Washington DC has Slowly Embraced ‘Green’ Burials

This is NOT another story about the death of the climate bill.  That headline comes from the print edition of the Washington Post [though I added “DC”].  The story begins:

Live eco-conscious, die eco-conscious. People who drive hybrid cars, recycle, compost and eat vegetarian are showing increased interest in leaving this world in an equally Earth-friendly way: a green burial.

“Baby boomers who define themselves as environmentalists don’t want to go out with a final act of pollution,” says Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, headquartered in Santa Fe, N.M. “A lot of people find solace in returning to the earth naturally.”

The WashPost would not devote 1200 words of its Tuesday “Health & Science” section to “Taking a green approach to death” if it were not an important story.  Certainly there aren’t any other major environmental stories the newspaper read by most top politicians and policymakers should be focusing on now, are there?

How serious is this story?  Well the Post feels obliged to include this paragraph:

Some think green burials are mostly hype.

“There’s an industry joke that more people attend green burial seminars than get buried green,” says Mark Matthews, president of the Cremation Association of North America.

That’s the requisite “balance.”  If  this had been a global warming story, they would have had a quote from a denier working for some trade association calling the whole thing a hoax.

Climate Progress focuses on how we might avert catastrophic global warming by  sharply reducing greenhouse gases, which left unchecked would lead to countless untimely deaths, none of them terribly green.  But I do include “going green” articles, so if you happen to be interested in a green burial, here’s some detail:

A range of burial options are considered green. People can forgo embalming or request nontoxic embalming fluid; buy a biodegradable container made from sustainable willow, wicker or bamboo, or even order up a simple shroud. The burial can take place on “natural burial grounds” where people are buried without markers on protected wildlife preserves. There’s even a company that incorporates cremated remains into a “reef ball” that provides habitat for fish.

Carol Fox of Mount Airy, Md., chose a green burial at sea for her son, Jamie, who died at age 21 in 2002….

To make a reef ball, cremated remains are mixed with concrete and shaped into a basketball-size “pearl” that weighs about 60 pounds. The pearl is affixed to a beehive-shaped concrete reef that weighs 650 to 4,000 pounds. Memorial reefs, which cost from $3,995 to $6,995, can accommodate up to four members of a family; there is also a community-reef option, with pearls from multiple families, that cost $2,995 per person. Eternal Reef has installed about 60 reef balls in the Chesapeake Bay, including seven that were placed there in a ceremony in April, according to George Frankel, the chief executive of Eternal Reefs.

Is cremation green?


Eighty percent of people interested in green burials were originally planning a cremation, according to the Green Burial Council’s Sehee. Cremation releases pollutants into the air such as nitrous oxide and mercury from dental fillings, though the threat from these toxins has been “a little exaggerated,” he says. Crematories are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nearly 40 percent of deceased people in the United States are cremated. The popularity of the practice varies greatly from state to state, from 74 percent of those who die in Nevada to 12 percent in Mississippi, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

What exactly are the environmental impacts of the (not so) old-fashioned way:

Environmental concerns about traditional burials include the use of water, pesticides and pollution-producing lawn mowers at cemeteries. Also, extended exposure to the formaldehyde in embalming fluids raises a mortician’s risk for dying of myeloid leukemia, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Plus, there’s the idea of taking up a plot of land for eternity, land that the deceased aren’t exactly enriching. Sehee has calculated that Americans bury about 1 million tons of steel in caskets every year — enough to build another Golden Gate Bridge. And the amount of concrete used to make the vaults commonly built to house the caskets could build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit, he says. Caskets are sometimes manufactured abroad and need to be shipped here, increasing a person’s posthumous carbon footprint….

“A lot of traditional funeral practices provide a way for the body to be protected from the elements rather than become a part of nature,” Sehee says. “Green burials flip that around.”

Fair enough.  What do you think?

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