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

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