Burials and cremations can be hard on the environment. Embalming chemicals, metal caskets, concrete burial vaults, and cremation facility emissions take a surprising toll.
It's not difficult to make funeral arrangements that are easier on the earth. Some green choices are surprisingly simple, like asking that your body not be embalmed and choosing an environmentally-friendly casket or urn. What's more, many of these options bring an additional benefit that interests almost everyone -- saving money. You may save thousands of dollars for your inheritors by making a few careful choices.
Here are some things you can do:
Choose a green cemetery. The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable after-death practices, has developed a certification process for cemeteries that want to go green. These cemeteries agree to avoid toxins and earth-adverse materials (including metal caskets, concrete burial vaults, and traditional grave markers) and to help to preserve land. You can learn more and locate facilities at www.greenburialcouncil.org.
Say no to embalming. Embalming fluid contains toxic chemicals -- including up to three gallons of formaldehyde -- that can seep into soil and ground water. It's also hazardous to the funeral industry personnel who have to work with it. Embalming rarely serves a legitimate purpose and is almost never required.
Ask for a biodegradable container. You can use a simple wood casket, cardboard box, or shroud for burial. There are also biodegradable urns for ashes that will be buried. By law, you are allowed to use whatever type of container you like -- even a homemade one. This is a great opportunity to save money, because elaborate caskets and urns carry a huge mark up and can cost a bundle. (The average casket costs almost $2,500. Fancier models may cost more than $20,000.) You can find a list of certified biodegradable products on the Green Burial Council website.
Avoid in-ground vaults. Vaults are large containers, usually made from reinforced concrete, that are placed in the ground before a burial. They're not required by law, but many cemeteries demand them because they make it easier to maintain the landscape. The result is that, every year, more than 1.5 million tons of reinforced concrete are buried along with caskets and bodies.
You can look for a cemetery that doesn't require vaults. In a few states, you can even refuse a vault on religious grounds. You may be required to pay an extra fee for grave maintenance, but you will avoid the cost of the vault itself (more than $1,000 in most places).
If you must use a vault, you might consider one of the following: Use a concrete grave box with open bottom or turn a concrete grave liner upside down and find something else to do with the lid. These options offer two advantages. First, they use slightly less concrete. Second, they allow the body to be in contact with the earth, which makes for a much quicker and cleaner decomposition process.
Cremation conservation. Cremation uses fewer resources than burial, and it's also less expensive, but it's not entirely clean. It burns fossil fuels and carries the risk of mercury pollution from incinerated amalgam fillings. Newer cremation facilities are more efficient, using about half the fuel. If you have amalgam fillings in your teeth, you can ask that they be removed before cremation.
Consider a home funeral. An increasing number of people are choosing to care for their dead at home, reducing the funeral industry's involvement or avoiding it altogether. Though home funerals are more work, many find them to be a satisfying and helpful part of the grieving process.
Most states do allow individuals to act completely on their own -- or with the help of funeral "midwives" who are now available in many locations. But there are rules about how people may proceed. And a few states throw up roadblocks to acting independently, requiring that a funeral director handle the disposition of a deceased person.
If you want to take an independent approach, you may want to do some more research. One good resource is Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, by Lisa Carlson and Joshua Slocum (Upper Access Press). It can help you understand how to take care of a body and what laws apply in your state.
Research alternative body disposition methods. There's a slowly growing movement toward developing new, environmentally responsible ways to handle the human body after death. For example, several states now permit alkaline hydrolysis, a chemical process that reduces the body to a nontoxic mixture of liquid and bone that can be safely returned to the environment. And the Urban Death Project in Washington state is working on a viable, safe system for turning bodies into soil-building compost. If dealing with death in an ecologically friendly way is important to you, you may want to take some time to investigate and support efforts like these.
Tell others what you want. Careful thought and planning won't do any good if your loved ones don't know what you want when the time comes. Nolo offers two good resources to help you document your wishes:
Quicken WillMaker & Trust. This software program lets you make a suite of important estate planning documents, including a final arrangements document that tells your survivors everything you want them to know about handling your body after death.
Get It Together. This comprehensive workbook walks you step by step through the process of gathering and organizing all your important records and personal information, including your preferences for final arrangements.