Differences and Similarities of Green Burial in the United States and Europe

Green burial practices originated in the United Kingdom in 1993 and enabled the dead to reduce the dramatic environmental impact that traditional burials often produce [1]. Since then, environmentalists in both Europe and the United States have developed innovative ecological methods of burial. The interest in these methods in Europe — specifically the United Kingdom — and the United States stems from different cultural burial practices and social movements surrounding death, as well as some similarities in economic pressures. These new dispersal methods were born of the environmentalist desire to posit death as something that not only reduce negative environmental implications but nourish the earth that sustains the living. Despite widespread and growing support for green funerary practices, many factors render the legal implementation of these types of burials a contentious process. We attempt to understand the ethical implications behind the decisions in which the dead’s autonomy affect the future deceased’s autonomy. The main question that needs to be answered is which is more important when assessing the merit of green burial: freeing up land and considering the needs of future generations or maintaining the value attached to traditional methods for people living today.

While natural burial is presented as a new trend in Western Europe and in the United States, it has been practiced for centuries in several cultures all over the world. Native Americans and Muslims traditionally practiced natural burials without embalming or coffins, the Chinese have a tradition of cremation, Greece has a practice of renting graves, and all over Europe, Australia, and New Zealand graves are often reused [2]. Furthermore, Europe’s history of death from several wars and plagues lead to the use of mass graves and church graveyard overcrowding. In the American context, mass graves evoke the images of ethnic cleansing and disrespectful treatment of the dead [3]. However, Europeans can be considered to be more desensitized in seeing the dead treated this way as it was a requirement during times of high death toll and even in today with the lack of land for burials. For example, there are several churches built from bones such as the ossuary in Sedlec, Czech Republic, in which bones are used as ceiling trims, crests, and for a chandelier [4].

Women demonstrating the preparation of a green burial with the use of a biodegradable cloth that surrounds the body while in a coffin [32]

These practices are heavily contrasted with the United States’ “one time use burial system” which first originated after the Civil War. As many soldiers died on the battlefield, many had to be embalmed for the body to make the journey home for a funeral [5]. This has contributed to the fact that the United States places a greater emphasis on preserving the body than Europe, at the very least for the purposes of delaying its decay until its internment [6]. For example, in Europe, approximately 40% of bodies are embalmed because it is less common to have an extended period of display of the body in funeral rites [7].

Funeral directors present embalming as a positive so that the dead can be put on display for their loved ones at open-casket funerals [8]. Thus, the United States saw a shift from home burials in which families were directly involved in bodily preparation and burial to the beginning of the industrialization of funerary practice in which bodies were prepared by business and death became a display [9][10].

As Americans transitioned to this new style of burial, the ideal lawn-park cemeteries seen today sprung up. As urban elites grew more wealthy, the association with death as display transitioned into having burials sites as a display as well. Grave sites were becoming “monuments to the earthly stature of the urban bourgeoisie and pleasurable retreats from increasingly crowded cities” [11]. However, this type of burial practice requires manicured lawns which are often unsustainable economically and ecologically.  

Embalming, the process undertaken to preserve the body, involves the injection of formaldehyde into the body. Upon burial, this turns cemetery land “chemically manicured” [12].  One study examining whether conventional coffin burial practice affected the mineral content of cemetery soils showed elevated metal concentrations on-site. In some cases, the mineral composition of cemetery soils was higher than off-site land by a ratio of 8:1 [13]. This high soil contamination originates from minerals released by burial loads; toxic chemicals include those used in embalming, varnishes, sealers, preservatives, metal handles and ornaments as well as wood preservatives and lead and mercury found in paint [14]. Thus, the burial of coffins constitutes an environmental hazard as these corroded metal toxins leach into surrounding soils and groundwater. Furthermore, the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the national organization that monitors the funeral industry, cites no public health benefit from embalming and there’s no state requirement to provide it [15].

While embalming practices still remain prevalent in the United States and in Europe, cremation has risen to be a popular alternative as it embodies a less ecologically harmful method for burial. Continuing, the popularization of cremation is a huge part of the movement towards green burial methods. From 2000 to 2015, the proportion of Americans choosing cremations doubled as well as in Great Britain [16]. Similarly, Europe saw a drastic rise in cremation rates following World War II to address the land constraints involved in a conventional burial, so the soil suffers less [17].

The popularity of cremation is on the rise in the US [33]

Cremation was first proposed as the “pure and hygienic” alternative to conventional burial, but cremation has environmental negatives of its own regarding energy consumption and emissions, using around 180 liters of gas to reduce the average corpse to ashes [18][19]. Cremation is even more problematic in the United States because the E.P.A. does not regulate or label human bodies as “solid waste,” and thus have implemented marginal regulations for crematoria that allows them to continue to pollute the air [20].

To combat the negative effects of traditional burial, Environmentally-concerned citizens of both countries have developed innovative dispersal practices, greatly limiting the air and soil pollution that comes from conventional burial. One such practice is human composting, which has proponents in both the United States and Europe. The American Recomposition movement converts human remains into the soil through a 20-day process of “natural organic reduction” during which the body is covered in wood chips and aerated, creating the perfect environment for microbes to decompose the body [21]. After the “transformation,” of the body, the family is able to take some of the soil home [22]. Despite its growing following, this process is not currently legal in the United States. In Europe, a Swedish company called Promessa seeks the same purpose of replacing cremation with organic composting by a different mechanism [23]. Through “promession,” the body is cryogenically frozen and shattered, and the resulting pieces are freeze-dried and used as compost for a memorial tree or shrub [24]. Both of these companies see death as the possibility for new life, arguing that we should give critical attention to how our means of showing reverence for the dead adversely affect the living.

The tangible differences between standard burial and a natural burial [34]

These ecological alternatives emulate nature’s cycles and regenerative design. Contrastingly, hardwood and metal caskets marketed as protecting the body from the elements of nature, creating a barrier between realms. Whereas the processes of cremation and coffin burial contain the dead within spaces intended to separate the dead from the everyday environment of the living, these movements intend to disperse the dead back into the environments that sustain the living [25].

While there are many proponents of green burial practices, the movement has been met with uncertainty and criticisms from those who worry that composting takes away the “specialness of being human” by treating the body as waste to be turned into soil [26].  An important factor that complicates the ethics of green burial is the fact that those in the funeral industry stand to profit more from traditional burial methods. For historical context, in Great Britain, the response to the overcrowding of church graveyards was the establishment of cemeteries in rural environments. Burial and placement of a headstone was the accepted way of remembering and disposing of the dead, and the wealthy would have large and ornate stones to symbolize their wealth. Thus, unmarked graves were often associated with poverty and the lack of choice in death [27]. As these practices and connotations moved to the United States, the production of death became industrialized and costly. The high price of traditional burials and funeral cost upwards of $4,000 while most green burials can cost less than half. The incentive of low costs is certainly a major factor in the increase of green burials as families often take more active roles in the funeral, there is a lower consumption of resources, and an overall lower cost [28].

Many online sources claim this as a reason for the criticism that natural burials face. A writer from the website “Order of the Good Death” quotes many comments by those in the funeral industry that attack green burial methods, mostly by saying that it is merely a fad and a buzzword and will eventually become obsolete [29]. Yet, it is through organizations such as the GBC that the natural burial movement has been able to reach so many people while at the same time develop a level of professionalism and care that protects the sacredness of burying the dead. In the UK, where the natural burial movement is more developed, the Association of Natural Burial Grounds has been guiding cemeteries across the country with its Code of Conduct [30]. With the Code, the ANBG aims to “ensure that the public can have full confidence in the integrity of the provider and the quality of services offered by them.” The existence of such networks and organizations in the United States as well as the United Kingdom indicates that the natural burial movement is far from being just a fad.

Map of Green Burial Sites in the UK [35]

The moral drive behind the natural burial movement could further be described as wanting to do no harm to the environment and letting nature take its course after a person has passed on. Cynthia Beal, founder of the Natural Burial Company expressed this sentiment when she asked, “what would happen if we all buried ourselves naturally, and put our bodies back where we got them – from the soil, from the Earth itself? What would happen if we just ‘put our stuff back’?” [31]. While these green and natural burial methods have become popularized in recent years, the movement has been met with plenty of hesitation and worry. However, in spite the lack of support and criticism that the green burial movement encounters in both the United States and Europe, citizens are still broadening their scope of conceivable action for the disposal of their bodies. Increasing consciousness of scientific processes that allow death and its associated rituals to be simultaneously dignified and in tune with the natural world might soon facilitate a cultural shift in burial practices as well as mitigate the environmental damage caused by conventional burials for an increasing population.

If interested, North Carolina has one natural burial site, Pine Forest Memorial Gardens. More information about their services and burial styles can be found at https://www.pineforestmemorial.com/

 

1843 Words – Lauren Hutson, Kate Queen, Kevin Johnson Mata

FOOTNOTES

  1. Nicholas Read, “A green way to dispose of the dead; Environmentally friendly burials are popular in Europe and the U.S., but only one Canadian cemetery offers the chance to truly be one with the earth.” The Vancouver Sun (January, 2009): https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/244044522?pq-origsite=summon
  2. Christopher Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US.” Landscape and Urban Planning 178 (October, 2018): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204618304067
  3. Mar, “Rent-a-Grave.”The Slate Group, February 28, 2011, https://slate.com/human-interest/2011/02/the-greek-burial-crisis-with-land-a-valuable-resource-the-state-requires-the-recycling-of-cemetery-space.html
  4. Alex Mar, “Rent a Grave”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Louise Canning & Isabelle Szmigin, (2010) “Death and disposal: The universal, environmental dilemma”, Journal of Marketing Management, 26 (2010): 11-12, 1129, DOI: 10.1080/0267257X.2010.509580 Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232869409_Death_and_disposal_The_universal_environmental_dilemma
  7. Canning, “Death and disposal,” 1133.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  10. Richard Yarwood, James D Sidway, Claire Kelly, and Susie Stillwell, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.” The Geographical Journal 181, no. 2 (May 2014): https://rgs-ibg-onlinelibrary-wiley-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/doi/full/10.1111/geoj.12087
  11. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  12. Philip R. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”, Social Epistemology 30, no. 3 (2016): 60, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2015.1015063. https://socialepistemologydotcom.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/olson_knowing_necro-waste1.pdf
  13. Cornelia Jonker and Jana Oliver, “Mineral Contamination from Cemetery Soils: Case Study of Zandfontein Cemetery, South Africa.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 9, no. 2 (2012): 511-520.
  14. Jonker, “Mineral Contamination from Cemetery Soils.”
  15. Karen Roberts, “Final Goodbyes Going Green: Nyack boutique focuses on eco-friendly, natural burials.” The Journal News (March, 2017): https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/1872747437?pq-origsite=summon
  16. Coutts, “Natural Burial as a Land Conservation Tool in the US”
  17. Canning, “Death and disposal,” 1133.
  18. Mary Roach, “Out of the fire, into the compost bin.” In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. New York: W.W. Morton, 2003, 258.
  19. Read, “A green way to dispose of the dead.”
  20. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”, 60.
  21. Tafline Laylin, “Washington could become the first state to legalize human composting,”NBC News, Dec. 29, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/washington-could-become-first-state-legalize-human-composting-n952421
  22. Laylin, “Washington could become the first state to legalize human composting”.
  23. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 261.
  24. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 262.
  25. Olson, “Knowing ‘Necro-Waste’”
  26. Roach, “Out of the fire”, 268.
  27. Yarwood, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.”
  28. Mark Harris, Grave Matters (New York: Scribner, 2007), 1 – 9, https://books-google-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/books?hl=en&lr=&id=33hZrW3tqPYC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&ots=B2PAd_hKZE&sig=gKo-En53vVJWo1PQS6OYfFXy-SY#v=onepage&q&f=true
  29. Caitlin Doughty, “Just How Bad Is Traditional Burial,” Caitlin Doughty, The Order of the Good Death (November, 2012), http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/just-how-bad-is-traditional-burial#.V0IUw2N8a-Q
  30. The Association of Natural Burial Grounds, “ANBG Code of Conduct,” The Natural Death Centre Charity, http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk/uploads/Forms/ANBG%20Code%20of%20Conduct.pdf
  31. Natural Burial Company, “About the Natural Burial Company,” the Natural Burial Company – USA, https://www.naturalburialcompany.com/about_us/index.html
  32. “Green In Life and Death,” GreenFuneralsColorado.Com, http://greenfuneralscolorado.com/green-in-life-and-death/
  33. “Cremation Services: What You Need To Know,” Funeralwise, https://www.funeralwise.com/plan/cremation/cremation-need-to-know/
  34. Stephen J. Beard, “A Greener Way to Go,” Indianapolis Star, http://www.stephenjbeard.com/
  35. Yarwood, “Sustainable deathstyles? The geography of green burials in Britain.”

5 Comments

  1. When searching for posts to comment on, I was initially drawn to this one as I have always wondered how burial practices will be forced to change in the face of an increasing population size. I was initially surprised to learn that green burial practices involving organic reduction, called recomposition, are not yet legal in the United States. Green movements have played a big role in guiding the decisions and pursuits of our generation; yet, as with any other aspect of the processes involved in death and dying, it seems under-represented and only minimally discussed in mainstream media. I am not surprised to learn that some of the pushback may be from funeral companies that profit largely from traditional burial methods. I think you all did a great job of explaining cultural differences and highlighting public opinion on green burials.

  2. It is interesting how much stricter the US policies on death are than Europe’s despite the lack of regulation here we discussed in class. I’m confused as to why such burial isn’t legal here, yet I’m not surprised that the pushback comes primarily from businesses that profit from death events. It seems this method is one of the least expensive decompositions of bodies but still retains the respect of the dead. Something Americans are more apt to protect than Europeans. Death in America seems to be one last representation of the deceased’s socioeconomic status and funeral business ventures have certainly taken advantage of it.

  3. One of the things I enjoyed learning about in this course was the topic of the green burial movement. Before this class, I can honestly say I did not know this was even a thing. I also appreciated your observations of the differences and similarities between the United States and European countries. When doing research into various topics I often try to compare these two cultures because they do have such different views, regulations, and laws and it makes for a great case study comparison.

    Something I thought of when reading this article is the often mentioned statement of how the older generations are the ones who have truly made the environmental mess we are in, not the younger generations who are often blamed for it. Which relates to the notion that we are the last generation that can truly make a difference in the environmental health of our planet. Now I know green burials are not legal in the United States yet, but one has to wonder if using the method of green burial over a traditional burial could be a final way for the older generation to help reduce their footprint and ultimately help the younger generation fix the environmental health of the planet. It also raises the question of what exactly do we owe to the next generation? Are we morally obligated then to use green burials as opposed to traditional burials?

    One last thing, according to a recent article in the Seattle Times, Washington state is one step closer to actually passing a bill to allow human composting to happen. If the bill does in fact pass, Washington would be the first state in the United States to allow such a thing.

  4. This is a great post! You did a great job examining the reasons why different groups support or oppose the practice of cremation, as well as why the percentage of bodies cremated is rising in the United States. However, it surprised me that, in light of recent research regarding the negative environmental impact of cremation and traditional modes of burial, more people’s opposition to cremation is not due to environmental concerns. In my research concerning green modes of burial, I learned that cremation can be especially problematic in the United States because the E.P.A. does not regulate or label human bodies as “solid waste,” and thus have implemented marginal regulations for crematoria that allows them to continue to pollute the air. Cremation was once regarded as the environmentally-friendly alternative to embalming, and I’m interested to see whether green modes of burial gradually replace cremation in the United States once practices like Recomposition become legal.

  5. I find it super interesting that various types of green burial aren’t legal in the US. And considering the environmental effect of cremation, the idea of green burial and giving back to the earth is very appealing. I personally like the of using profession to be turned into a tree.

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