Sustainable death care improves water, soil and air quality

A picture of a stone cross and grave stone.

A lot of us try to reduce the waste we produce during our lifetime. The number of refill stores for example is rising and people try to travel more sustainable or eat a greener diet. While it is great that more people live a sustainable life, many forget to look beyond their lifetime. What about after we die? Is it even possible to have an eco-friendly burial? Julia talked to Lee Webster, vice-president of Education of the Green Burial Council – a US-based organisation that educates people on green burials – to answer those questions.

A graveyard in summer.
Many graveyards survive for centuries. Photo: Various-Photography I Pixabay

Julia Brunner (JB): Lee, what is your definition on what makes a burial “green”?

Lee Webster (LW): We try not to get into the “shades of green” argument. What is scientifically beneficial and not detrimental to the planet is our mantra. That means eliminating metals, toxic chemicals, concrete, exotic woods, and anything polluting. That said, we also don’t restrict common sense judgment when it comes to things like amalgam fillings, knee and hip replacements, and zippers or buttons. Do the best you can, but make sure the best isn’t a convenient “compromise” such as butter dishing—turning a concrete vault upside down still leaves concrete in the grave and can’t be considered environmentally responsible.

JB: What is the aim of the Green Burial Council?

LW: The Green Burial Council is comprised of two non-profits. The GBCI works to educate the public and the GBC certifies cemeteries, product manufacturers and distributors, and funeral homes. Together the GBC works to ensure that the public receives accurate, science-based information and the assurance that our certified providers have met stringent standards and are not engaged in greenwashing, the practice of promising that something is environmentally sound when it has hidden eco-costs. Our goal is to make a truly traditional burial traditional again.

JB: You are the vice-president of education of the Green Burial Council – what do you educate people on and how do you do it?

LW: First, I’ve participated with the GBC for many years in various capacities, including President, so part of my “retirement” role is continuing to manage the educational materials and support others in outreach projects and programs. This includes designing, creating content, and managing a robust website that houses our written documents: how-to guides; tools for volunteers promoting green burial; video, article, media, blog, and other archives; directories of our providers; green burial stories, and a great deal more. We also provide regular informational online forums, a monthly newsletter, an annual conference, support to providers, and, of course, information on how to become certified. All that we do has to do with promoting the most natural, scientifically efficient, and environmentally sustainable method of body disposition known to humankind.

A grave at a cemetery in Buenos Aires.
Each culture has a different tradition for caring for their dead. Photo: Julia Brunner

JB: For whom is a green burial an option?

LW: Ideally, it will be an option for anyone who wishes to have one. Though we now have a documented list of over 320 options that we know of, it still doesn’t mean that they are located near enough to everyone in North America. It also doesn’t mean that they are affordable for everyone. When green burial is the norm and available to everyone at an affordable price, it will be a real choice for everyone.

JB: What negative environmental effects can be reduced by choosing a green burial?

LW: Endless answer to this question—improved water, soil and air, reduced waste of resources directly involving the products and their travel footprint, reduced health dangers to workers, increased capacity for conserving land— the list goes on.

Statistic on health issues of funeral workers.
Statistic: Julia Brunner

JB: Your organization is based in the US, so you focus a lot on burial traditions in the states. Are there other countries or cultures that have a burial tradition that fits the criteria of green burial that you are aware of?

LW: The US and Canada are among the only countries in the world who conduct disposition the way we have for the past 90+ years. We are the exception, not the rule, and we need to begin recognizing that what we are doing is unique, but uniquely destructive and dangerous. We need to go back to what other countries have continued to do without interruption, and to what we were doing before being interrupted. The hopeful part is that we have learned so much about how to do the truly traditional—body to earth burial—even better due to scientific understanding developed in the interim.

JB: What happens when religious traditions get in the way with a green burial? How do you deal with that and what would you tell people who debate this?

LW: I’d rephrase this question—most religious tradition IS green. Jewish, Muslim, Quaker, and other traditions never drank the Kool-Aid of vault burial and toxic chemical embalming. They are to be recognized and applauded as being the original green burial advocates. But what this leaves are some obvious groups, including Christians, Hindu (who embrace purification by fire through cremation), and those not affiliated with organized religion. By and large, the decision to use a vault, be embalmed, buy expensive and non-biodegradable caskets, and spend thousands of dollars on funerals is a cultural pressure, not a religious one, even in the evangelical Christian community, and particularly in the African American community. Nowhere in any religious doctrine does it say any church requires its congregants to pump their bodies full of formaldehyde, be encased in steel and sealed up in concrete. On the contrary, the Catholic Church, for example, is ecstatic to see the trend toward full-body burial, given the Catholic doctrine of preparing the body intact for resurrection. There’s really nothing to debate—the scientific statistics regarding the negative impact of embalming, vault burial, and cremation speak for themselves.

This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Green Burial Council believes cemeteries, preserves, and burial grounds can broadly be considered green if they meet the following criteria: caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat. Green burial necessitates the use of non-toxic and biodegradable materials, such as caskets, shrouds, and urns. If you want to learn more about green burials go and have a look at the website of the Green Burial Council.

Hello there! I'm Julia, co-founder of Eco-Spotlight and a freelance journalist. With Eco-Spotlight, I want to focus on sharing stories of inspirational people and positive impact, as well as learn more about the environment, and sustainability.

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