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"Green" burials are gradually gaining ground among environmentalists

Although “green” burials are increasingly available in North America, some older, echo-conscious adults remain unaware of the option when planning their death, a small study suggests.

Green burials do not use concrete vaults, embalm bodies, or use pesticides or fertilizers in the pits. Bodies are buried in a biodegradable container such as a pine or wicker coffin, or a cotton or silk blanket. Proponents of the small but growing trend argue that it is more environmentally friendly and in line with how burials were made before the invention of the modern funeral industry.

But when investigators asked 20 residents of Lawrence, Canada, over the age of 60 who identify themselves as environmentalists if they had considered green burial, most had not heard of the practice. That’s despite the fact that the green burial was available in Lawrence for almost a decade at the time. More than half of the survey participants planned incineration, because they saw it as the most environmentally friendly option, the online team reported on Jan. 26 in Mortality.

In 2008, Lawrence became the first city in the United States to allow green burials in a publicly owned cemetery. Several years later, at a meeting of an interfaith environmental community organization in the city, sociologist Paul Stock of the University of Kansas at Lawrence and his partner Mary Kate Dennis noticed that most of the attendees were older adults. These people “live and breathe their environmentalism,” says Dennis, now a social work researcher at the University of Manitoba in Canada. "We were curious as to whether he followed them to his burial."

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That most participants in the new survey leaned toward cremation coincides with national trends. Cremation has recently surpassed traditional burial as the most popular deadly care option in the United States. In July 2020, the National Association of Funeral Directors projected that the cremation rate that year would be 56 percent compared to 38 percent of coffin burials. By 2040, the cremation rate is projected to grow to 78 percent, while the burial rate is estimated to decrease to 16 percent.

The growing popularity of cremation can be traced to several factors, including accessibility and concerns about the environmental impacts of traditional burial. But cremation has its own environmental cost, releasing into the air hundreds of pounds of carbon dioxide per body.

Meanwhile, the preference for green burial is small but growing. The Green Burial Council was founded in 2005 to establish green burial standards by certifying green burial sites. Now, 14 percent of Americans over the age of 40 say they would choose green burial, according to the NFDA, and about 62 percent are open to exploring it.

For those who follow the path of green burial, there are now a variety of options available in the trade. The most adventurous options include a funeral costume designed to sprout mushrooms as the body decomposes, an egg-shaped funeral pod that eventually becomes a tree, and human composting (SN: 2/16/20), a process of a at two months it turns the body into soil. In 2019, Washington became the first and only state in the United States to legalize human composting.

Burial cemeteries for conservation take the concept of green burials one step further by doubling as natural protected. To date, the Green Burial Council has certified more than 200 green burial sites and eight conservation sites in North America.

Such initiatives show a growing awareness that death care options can have a positive impact on ecosystems, says Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University in Pullman and a research consultant for the human composting-based company in Seattle. But, he warns, there is still little formal research comparing the environmental impacts of different care options with death.

Stock and Dennis think this lack of research, along with a general lack of awareness of green burial as an available option, could be the reason many of the environmentalists they spoke to still didn’t consider it. But as the option becomes more available, Dennis says, "it will be interesting to see how that changes."

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