It's tough to push up daisies when you're encased in a concrete vault.
And not only a vault, but likely a bronze or steel coffin as well. The standard American burial puts space and barriers between a corpse and the environment, at great cost in dollars and real estate. The body itself is embalmed with chemicals and otherwise made presentable for viewing before being entombed within those barriers.
Other families, in ever greater numbers, are choosing a different approach. Funeral directors and cemeteries are offering alternative, "sustainable" approaches to the funeral and burial. Services include natural "green burials" free of embalming fluids, cement caskets and other manmade additions.
We spoke with two practitioners and an academic about the movement toward green burials. Some highlights:
Reducing that final carbon footprint
"[The green burial movement] is not using concrete vaults for steel caskets or embalming or using chemicals, fertilizers, in the cemetery itself. It's a prescription for maintenance of the grounds so that you have as low an impact as possible in your final resting place." (Jeff Jorgenson, of Elemental Cremation and Burial)
Make sure your wishes are known
"If you're a person who feels strongly about what is done with your body when you die, then that will be something that you want to make sure follows your wishes. For example, I feel very strongly ... There's a contingency here that my organs are used, and I'm also a bone and tissue donor, so that to me is the most important part of the final disposition of my remains. And I actually make that part of my request for what happens to my body when I die." (John Troyer, of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath)
Why do we use vaults in the first place?
"[The use of concrete vaults] does come out of necessity. When you have a steel casket, and you put dirt over it, it will maintain integrity for a little while. But as you run lawnmowers and excavating equipment and people and things over it, over time it will collapse, and it actually creates a safety issue. Early on they figured out, 'Oh, we can just put it in a concrete box, and things are better.' That solves the problem it was intended to solve. However, we're now filling up cemeteries with concrete and rebar and caskets that are made from stainless steel and mahogany, and some pretty intense stuff as far as resources are concerned. People who select green burial right now tend to select it because its environmental impacts are so minimal. And so they'll select a shrouded burial. They'll wrap in a linen shroud and lower the body into the grave with that. Less people do any sort of casket at all, although a sustainably harvested pine or some sustainable wood source for a casket is perfectly acceptable for most green cemeteries." (Jorgenson)
As we did in Grandfather's time
"Green burial has brought to the forefront the misconceptions that there has to be embalming, there has to be this metal casket thing and the seals that prevent the natural events taking place, and also the misconception has been that there are certain things like vaults made out of cement that are required. They're only required by the cemetery. They're not required by state or federal law ... I can remember my grandfather's burial being very natural. I'm from northern Minnesota, a small town and a rural community. We're doing a lot of what I saw when I was a kid. And that is, wrap 'em up in an afghan or a blanket or a shroud, and put 'em in the ground." (Tony Weber, of Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco Gardens)
Other parts of the country see visitation as 'repugnant'
"Embalming came around in the Civil War. It was when a technology met a need, and that was the need to return the dead to their hometown without decomposition destroying the body before they got there. Technology had actually met that need, and that's where it started. The evolution, as modern funeral has come into being, is when we have a visitation ... it's a practical thing. If you don't want to have a visitation this Wednesday, because Mom died on Monday, you can actually wait until the following Wednesday without any problem, because she's embalmed. That's where it came from ... really it exists only for the visitation. There really isn't any other practical purpose for it. ... It's very regional. In the Midwest, where you are, visitation is a very common thing for funeral practice. Here in the Northwest, almost no one does it. It's almost kind of repugnant." (Jorgenson)