Go with grace: how to help the environment beyond the grave

First, all the body fluids are drained and replaced with a formaldehyde solution. Organs and tissue, useful until very recently, are preserved with this mixture of chemicals. Protected by two layers of caskets and lowered six feet below the surface, they’re ready to retire to their eternal resting place. 

But a person’s impact on this planet doesn’t stop at death – these mortuary decisions affect the environment long after the deceased are gone.

According to a 2015 Journal of Water and Health study, underground burials can contaminate the soil and water around it because of chemical runoff from arsenic, formaldehyde and methanol. This runoff leaks makeup and other contaminants – anything from paint, casket varnish, cardiac pacemakers or more — into the ground.

Dr. Caitlyn Hauke, a director on the Green Burial Council (GBC) board, says the practice of placing formaldehyde-infused bodies into mass-produced caskets and leaving it in a concrete outer shell to, essentially, not decompose, is an environmental problem larger than most may realize.

“Formaldehyde causes an occupational exposure to the people working in the funeral homes that are performing the embalming,” said Hauke. “And then you’re putting it into the ground — you’re putting formaldehyde and these other chemicals into the ground along with the body.”

Though not considered to be a major threat by the World Health Organization due to its “ready biodegradability,” formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals pose a threat, if introduced in major quantities, to aquatic and soil systems, which can occur if caskets are compromised due to leaks, flooding or more.

With that in mind, some lean toward cremation as a more environmentally sound option. The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that, by 2040, the cremation rate in the U.S. will be 78.7% — but those choosing it may be unaware of the toxins that the practice emits into the atmosphere. 

“But the thing with cremation is you’re using fossil fuels to run the crematorium and to run those cremations,” Hauke said. “So you’re using up energy there, and then the burning is releasing things up into the environment.”

Fossil fuels are defined by the U.S. Energy Information Administration as nonrenewable sources of energy that take millions of years to form— namely petroleum, natural gas and coal. As explained by Nick Ricci, a professor at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science and certified crematory operator, cremation threatens to pollute the atmosphere and use limited resources.

“Cremation, as you may be aware, is going to use natural gas, which, you know, generally speaking, is a cleaner burning type of fuel,” Ricci said. “But it’s not environmentally friendly. There’s no two ways about it. It’s not an eco-friendly form of disposition.”

But just because the most well-known methods of saying farewell to loved ones are flawed doesn’t mean that there’s no way to handle death in an eco-friendly manner. 

Jon Hughes, owner of Hughes Funeral Alternatives, LLC in St. Louis, is paving the way for a new type of disposition at a fraction of the environmental cost: flameless cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis or aquamation. 

Despite its name, Hughes said that flameless cremation is more comparable to a burial because it uses water and alkaline — anything with a pH balance above seven, which allows for acidic breakdown — to mimic natural decomposition, rather than the typical combustion method of cremation.

“When a body is buried into the soil into the ground, whether it’s in a casket or vault or nothing at all, eventually, the alkalinity of the soil is going to break down those remains over years and years,” Hughes said.  “This machine with water and the same natural alkali does that same breakdown process, but within the period of hours.” 

The process results in the exact same cremated remains — colloquially called ashes — and prevents the use or release of natural gases, carbon dioxide, mercury and electricity at an extremely high rate

Ricci said that, while the benefits outweigh most other forms of disposition, it will take some time to catch on; flameless cremation is currently only legal in 18 states. Education about the method and its sometimes misleading name is needed before it can grow larger in the industry — Hughes focuses on this with his own clients. 

“Again, you know, for the past 100 years or more, it’s only been burial or fire based cremation. So we just have to somehow tell people okay, well, there’s a third option out there,” Hughes said. “And so we try to educate the public.”

While innovative cremation methods are stuff of the future, environmentally friendly burial methods are nothing new — in fact, humans had it down pat in the past.

Now referred to as a green burial, this method of burying the dead was one that humans used for nearly our entire existence: a body put in a biodegradable cloth or casket, returning to the earth with no chemicals slowing the process.

According to the GBC’s website, the idea of a green burial can be defined not as one type of service, but rather a general category of cemeteries that oppose to “conventional-lawn cemeteries that require concrete or plastic vaults or liners, allow embalmed bodies and allow exotic wood or metal caskets.”

Now, we’re rediscovering green burials as a potential solution to environmental turmoil caused by the funeral industry. Gracie Griffin, the Vice President of Customer Relations at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Mo., urges people to think back to the era when embalming at a funeral home wasn’t an option.

“The process of caring for the dead used to be a family affair entirely, and it’s not anymore,” Griffin said. “The idea of caring for a family’s deceased loved one without embalming is completely foreign to most people.” 

 As an employee at one of the two certified GBC cemeteries in Missouri, Griffin knows firsthand how much of a difference a switch to a green burial could mean for the environment – and for innovation in a rather traditional, slow-paced industry. 

At Bellefontaine, green burials are allowed all over the cemetery, with one section specifically for the practice: a natural prairie garden devoid of markers that uses approximate GPS coordinates to find each burial site. There, animals are free to roam and Missouri wildflowers grow tall.

“We’re trying to help support, you know, an ecosystem in that part of the cemetery. So it’s kind of a cool thing, right?” Griffin said.

Less than 15 minutes across the city at Zion Cemetery, the other GBC certified cemetery in Missouri, board president Martha Kneib is also engineering ways of getting the word out about environmentally conscious funeral methods.

“I talked with the board members about things because people assume there are laws like ‘you have to be embalmed, you have to have an outer container – you have to have a casket,’” Kneib said. “Those aren’t laws.”

And they aren’t – outer containers and embalming are practices regulated from cemetery to cemetery. Most places, a green burial is possible if you know what to ask about, even if it’s not on the GBC’s verified list.

By allowing biodegradable burials and keeping families informed about all their options, Kneib is hoping to dispel the idea that cemeteries are a waste of space. She wants to make them a haven for wildlife, a space where people can enjoy nature and visit loved ones.

“When you fly over [St. Louis] at night on an airplane, there’s just this black hole in the city, you know, there’s lights, lights, lights, and then there’s blackness,” Kneib said. “And that’s a lot of green space for the squirrels and the woodchucks and the foxes and all the migratory birds that come up and down the Mississippi every year. So, it’s like, I don’t consider it a waste of space.”

For both Kneib and Griffin, green burials aren’t something being forced on people – but they are a viable option for a less-polluted future in the funeral industry.

“It’s so nice, because you see in consumer products, so often, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s this eco version that’s maybe slightly less effective than this other thing,’” Griffin said. “And in this case,  it’s kind of a win-win. You’re not giving up something to go green.”

Anna Kutz is a senior at Mizzou studying multimedia journalism. She is passionate about reporting on issues related to the environment and agriculture.

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