Green death care

Say goodbye to embalming chemicals and metal caskets

Respect Grams and Gramps while respecting the planet.

Respect Grams and Gramps while respecting the planet.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Being eco-friendly is about making choices: from easy choices (recycling, duh) to those that require a bit more effort (bringing reusable canvas bags to the grocery store). As the green movement expands, so does our range of options.

We can opt for electric vehicles, bamboo-fiber T-shirts and hemp socks, organic chips and preservative-free jams. And then, of course, there are tried-and-true methods for saving the planet: thrift-store shopping, biking and … green burials. That’s right: Our environmentally conscious decisions in everyday life carry over to the afterlife, too.

A green burial, according to the Green Burial Council, involves laying a loved one to rest without the use of toxic embalming chemicals and caskets made from nonbiodegradable materials, such as metal.

“Our mantra is: Burial that’s sustainable for the planet,” said Joe Sehee, the council’s executive director.

Sehee founded the nonprofit group three-and-a-half years ago with two objectives: to reduce the use of embalming chemicals, typically a mixture of formaldehyde, ethanol and methanol; and to “evolve” the use of burial as a means for acquiring, restoring and protecting natural resources. The council certifies cemeteries that are stewarded by reputable land-conservation agencies, ensuring that green-burial ecosystems are forever protected.

Although so-called “green burials” may seem like another well-timed marketing ploy, this is not some newfangled concept. Embalming wasn’t even widespread in the Western world until the late 19th century to temporarily preserve bodies before burial. Prior to that, people buried the dead in simple pine boxes or natural fiber shrouds that quickly broke down in the earth.

Now, with the availability of refrigeration and dry ice, burial practices Americans consider “traditional” are no longer necessary, Sehee said. Though embalming keeps bodies intact a bit longer, this method of preservation is only temporary. Embalming is not legally required in California, unless a body is to be transported between certain states or overseas. Additionally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, embalming provides no known public-health benefits.

The council has given its seal of approval to only five cemeteries in the United States—in South Carolina, New York, Florida, New Mexico and Texas. Many cemeteries and funeral providers, however, will accommodate natural burials to some degree.

Joe Stinson, chief executive officer of Colma Cremation and Funeral Services in the Bay Area, is one such provider who works with 18 cemeteries near San Francisco. An embalmer and grief counselor, Stinson agrees with the principles behind green burials. In addition to environmental benefits, he sees another reason to support natural burials: They help grieving friends and family members heal. With traditional burial practices, people involved in planning the funeral often spend more time caring for the dead than the living.

“All of their energy, all of their attention is given to the person who has died,” Stinson said, adding that every family he has helped through funeral and burial proceedings has been relieved to learn that they can opt out of embalming. What’s more, when refrigeration is used instead of embalming, the result looks “more real.” Given a choice, people tend to choose refrigeration and natural burial, he said.

“Nobody wants a person embalmed,” he said. “Embalming is a very invasive treatment.”

Skeptics think traditional burial methods and cemeteries are perfectly fine as they are. One such skeptic is Jon Daniel, a funeral director for River Cities Funeral Chapel in West Sacramento. Daniel said embalming and metals in caskets do not harm the environment in any significant way.

“I can be certain by looking,” Daniel said, suggesting that the usual lush vegetation in cemeteries would not thrive in the presence of toxins. “There are so many other issues in the world that are hurting the environment. … This planet is in trouble, and it’s not from embalming fluid and metals in the ground.”

In contrast to Stinson’s experience, not a single person has asked him to skip embalming, except in the case of closed-casket funerals. Daniel did say, however, that his chapel would happily assist anyone who decides to go the green burial route.

Which means the choice is ours to make.