First, you will be lathered with a sterile solution, then rinsed down.
You will be massaged, manipulated so as to assuage your stiffening limbs. Your face will be shaved clean. Flesh-colored plastic ovals —“eye caps”—will be glued to your eyes to secure your eyelids in place once the shutters come down, this time for good. Sutures will be threaded through your lower jaw and below your gums. It will snake its way up through the gums of your top front teeth. Then into your left nostril, through your septum and into your right nostril it will make its path down to your mouth where both ends will be tied together like shoelaces. Next, a slit will be made near your armpit by the main artery where your blood will drain out through a tube into a bucket. A nearby artery will be pumped full of embalming solution composed of water and other chemicals:
Formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol. Phenol. Glutaraldehyde.
Your body will be placed inside a gleaming, finished casket made of cherry wood, copper and steel. The casket, once lowered five feet, will rest inside a concrete vault with an extra thick lid. You will have a granite headstone—something your family will pay upwards of 800 dollars for. Above you, the subdued buzzing you’ll be hearing for the rest of eternity is that of young men weed whacking around your grave. Fertilizer and pesticides will be used to keep your grass looking nice.
It’s tradition, but it isn’t so ecologically friendly. Each year in the United States, we bury 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 64,500 tons of steel, 20 million board feet of hardwood for caskets and 1.6 million tons of concrete. (Green Burial Council)
Natural “green” burials are gaining steady momentum throughout the country. But why?
“Nowadays people are more naturalistic,” says John Barnes of Slabinski Funeral Home in Bridesburg, Philadelphia. It’s the first funeral service in Philadelphia to be accredited by the Green Burial Council.
“Families aren’t as traditional as they used to be. People are simplifying it [and] becoming greener. Just something as simple as not using a metal or steel manufactured casket—that’s saving fuel and materials and things. Not using concrete in your burial vaults, not using gas equipment to open up graves. Not using paper products. Not using your traditional embalming chemicals which are very harsh and very strong,” Barnes added.
Statistics suggest that these people tend to be on the younger end. In a 2007 survey by the American Association of Retired People (AARP), 21% of respondents claimed that they would be “interested” or “very interested” in a burial that would be ecologically friendlier than a traditional burial that includes formaldehyde-based embalming—a pretty eye-opening statistic in itself. But 44% of those 65 and over said they were “not at all interested” in a natural burial; those ages 55 to 64 came to 32% while those ages 50 to 54 came to 23%.
The growing popularity of green burials is largely anchored by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit, independent, tax-exempt organization aiming to stimulate environmentally beneficial death care, at the same time using it as a means means of protecting natural areas.
A 2004 study “Accessing the Groundwater Pollution Potential of Cemetery Development” by Britain’s Environment Agency stated: “the [traditional] embalming of bodies is discouraged for green burials, so they are not considered to be a significant potential source of formaldehyde pollution.” The European Union has considered prohibiting formaldehyde for this same reason. In the aforementioned survey by the AARP, 36% of American citizens would support such a ban in the United States. Those older than 65 were less likely to get behind the idea.
In contrast to some natural burial practices, Slabinski Funeral Home does embalm green burial cadavers but they rely on a system of arterial “ecobalming.” Instead of using a formaldehyde-based embalming fluid—the U.S. standard that harkens back to its earliest days of preserving Civil War casualties who had to be transported hundreds of miles over several days—Slabinski’s staff uses a green natural-based product—a synergistic mix of plant-based oils. “You could drink it,” Barnes says. “99.9% of embalming fluids in the world are formaldehyde-based. This new product is not, but it does preserve.” After that process the cadaver will be wrapped in Irish linen embedded with beads of dry ice. These two methods alone will keep a body preserved for days.
Predictably so, natural burials welcome new problems not so prevalent within traditional formaldehyde-based embalming techniques, especially in the case of a home or funeral viewing. Staying green can pay a smelly price, especially when no form of arterial ecobalming is requested. “Funeral directors are concerned about what might leak out of the wicker casket at the service or a home funeral,” states a publication by The Champion Company (American Funeral Supply). Some directors will use a environmentally friendly leak-proof bedding because of this potential. Champion carries a line of ecobalming products called Enigma that can be used for arterial embalming—like they often do at Slabinski Funeral Home, if requested—or topically for non-ecobalmed cadavers. Enigma Compound can prevent leakages of fluid while Enigma Topical is sprayed topically to fend off odor. Enigma Cavity, a condensed blend of essential oils, can be injected into the cavity (between the lungs) to provisionally slow the natural decomposition process that can result in odor caused by putrefying gas buildup. No one wants to be remembered as having brown, reeking liquid seeping out of their mouth.
Caskets for natural burials are composed of purely biodegradable materials. Slabinski Funeral Home offers caskets made of finely hand-woven bamboo or seagrass. Luc Nadeua, who runs Nature’s Casket out of Longmont, Colorado, has made it his aim to hand-craft simple, yet elegant caskets that will leave a minimal ecological footprint. “A lot of the people that come to our service are interested in the simplest design,” Nadeau put.
“There’s kind of a growing awareness that [natural burials are] available, first of all. And a lot of people are just interested in a simple way of burial. And there’s those people that grew up with a little more environmental awareness.” According to Joe Sehee, one of the leaders of the Green Burial Council, green burials are catching on “because it allows for life to connect with death. And that for many provides a great deal of solace.”
At West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA, there’s a section where the landscapers don’t landscape. Around it, dandelions, purple and green weeds, overgrown grass, mulch, an occasional pine cone. Stones circle around small, freshly-planted trees. Two unfinished, crudely put-together wooden benches glow gray and pale in the sun.There are no headstones in this section; instead, clumsy slabs of stone covered with white bird droppings. ANTHONY CORTEZ “ACE” 1987-2007 one stone reads, next to a small bamboo cross held by twine. FRANCES ANN GABBAR, another. This is the green section of West Laurel Hill Cemetery, and one realizes its gentle, wild grace only upon close inspection.
Imagine. Instead of having your loved ones pay thousands to glue plastic to your eyes, weave sutures through your face and pump poison into your veins, you could become one with the earth—a peaceful, modest consummation with the earth you’ve spent all your life walking on. Instead of a machine lowering you five feet, your family will lower you three. Your final deed would be something of decency and understanding—something the soil will surely thank you for.