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A Green Goodbye
There are green buildings, green cars, even green weddings. Now comes one of the latest, and ultimately last, choices the environmentally conscious person can make—green burials.

Going out green is billed as an environmentally responsible, low-cost, highly personal alternative to a conventional burial. A natural burial foregoes embalming, metal caskets and buried concrete vaults. Instead the body is wrapped in a shroud (such as a family quilt), then placed inside a biodegradable container (usually pine, cardboard or wicker). It is then buried in a natural prairie or woodland, where a new tree or an indigenous rock marks the spot. Most graves are dug by hand to protect plants and minimize the impact on the surrounding land.

This natural approach, used for centuries by Jews and Muslims, is really a return to traditions of the past. It wasn’t until the Civil War era—when bodies were transported from the battlefield to home—that current funeral practices became the norm in the United States.

The modern concept of natural burial began in 1993 in the United Kingdom and has since spread across the globe. Statistics from the Centre for Natural Burial show over 200 natural burial sites in England, a dozen in the U.S., and at least one in Canada. Thousands more are expected to develop as people become aware of the alternatives.

Why are green burials gaining in popularity? They are far less damaging to the earth because they eliminate the use of toxic embalming chemicals such as formaldehyde. (Embalming is not required by federal law.) Hundreds of thousands of gallons of embalming fluids are buried in cemeteries each year, along with thousands of tons of steel, copper and concrete. Not a pleasant thought for the environmentally aware person!

Less Expensive

Green burials are also much less expensive than traditional funerals. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average American funeral costs $6,600 in addition to cemetery fees. Many funerals run well over $10,000. On average, a natural burial costs $2,000 or less, with prices for a biodegradable casket starting at around $100.

Joe Sehee, founder and executive director of the non-profit Green Burial Council, believes that a funeral is about the family participating in an important life passage, not about a beautiful casket. Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance agrees. Green burials are “not wasteful of money or resources,” Slocum says.

Not everyone is enthralled with the green burial movement, however. Many cemetery operators say they are not allowed to do natural burials. “Our burials require vaults,” one said. “We’re not permitted to do green burials under our bylaws.” And gaining the approval of cemetery boards of trustees and incorporators is a slow process. So is changing the habits of the multi-billion dollar funeral industry.

The Trust for Natural Legacies is an organization for promoting wise use of land and providing education about green burials. It can help interested individuals in planning to communicate in death a statement of their values about life.

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By Brenda Dickerson. Copyright © 2009 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

References: www.greenburials.org and www.greenburialcouncil.org

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