COLUMN: A green death, considering environmentalism in funeral practices


Gisella Mancera

Gisella Mancera, Columnist

Eventually, we all die! And while some people block the macabre thoughts of where their corpse will lie, lack of initiative in the process of dying lets us remain blind to the decisions surrounding the processes that our bodies will inevitably undergo.

It is well known how exorbitant funeral costs can be. The National Funeral Directors Associations reports the national median cost for a funeral is $7,848, although this can vary drastically depending on the services being provided.

The more invisible cost of funerary expenses is the environmental impact that most cremation and burial processes have. Caitlin Doughty’s popular YouTube channel, “Ask a Mortician,” has been providing viewers with death-friendly education since 2011. In her video, “ECO-DEATH TAKEOVER: Changing the Funeral Industry,” she details many of these harmful practices. Most of this information is from that video and I highly recommend watching it. In one year, the U.S. alone utilizes 4 million acres of forest for caskets and 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde.

While cremation may seem like a greener solution, it comes with its own price. Crematoriums release carcinogens into the air. Those who are embalmed before cremation, for viewing purposes, have the formaldehyde within them burned and released into the atmosphere where it bonds with water and rains down. As Doughty remarks, “April showers bring…cancer!” This is concerning as formaldehyde is classified in the top 10 percent of hazardous chemicals by the EPA.

Regardless of environmentalism, people may still choose burial or cremation for religious purposes. But most people who engage in these practices today do so as a matter of convention. Which is why it is important to know what our options are, so we can make informed choices.

Green burials are becoming more common. Natural burials require a simple cloth or casket made from biodegradable materials, which is placed put in a hole. For those who want to get grinded into dust, alkaline hydrolysis, or aquamation, is becoming more popular. Aquamation is basically cremation by water. A water and chemical mixture is heated and circulated around the body, simulating the full process of natural decomposition within a few hours. The remaining bones can be made into ash. The left-over liquid has many nutrients and can be used as fertilizer. Additionally, the amount of water used is equivalent to how much water an individual would use in three days.

While green burials are legal in all 50 states, alkaline hydrolysis is legal in only 20 states. Alkaline hydrolysis for pets is legal in all states. Currently, seven states are creating legislation for human aquamation.

Conservation burials take it a step further. You can be buried on a land trust or conservation area with land management that focuses on preserving the environment. So that even in death, you can give back. Death is a natural process that ultimately gives back to the environment by enriching the soil, putting forth more life. I believe these green funerary practices should become more common as they offer affordable, eco-friendly alternatives that honor the bodies life-cycle and purpose.

Gisella Mancera is a senior sociology major. She can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected].