The Environmental impact of Death and the Green Burial Alternative

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by Sasha Honsl, Director, Green Burial Ottawa Valley

We come from nature. Our parents and our ancestors came to life, lived, and survived from the nourishment given by plants and animals. The survival of all animals, of course, comes from plants which are nourished from the soil that is comprised of decayed plant and animal material. This cycle of life has existed since living things existed. In the past, humans, in one way or another, returned to the earth and contributed to the cycle of life. Fast forward to modern times and human death has become a highly commercialized and profit- driven business which has disconnected us from the natural process and has caused a negative environmental impact instead of a positive one.

Driven by the high cost of “commercialized” burial, cremation, for example, has become a popular  alternative to burials (according to canadianfunerals.com, in 2019 the cremation rate was 73%), but this comes at a significant environmental cost. Cremation results in toxic emissions, including persistent pollutants. The cremation process also requires a significant amount of energy, resulting in millions of tons of CO2 emissions across the globe.

The alternative to cremation, burial, has become an expensive option, with again significant environmental impact. Did you know that many cemeteries have concrete vaults that the coffins are placed into? The vaults’ only purpose is to ensure that the ground does not settle over time, causing a dip that would have to be topped up with soil. The manufacturing of concrete is one of the largest contributors of  worldwide CO2 emissions. According to statistics I have found, as an example in 2010,  concrete vaults accounted for 2.5% of the concrete usage in the US. A single concrete burial vault weighs 1,800 lbs. and ranges upward to 3,000 lbs. For a 1 ton burial vault, about 1 ton of CO2 is produced to manufacture and transport the vault to a cemetery. This is the same amount of CO2 that a four-person family produces in about 9 days. It takes a tree about 40 years to sequester 1 ton of CO2.

Next up for environmental impact, the casket: The materials used in caskets may be wood, plastics, metals, fabrics, paints/varnishes, and  besides the energy to make and transport, they all create different environmental hazards in their production, transportation, and use. A toxic mix of chemicals that, over time, break down and contaminate the surrounding soil.

What is embalming? Embalming is a surgical procedure by which the body’s blood volume is drained and replaced with specialized chemicals- embalming fluid contains a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. The formaldehyde content generally ranges from 5 to 37% and the methanol content may range from 9 to 56%. In the United States alone, about 20 million litres  of embalming fluid are used every year. Embalming is performed to preserve a body for viewing. In addition to embalming, the body is typically cosmetically touched up to make the deceased look as “alive” and natural, so that loved ones’ last view and memory can be a positive one. Understandable, but is the environmental impact, and what you could view as the desecration of the body, worth it?

Besides the significant environmental impact, what does this all add up to? Canadianfunerals.com – “According to research from Tom Niebuhr’s InMemory database, a burial in Canada costs between $5,000 and $10,000 on average. On the other hand, a cremation costs between $2,000 to $5,000”. This does not include any memorial services – just the cremation or burial of the loved one. 

What is the alternative ? The alternative is what nature intended and what was the norm for humans and our ancestors – a natural or green burial – going back to the earth, making a positive environmental impact and contributing to the cycle of life. The Green burial standard, by definition, does not allow for any form of embalming or cremation. The remains for burial must be enclosed in a fully biodegradable shroud, container, or casket. Ideally, ‘containers’ will be made from locally sourced, sustainable fabrics and materials, and directly buried into the earth.

Green cemeteries are typically park-like forested settings, with small markers designating the burial locations- a peaceful tranquil place to visit and remember loved ones. As they are protected grounds, they host and become nature conservatories. Unlike most cemeteries, no chemical pesticides or herbicides are used. Losing a loved one is a painful experience, but giving back to nature can be a beautiful thing. I love and get choked up every time I read this quote: “When I showed Judy a photograph of this beautiful forest, she smiled and said, ‘I’m gonna become a tree.’ That’s when I knew this place was perfect for her.”

The green burial movement and awareness is growing exponentially worldwide. In Ontario there are now about 10 hybrid (existing cemeteries with a green burial area) with another 18 in development. 

More information can be found at: The Ontario based Natural Burial association,  www.naturalburialassociation.ca, and www.greenburialcanada.ca. More locally, the Green Burial Ottawa Valley group’s goal is to establish green burial sites in eastern Ontario. Green Burial Ottawa Valley will have a table at the Sustainability Fair, April 23 at the North Grenville Municipal Centre.

 (www.greenburialottawavalley.ca).

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