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Ask Eartha: How to go green when you check out

by Eartha Steward
Eco CoffinsA manila cardboard coffin from Eco Coffins.
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Dear Eartha,

This may sound a bit morbid but it seems like the ultimate recycling action would be to recycle our bodies when we die. Do you think that donating our organs helps the environment too? Rebecca, Breckenridge

For you die-hard recyclers, I do have some advice on green burials. When it comes to deciding how to “bury” your remains, most have a choice between cremation and cemeteries. Funerals can be downright expensive! I found that making your death more environmentally friendly can actually cut back toxins, waste, and expenses.

There are pros and cons to both, but for the most part, cremation seems to be the more sustainable choice. Cremation releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. In addition, if treated wooden coffins are burnt with the body, there’s additional threats of airborne toxins including dioxin (a known carcinogen), hydrochloric acid and sulphur dioxide. However, cremation avoids several not-so-eco steps that caskets and ground burials burden.

According to One Green Planet, 30 million feet of hardwood caskets are buried in US cemeteries each year. Beyond wood, 90,000 tons of steel caskets, 14,000 tons of steel vaults and over 2,500 tons of copper and bronze are buried. That’s a lot of resources! In 22,000 cemeteries across the country, manicured lawns are kept green with chemical fertilizers and energy and water-intensive practices.

Another major problem with ground burials is the use of embalming chemicals. Gaiam Life and One Green Planet found that approximately 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid is used annually to preserve human remains.

The process of human preservation is an interesting story. From Egypt to South America, the process of preservation has been mastered over centuries. After 1867, with the discovery of formaldehyde in Germany, modern embalming techniques have become far more toxic.

Nowadays, embalming techniques are used to slow decomposition so bodies are suitable for public display during funeral services. While it’s understandable that open caskets help loved ones grieve, embalming chemicals used in preservation can include toxins such as formaldehyde, phenol, methanol, antibiotics, dyes, and disinfectant chemicals. Once buried, these chemicals contaminate surrounding soil and groundwater, eventually polluting our natural environments.

If I had a choice, I would leave my body to nature. I would either want to be buried on a piece of farmland, embalmed-free and coffin-free, with thousands of sunflowers feeding off my highly nutritious soil or simply, leave me to the red worms.

Wait a minute … I do have a choice. And so do you! That’s where a living will is handy. So, the first step to a green burial is to make a living will (if you haven’t done so already). In your will, be sure to specify how to green your burial and your funeral services.

Definitely consider donating your organs, tissue, and body to one or more of the over 100,000 people waiting for a transplant and/or to science and medical research.

Consider using a biodegradable burial container and going without the toxic embalming chemicals. States do have burial regulations for cemetery operations, but it’s more likely that your county or town will have laws on how one can actually be buried. Most often embalming is not required unless there is a long delay or the body crosses state lines. Do your homework beforehand.

There are several options for eco-friendly caskets and urns made out of newspaper (Arka Ecopod), Forest Stewardship Council certified carton-board (Compakta Coffins), paper (Journey Earthurns and Acorn Urns), and recycled cardboard (Ecocoffin). Nature’s Casket, The Natural Burial Company, and Creative Coffins are other companies that provide sustainable coffins and urns made out of bamboo, wicker and other renewable resources.

Be sure to pick a natural burial ground such as a nature preserve or forest. Green cemeteries (and yes, there are such things) have strict guidelines on sustainable coffins. They also ban chemical embalming. Currently, there are six green cemeteries in the United States with one in Colorado – Prairie Wilderness Cemetery. You can also find green burial consultants like the Green Burial Council experienced in facilitating “environmentally sustainable deathcare.”

Finally, check out some other creative and sustainable burials such as Crestone’s funeral pyre or “open-air cremation.” There’s also a burial at sea. I’m always partial to good ol’ composting. Regardless of which method you do choose, remember it’s your choice, and hopefully this helps you if you’re dying to be a little greener.

Eartha Steward is written by Jennifer Santry and Erin Makowsky, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountryconservation.org.


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