Graves Going Green

This article was published by Newsletter, issue #45, .

Most people, aside from the seriously suicidal, spend little time contemplating their demise. This is also true for the logistics of one's death, such as the writing of one's legal will and the disposition of one's remains — burial, cremation, or medical donation. While earthly interment still remains the favorite choice among most cultures, an increasing number of people are choosing the latter two options, for a variety of reasons. These include the desire to reduce funeral expenses, to avoid further land usage by ever-enlarging cemeteries, and, in the case of donation, to help people in need of organs and help medical students in need of cadavers.

The amount of land made off-limits by both modern and ancient grave sites worldwide, is probably unknown. But the total space consumed is most likely quite sizable, given that there are thousands of cities and towns in hundreds of countries all over the globe, with most having multiple cemeteries and mausoleums.

The wisdom of using this land for the burial of human remains — to say nothing of deceased pets — is certainly open to debate, greatly influenced by the disputants' moral and religious beliefs. Environmental concerns are increasingly playing a role in the decision process — especially for people who consciously and, they would argue, conscientiously desire for their physical remains to return to the ecosystem with minimal environmental impact. These individuals realize that their bodies are replete with nutrients that can be returned to the soil, and ultimately to the plants and animals that live in and above that soil.

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald notes that "Environmentalists say conventional funerals and cremations are ecologically damaging because cremations produce greenhouse gases; embalming uses harmful chemicals that can enter soil and waterways; gravestones are made of granite shipped from China; coffins are made from particle board or rainforest timber, held together with poisonous glues, lined with plastic and varnished, which pollutes the land."

In response to this demand, a growing number of eco-friendly cemeteries are offering natural burials, in biodegradable coffins. Britain, the pioneer in this movement, already boasts has more than 225 such burial sites. Australia has similar services in at least four of its territories. Other advanced countries will most likely be following suit in the near future, if they have not already. Awareness of this option is spreading to potential customers as they hear about it in the media, and also spreading throughout the industry, particularly at the new green funeral expos.

Clients of these services are encouraged to use more biodegradable materials for the coffins, such as plantation pine, recycled cardboard, or woven wicker. In addition, it is best if people choose against embalming, to reduce the release into the environment of toxic chemicals.

Naturally, some people have concerns over this new approach. Without a granite headstone, how can surviving family members and friends know that they are standing at the right spot? Some eco-burial services allow headstones made from wood or natural rock. Global Positioning System (GPS) locating is an option made available by some services, including Lismore Memorial Park Cemetery, which is the first eco-burial site in Australia's New South Wales. Families visiting the burial sites of their loved ones, are loaned satellite navigation devices.

With a far less structured organization of the burial sites, is it possible for the deceased to be inadvertently located too close to the remains of someone else? Most if not all facilities ensure that graves are at least a respectful distance from one another.

Though our time alive may be limited, we can now choose to also limit our environmental impact even after death, in addition to becoming a part of a natural setting.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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