“…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Genesis 3:19
This has been a sad spring for me, first with the death of a friend, then of my only sibling, my sister Clara. Both these people chose cremation for disposal of their remains. I want to explore the way I hope to be buried; it is an alternative to either cremation or traditional interment.
Different societies have various ways to honor their dead. The Egyptians perfected a method of preserving a person’s body that was effective—but could only work in an arid climate. Egyptian mummification was incredibly intricate so only pharaohs were preserved in perpetuity. In the days of epidemics it was important for an infected body to be rendered harmless after death. Cremation and burial have been the mainstays in the western world.
Most bodies now are preserved with formaldehyde, which slows deterioration and also kills any possible contagious organism. This allows a funeral to be held safely several days after death. A disadvantage of traditional burial, however, is that it uses a lot of resources and space in a burial ground. Many cemeteries have two layers of burials to make sufficient room. Funeral homes tend to push expensive interments; the average cost in the USA is $9000. Fortunately funerals here in La Plata County tend to be less expensive.
Burial cost typically includes a casket and a burial vault. The former is usually wood and is decorative. The latter is concrete or metal and is designed to last forever—to protect the casket and body from deterioration.
With modern burial techniques, when we “return to dust”, our remains are isolated from the surrounding earth. This is probably wise, since the formaldehyde and other chemicals in embalming fluid are very toxic.
Direct cremation is a simpler process. The body is not preserved, but goes into the cremating oven shortly after death. Fire reduces the body to ashes and destroys any infectious agent.
Cremation is less expensive than burial. Another advantage is that the ashes can be buried in a small urn or safely spread over land or sea. Disadvantages include the amount of energy needed for the process, and the amount of greenhouse gas generated. Furthermore, mercury is released into the air if the deceased has silver amalgam dental fillings.
There are environmental disadvantages to both traditional burial and cremation. The former uses toxic chemicals, wood and metal, and takes up precious land area. Cremation requires valuable energy and spreads mercury and other pollutants. Both are expensive.
There is an appealing alternative. “Green burial” is uncommon but worth considering. It is less expensive and much better environmentally than either traditional burial or cremation.
Green burials use no embalming fluid. The body is placed in an eco-friendly coffin or wrapped in a burial shroud, and there is no burial vault. Coffins are made out of simple wood, woven basket material or even cardboard. The body and its coffin follow the Biblical injunction above and biodegrade, returning nutrition to the soil.
Many green burials bypass the funeral industry with its professional mourners. The viewing and service are done at home. The body can be safely preserved with dry ice until buried, but no refrigeration is necessary if the body can be placed in the ground within 24 hours of death.
Recently I spoke with Ryan Phelps, owner of the local Hood Mortuary. I was impressed by his knowledge and flexibility. Ryan told me that it is not necessary for a body to be buried in a cemetery. There are rules, however, about burial on private land, including subdivision regulations. In Colorado a form must be filed with the County Clerk and Recorder with the GPS coordinates of the grave.
Ryan also told me about another type of burial he has facilitated. A “frontier burial” is what cowboys have done for years. The person is put into the ground shortly after death, close to the place of death. His body is wrapped in a shroud or in placed a simple wood coffin. Of course, there is a lot of paperwork that must be done properly—and Hood is willing to help with that.
The human impact on Earth is huge. We can reduce it, however, in some important ways. One of them is to consider what happens to our bodies after death. Instead of being a detriment to the environment after we die, with a green burial we can give back what has nourished us during life.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2011