In 2000, Suzanne Kelly’s father died suddenly. She’d grown up in a large Catholic family and had experienced death of more distant relatives as a child without too much thought into traditional funeral practices. But as an adult studying feminist environmental philosophy for her PhD, her father’s burial hit closer to home and also got her thinking about how we came to treat corpses the way we do.
She began doing some research on the topic, and hasn’t stopped since.
Her new book, “Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth,” is a look at the history of the modern funeral industry and the growth of a small movement to change a “death denying culture” that separates bodies from natural decay in the earth. When she began looking into the field, there was only one self-identified green burial ground in the United States (in South Carolina). Today, there’s over 100, including the one she
manages advises in the town of Rhinebeck, New York, as well as a certifying organization.
There’s good reason to question today’s practices of burying the dead in concrete vaults, expensive caskets, and toxic embalming fluid.
Kelly explains how these standard trappings of the modern funeral industry arose in mistaken assumptions of the 19th century, when people believed diseases came from smells, rot, or filth rather than microscopic germs. Meanwhile, embalming became an accepted practice only around the Civil War, when mothers sought to ship their sons’ corpses on long journeys home and Abraham Lincoln’s body traveled the country for viewing months after his death.
Today, we know that decaying bodies pose little lingering sanitation or health risk to the general public after burial. Yet the modern funeral industry is worth $15 billion and uses 20 million board feet of hardwood, 64,000 tons of steel, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid (much of which is prone to leaching into the ground). In fact, despite popular belief, there’s few government regulations that require these particular burial practices.
“Over the last 150 years, our burial practices have not only been polluting the land, they’ve also been distancing us from death. In a sense, for a long time, we have handed over our dead to professionals and said, ‘Deal with it,’” says Kelly. “A lot of the alternative death movement has really been moving us closer to death or to the reality of death.”
There are several elements that may compose a “green” burial. The main one is that the body is usually put in a biodegradable box or even a simple sheath, and that no embalming fluid is used. A second element can involve land conservation: Some but not all green burial grounds are also places that either use proceeds to buy up adjoining land and protect it from development or work to restore natural ecosystems on the burial ground’s land itself. Today’s green burial grounds can be located be located on old forests, new woodlands, and pastoral fields.
Cremation is usually a less preferable green burial tactic, since crematories can pollute the air and release more carbon back to the atmosphere. But crematories with strong pollution controls may also comprise a greener burial, says Kelly. For people who don’t have green burial grounds near them, she suggests planning in advance to contact local cemeteries–some funeral directors are open to different practices such as forgoing a burial vault (others less so).
Overall, the industry is slow to change–since a simple box is much less expensive than a fancy casket, money is involved. But more people are changing their attitudes.
“When a lot of people first hear about green burial, they say, ‘That’s sort of what I always said I wanted, but I thought I couldn’t because it’s illegal.’ This is the way that people are buried in many parts of the world,” she says. “It’s really an awakening that’s happening on a lot of different levels. People are looking for ways to recognize themselves as part of nature.”