Green Burials in America and Associated Stigma

 

Green burials can be defined as a practice in which the deceased are buried or otherwise disposed of in any manner that attempts to cause either no damage or very minimal damage to the environment. The nature of green burials excludes any chemical embalming processes or other practices that are designed to render the physical body more permanent after death. Within the practice, there is an emphasis on biodegradability and impermanence.1

The process of embalming is long, tedious, and quite intrusive to the dead body. It takes a myriad of skills and patience to embalm, and it costs a fortune for the family of the deceased. Why do thousands of Americans pay so much to have their loved ones’ bodies altered to such a state, when it would be practical to leave the body alone? Embalming began as a practical measure but has turned into a common practice that many people accept as a cultural norm. Culture in the US concerning burials in the past century has focused on embalming a body and placing it in a wooden casket, but in the last two decades, more attention has been brought to methods of burial that do not require any chemicals and focus more on the relationship between the body and soil.

Humans have always performed alterations on dead bodies for ritualistic purposes. In Northern Jordan, archaeological digs have revealed that people from the PreNatufian/Epipaleolithic period (23,000-11,600 BP) would cut the heads off of dead bodies before burials.4 Historically, embalming was developed as a result of the rise of capitalism and the translocation of soldiers during wars, who died in large numbers and required the development of preservation methods so their bodies could be sent back to their families.

In Europe, during the Enlightenment, people started focusing more on the lives and personalities of their dying children, and with an increased focus on the lives of infants, more people decided to bury them in family tombs, whereas before, it was common to dismiss the death of infants.3

In early American colonist homes, the dead were prepared and laid out in common spaces for their loved ones to pay respects. They were often buried in simple caskets in backyards or local churches. It was not until the Civil War (1861-1865) that people began using chemicals to preserve the body. Soldiers in the war that died had to be shipped over the course of weeks; their bodies needed to last the journey in order to be properly buried at home.

During the time of slavery, one of the few “freedoms” that slave owners gave slaves was the freedom to develop their own mortuary practices. African Americans had little access to materials outside of their environments, and therefore practiced more naturalistic methods of burial. The burial practices of slaves evolved from African cultures, who emphasized the journey of the soul after its body had passed on. In the early 1800s, African Americans began using standardized coffins. This is partially a result of the rise of sanitation standards that occurred in America. The location of cemeteries moved from churches to private municipal lands. African Americans lost a lot of their connection to African burial practices as a result of the rise of the funeral industry. 4

The rising popularity of embalming practices in the 1960s came in opposition to the publication of The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford. Her book suggested that Americans return to naturalistic modes of burial that had been lost in the last century. Many of Mitford’s justifications for green burials were in her questioning of the funeral industries intentions. As a result of the publication, funeral businesses promoted their practices and attacked Mitford as a radical that was unworthy of attention.5

The term ‘green burial’ has only been used in the past twenty years. It stems from a rising culture of environmentalism with an emphasis on maintaining natural processes of life. There are many advantages to doing away with embalming and moving toward green burials. The chemicals used in embalming are carcinogenic and toxic to the ecosystem.14 Besides having less of an impact on the environment, green burials have the potential of reducing cost of death. People may also treat death with more acceptance and understanding when they acknowledge the decomposition of the body into soil.

Embalming practices explored as a culture reveal a disassociation between nature and the physical human body. Embalming rose in popularity also due to the fear that many Americans have of death. People who embalm their loved ones shut them off from the outdoor elements that break down cells and tissues. They feel as if the body should be preserved, which can be demonstrated with the practice of cryopreservation.

Popular American culture demonstrates Green burials reflect a growing awareness of the connection of the body to the forces of nature. There still remain ritual associated with green burials, but it focuses more on the life that the deceased person lived rather than the physical state of the person’s body.

Green burials are, in principle, a practice of conscious disregard for the typically modern and technologically advanced burial processes that are integral to North American conceptions of propriety of managing the dead and respecting the memories of the deceased. Typical modern burials include the use of embalming chemicals and techniques to delay or prevent decay of physical remains; this theme indicates a strong connection between the physical body and the concept of personhood. In the North American collective conscious there is, then, the notion that the loss of the physical body correlates to or causes the loss of the memory of the deceased person and their personhood. Any burial practice that actively promotes the natural decay of the physical body, such as green burial does, will then be received with some suspicion and will face stigma because of the potential threat to customary practices that it constitutes.

Although the green burial movement seems to promote the return to burials devoid of modern scientific interference, and by extension to an idealized past, it can also be examined with the additional perspective of looking toward a different type of modernity. While the practice excludes the use of chemicals and other components of a modern burial, it does so with the goal of being environmentally responsible; thus, the movement combines practices of the past with ideals of the future. The emergence of the green burial movement reflects a changing social conscious and perception of the surrounding world.6 This emerging social transformation is a sign of a societal liminal state- ideals and perceptions of matters of importance are shifting, which creates rifts between diverse demographic groups, and can lead to ethically ambiguous grounds of debate.

The societal disruption with changing burial practices is a projection of the smaller-scale disruption of the social fabric that is rendered by the death of a person. In this more personalized liminal state, funeral practices and mourning rituals help to repair the social fabric after the loss of a person. If such practices are threatened by the emergence of alternative practices, then it stands to reason that such alternative practices will be regarded with reluctance, distrust, misunderstanding, or even fear.7 Green burials, with the focus of environmental respect, tend to be presented from a position of moral superiority; an individual who chooses a green burial will be acting according to his or her own ideas of virtue or beneficence ethics; the most morally responsible way to live and die is one that exists in accordance with protecting and preserving the environment. This line of reasoning implies that all humans should also exist in such a way or else pose a threat to the entire environment and the human species by extension. Such a ‘holier-than-thou’ position tends to generate negative responses from those in the out-group, along with increased reluctance to accept the alternative practice.

In addition to the adverse position of green burials to contemporary traditional burial practices, there is the additional consideration of personal obligations to confront death. Green burials are intended to actively cause the decay of the physical body, which used to be a very natural and well-understood part of death until the movement of Romanticism, which sought to sanitize death and dying. After this social shift, people in North America became removed from the physical processes of decay.8 This lack of contact with decay makes the green burial movement more difficult to accept because of the associations of discomfort with the physical realities of death; this can be morally irresponsible because it makes the acceptance of death more remote or unattainable, thus extending or complicating periods of mourning for the bereaved.9

Additionally, much of the stigma surrounding green burials stems from fears and misconceptions about death and bodily decomposition. Mainly, this includes concerns that bodies can spread diseases during decomposition if they are not embalmed or contained in an airtight conventional casket.10 These concerns are often instigated by the ways in which the funeral industry have reacted to the growing popularity of green burials. Determined to protect a billion-dollar industry, funeral providers have lobbied the government for new regulations on the burial of the deceased and perpetuated the idea that a resource-intensive funeral is the “right” way to bury people. There are currently no laws requiring bodies to be buried in a coffin and very few federal laws regulating the handling of bodies at all. This is beneficial to those that want a green burial but detrimental to the funeral industry. Consequently, this industry has increasingly advocated for legislation that would mandate embalming and only permit burial in established cemeteries.11

Also, many people are skeptical of green burials because they want to feel as though they’ve left a legacy upon their death. This is threatened by the way in which bodies decay more rapidly when buried outside of the more traditional casket burial practice. However, green burials can counteract this issue by utilizing green cemeteries as nature preserves or park land in addition to their role as a final resting place. This allows those buried there to have a lasting legacy as being able to contribute to the local community, even in their death.10

Changing physical landscapes and climate in the present time period are demonstrating the evolving threat to the environment and human existence caused by humans. Contemporary burial technologies are part of the environmental threat in that chemicals can leach into the ground, physical bodies takes up valuable space, and nutrients aren’t recycled into the environment. Especially in an urban context, physical space is at a premium; green burials could prove to be a viable solution to this pressing need for space in urban areas by freeing up land that would otherwise be reserved for body internment purposes.12 In this situation, green burials are ethically utilitarian; the greatest good is provided for the greatest number of people. In an environmentally precarious future, it is imperative that any and all environmentally responsible practices be pursued to the greatest extent possible.

Cemeteries have historically been sources of environmental contamination due to the presence of coffins and other grave contents. Synthetic and inorganic materials that are used in the production of coffins can be discharged into the environment as casket components degrade and decompose over time. These materials often include metals such as steel, bronze, nickel, copper, zinc, and iron, as well as other synthetic materials such as rubber, glues, paints, and velvet. Additionally, as human bodies decay, toxic chemicals used in the process of embalmment can further be discharged into the environment. The leaching of these materials into the soil can contaminate groundwater, vegetation, and surface water and cause health problems for humans and other organisms. Numerous studies have found groundwater within the vicinity of cemeteries to be contaminated with both inorganic metals and harmful pathogens, as well as heavy metal contamination in the soil surrounding many cemeteries. While these effects can differ based on the local geography of the burial site and the type of materials used for internment, it is evident that casket burials contribute to soil and land pollution.13 In order to avoid this pollution, many have turned to cremation as a more environmentally friendly burial practice. Although cremations are considered to be a greener option than the traditional casket burial, it is estimated that one cremation uses as much energy as a 500-mile car trip and releases 250 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.10 On the contrary, research shows that green burials which lack a formal casket and embalming processes do not pollute the environment in these ways. Using a lower density coffin, such as a simple wood coffin, or no coffin at all, lowers the environmental impact of the burial in terms of manufacturing processes and decomposition products. Additionally, accelerating decomposition, as green burials do, helps to avoid soil and groundwater contamination15. In light of this information, green burials are clearly the most environmentally conscious choice for burials. Since we have a responsibility to prevent further environmental degradation as much as possible, green burials are a viable option to fulfill one’s obligation to the planet.

Bryn Walker, Sarah Ashworth, Mary Frank

 

 

 

Works Cited

  1. “Green Burial Defined.” Green Burial Council. Weebly. Accessed April 8, 2019. https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/green_burial_defined.html.
  2. Bacqué, M. F. “Stillborn children and infant death. History of funeral practices and rites in Europe stem from the affective and social expression of grief. Second chapter: From the Enlightenment to the present ages.” Neuropsychiatrie De L’enfance Et De L’adolescence, 2018. doi:10.1016/j.neurenf.2018.04.005
  3. Clements, S. W. “Dead and green: Discourses of death from Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” to modern green burial” ProQuest Dissertations Publisher, 2016).
  4. Jamieson, R. “Material Culture and Social Death: African-American Burial Practices.” Historical Archaeology. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25616423
  5. Maher, L. A., Stock, J. T., S. F., Haywood, J. J., & Miracle, P. T. “A Unique Human-Fox Burial from a Pre-Natufian Cemetery in the Levant (Jordan).” PLoS One, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.001581
  6. Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1996.
  7. Habenstein, Robert, and William Lamers. The History of American Funeral Directing. Milwaukee: Bulfin Printers, 1962.
  8. Canine, John. The Psychosocial Aspects of Death and Dying. Stamford, Connecticut: Appleton & Lange, 1996.
  9. Kastenbaum, Robert. The Psychology of Death. New York: Springer, 2000.
  10. Chiu, Allyson. “Green Burials Bring Awareness to Environmental Concerns.” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, March 4, 2016. www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-03-04/green-burials-bring-awareness-to-environmental-concerns.
  11. Yeo, Sophie. “Natural Burials Are Rising, and That’s Good for the Planet.” Pacific Standard, July 30, 2018. https://psmag.com/environment/bury-me-under-the-weeping-willow.
  12. Marrall, Rebecca. “Urbanism and North American Funerary Practices.” PSU McNair Scholars Online Journal 2, no. 1 (2006). https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1096&context=mcnair
  13. Aruomero, Amuno, and Oluwajana Afolabi. “Comparative Assessment of Trace Metals in Soils Associated with Casket Burials: Towards Implementing Green Burials.” Eurasian Journal of Soil Science 3, no. 1 (2014): 65–76.
  14. Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner, 2007.
  15. Oliveira, Bruna, Paula Quinteiro, Carla Caetano, Helena Nadais, Luís Arroja, Eduardo Ferreira da Silva, and Manuel Senos Matias. “Burial Grounds’ Impact on Groundwater and Public Health: An Overview.” Water and Environment Journal 27, no. 1 (June 29, 2012): 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-6593.2012.00330.x.

12 Comments

  1. Overall, the comparison of burial traditions across cultures and against time is interesting to see. Green burials was a concept that I was not familiar with prior to reading this post; I have a strong understanding of the concept now. The post was effective in providing explanation for the misconceptions associated with green burials. Because this assignment is meant to focus on research based findings, personal bias should be avoided.

  2. Blake Matthews

    April 21, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    I found your post very intriguing. However, it seemed as though some of your guy’s fundamental ideas lacked a source. In particular, I thought the sections discussing the culture of these practices could have used research to back it up and make your statements more credible/less of a personal belief. By looking at this topic in a broader scheme, which I though you did well through your “holier-than-thou” argument, I thought you were able to tie in personal decisions with a societal connection very effectively. Lastly, to better your argument on the toxicity of these chemicals/metals that leach into the environment, adding in a small section on potential adverse effects would have been more efficacious.

  3. I loved reading this article because it opened my eyes to a new way of burial that I had never heard of before taking this Death and Dying course. I love that you shined light on the benefits of green burial on the environment. It was very intriguing to be informed of the negative effects that traditional burials and cremation have on the environment. I had no idea that these modes of burial were so harmful to the soil and contributed to water contamination. After reading this article, I was convinced that green burial is something I want to consider for myself when decided my after-death plans.

  4. I greatly enjoyed reading your post, especially because I had never even considered many of the environmental and social implications of modern burial practices before taking this course, and your post greatly expounded upon the information I gleaned from the reading and lecture discussion of the topic. So, for sheer curiosity sake, I could not stop reading, and what I found, was that even though this topic is indeed novel to me, it closely ties in with a number of the more mainstream debates explored throughout these posts and this course as a whole. I particularly found the way you highlighted the American notion that “the loss of the physical body correlates” to the “loss of the memory of the deceased person and their personhood” insightful, because it implies that the modern western tradition of embalming bodies is itself a symptom of the broader trend towards denying death present in the U.S. Indeed, I found the irony of modern western society rejecting arguably the most natural, cheap, and environmentally friendly mode of burial whilst simultaneously bolstering other, more expensive and less obvious ways to preserve the environment as quite indicative of the logistical dysfunctionality that has arisen from the cultural dysfunction present American attitudes towards death. Moreover, your highlighting of how modern embalming practices signify an attempt to preserve the personhood of the deceased also ties well into my own pod’s discussion about the brain dead, and how many people in the U.S are unwilling to accept their brain dead loved ones as truly dead, because their bodies still remain alive. Thus, in both the case of embalming and the denial of brain death, the way in which Americans tie together the notions the body as a biological entity and the self in a metaphysical sense has encouraged society to adopt attitudes and practices that go against what might be considered ethical from a utilitarian perspective. Thus, overall, your post does a great job at highlighting some of the ways in which traditional notions of life and death are being transformed by modern scientific advances, and how as arguably well informed individuals, us classmates must thus grapple with the question of how to reconcile traditional American notions of what constitutes a dignified death on an individualistic level with what constitutes dignity in death on a broader, societal scale as it pertains to environmental responsibility.

  5. This post was very interesting to read, primarily because I didn’t have very much background information about green burials in my mind. It was fascinating to learn about the relationship between “traditional” embalming methods and the American fear of death – I hadn’t really associated my known funerary methods to the idea of being afraid of death. My biggest question after reading this is about cost: with a green burial, you can avoid the high cost of traditional funeral activities, but how much would it cost to find a place where you can put the body? Especially since people seem to be so wary of decomposing bodies, it seems to me that, unless you or a loved one owned the land, you would have to purchase a plot somewhere to put it.

  6. As we have been discussing Green Burials in class a lot recently, I found this post to be very informative. I think one of the biggest reasons why some people might be opposed to it in terms of their own burial as it is not very normative in American culture and as a society, we tend to hide the parts of death that we don’t like to deal with. Even though our bodies go through the same processes whether we are buried underground or above it, we are just so used to being buried underground that we can’t imagine anything else.

  7. I did a post about green modes of burial as well (the one about Tibetan air burials), and I thoroughly appreciated your post on the American approach and views on green burial as well as the benefits of green modes of burial. I never really thought that many people were against more green modes of burial, but your post definitely explained very clearly that there are people who are against it and why they are against it and I found it very interesting that something as mundane and common as embalmment could be an embodiment of the fear that people have of death and dying nowadays. However, I wish there was more explanation of how green burials were executed and what the process was like. Everyone knows that green burials are more eco-friendly, but I feel like there should be more reasoning behind that claim in some sort of description of what green burials are like. It was also depicted that there weren’t as many people in America that were in support of green modes of burial, but I wasn’t really sure of what that really meant, maybe including statistical evidence would have been nice in order to actually show the disparity and to provoke more thoughts as to why this may be and how people could step into action in order to tear down the prejudice that people may have against green burials.

  8. I enjoyed reading this post because you each brought a unique perspective to green burials. I especially enjoyed the environmental considerations that really should be implemented into post-death decisions on what to do with someone’s body. I am interested to see if the recent uptick in conversations surrounding climate change have also had an effect on how people choose to bury their loved ones. I do think it is important to remember, however, that when presenting research, you are simply stating facts and personal opinions should probably be left to the imagination of the reader.

  9. I thought the mention of capitalism’s role in the rise of the American funeral industry very interesting. I think that capitalism had a huge role in the movement into modern burial practices, maybe more than the article let on. It created a disconnect between humans and nature, a new set of beauty standards, and a greater attachment to the material world – these implications of capitalism led to the “need” for more “civilized” burial practices. These implications are what is still in the way of green burials becoming the standard again.

  10. After reading this post, and learning about different green funeral methods within the Death & Dying course, I have decided that a green burial is something I want to do for myself. This post really brought to light the sheer positive aspects green burials have both environmentally and spiritually. As a spiritual person, I often think that my justification for wanting a green burial, not only comes from my love for environmental action, but additionally, from the Bible verse, “From dust you shall come and from dust you shall return.” Additionally, I found the environmental impacts of other funeral practices, such as cremation, very interesting. I never realized how much soil and water damage these practices could cause. Especially now, I am very interested to see how our country reacts to the rise in green burials as we realize the implications of climate change.

  11. Prior to taking this class, I had never been educated about environmentally friendly burials. This post differs from “Cremation After Death,” because it focuses on embalming being a common burial process in the United States in the past. “Cremation After Death,” on the other hand, emphasizes the prominence of cremation in the United States and how this prominence is expected to grow in the future. In its discussion of past burial practices in the United States, this post mentions that slaves used to practice more “naturalistic methods of burial” that evolved from African cultures. What exactly were these more naturalistic methods of burial? This article provides ample insight on green burials, addressing how not using a casket is more environmentally friendly. However, it did not discretely define what a green burial is. Is a green burial simply constituted by burying a body without a casket? Is there a certain type of soil the body needs to be buried in?

  12. The medicalization and sanitization of death as you mentioned, has created a significant social stigma against green burials. I have found that there are a lot of imposed restrictions on where you can bury a body, and when and where you can forgo the use of a coffin in burial. I find it hypocritical that the stigma against green burial is sometimes supported by the concern of maintaining land stability in the absence of coffin burial in a cemetery setting. This argument, while perhaps maintaining the stability of the land, still does no good for the actual land. It only serves to create a socialized and capitalized space for burials, while simultaneously polluting the land with embalming chemicals. As you mentioned, cemetery land is also polluted with the inorganic materials in coffins, further questioning the ethical standards of non-green burial practices.

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