in the nation’s 22,500 conventional cemeteries result in approximately 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid being placed into the earth, along with 90,272 tons of steel and more than 30 million board feet of hardwoods (much of it from tropical varieties) in the form of caskets, according to Greensprings. And while cremation has long been considered a more environmentally conscious option as opposed to conventional burial, the process uses a surprising amount of energy per person—the equivalent of driving nearly 5,000 miles. What’s more, cremation releases trace amounts of harmful mercury into the air. Cremation does not quite qualify as green, according to green burial proponents.

Green burial allows you to “return to the earth naturally and become part of your surroundings,” says Theresa Kay Purcell, the Minnesota chapter president of Trust for Natural Legacies, Inc., which is currently developing that state’s first green cemetery. Though such a natural approach to death may seem radical in a society accustomed to embalmment, open-casket viewings and lavish funeral arrangements, it actually is in line with the traditions of past centuries. “I believe that a lot of people are realizing that this is not a new idea,” Purcell notes. “In the grand scheme of things, natural burial is what we have always done up until the past 100 years or so, when embalming became popular.”

Increased Interest

The green burial movement is starting to gain more recognition, according to Sehee. “The [Green Burial] Council has been working hard to engage the conventional deathcare industry,” he says.

“We've been invited by every major trade association to educate their membership on ways to embrace more environmentally sustainable practices and products.” Adding to the interest shown by industry, Sehee explains, is the enhanced credi­bility that comes with having input from leading authorities in the fields of restoration ecology, sustainable landscape design, conservation management and consumer affairs in creating the GBC standards.

By attending to these elements in the planning of burial sites, green cemeteries can provide much more than just resting places that don’t pollute their surroundings. Such burial grounds can also benefit the earth by maintaining open space and by protecting natural habitats for both wildlife and native plants. Woodsen says Greensprings manages its land as if it were a nature preserve.

Sehee notes that the GBC determines any biological, geological and hydrological constraints on the land “so that burial will never degrade an ecosystem.” In addition, he maintains that a conservation easement or deed restriction must be utilized to ensure that a green cemetery “never devolves into anything else.”

A growing number of people want to live lightly upon the earth. The green burial movement lets them carry that intention to its logical conclusion in settings of beauty and peace.

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