Editorial: ‘Green burials’ recognize life as a natural, organic cycle

  • Why some are ditching the vault and coffin for natural burials and at-home funerals. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Twenty million feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel. That, along with 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, is what goes into the ground each year as Americans bury their dead, at a median cost of nearly $8,500 per funeral.

If you regard that as profoundly wasteful and environmentally unsound, you are not alone. A simpler and more natural alternative is the “green burial,” a practice that is catching on across the country and could soon reach Lebanon, as staff writer Tim Camerato reported last month.

Although green burials may differ in the details, they shun embalming fluids and all the non-biodegradable materials involved in conventional burials in favor of laying the deceased to rest in a simple cloth shroud or biodegradable coffin, according to the nonprofit Green Burial Council, the source of the statistics cited above. Graves are dug shallow enough to speed decomposition of the body through microbial activity. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The idea has appeal at a time when more and more people are concerned about reducing their impact on the environment. A 2018 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association found that 54 percent of Americans are contemplating a green burial and 72 percent of cemeteries report increased demand for them. However, as Camerato reported, while 220 cemeteries across the country allow green burials, typically on land set apart from traditional cemetery plots, only a handful in New Hampshire and Vermont do.

That could change in the Upper Valley as the new Lebanon Board of Cemetery Trustees gets set to explore in the coming months where green burials could be accommodated and what rules should govern them. “There’s a lot that we need to learn about it,” Sue Painter, chairwoman of the board, told Camerato after the City Council heard recently from several residents advocating for a change in current cemetery rules that require copper or steel vaults, concrete boxes or cremation urns designed to withstand deterioration.

Lee Webster, president of New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education and Advocacy, a nonprofit, told Camerato that green burials are better for the earth and allow the land to someday be reused. “It may sound a little freaky to Americans,” said Webster, a nationally known advocate of green burials. “It’s a very American idea that we own land even after we’ve left the planet.”

Of course, in this case, the new is not really new. “I think green burials (are) going back to original tradition,” City Councilor Erling Heistad pointed out, in alluding to his family’s old burial plots in Old Pine Tree Cemetery. In fact, virtually all burials were green prior to the Civil War, when a public outcry to have fallen soldiers returned to their families for burial led to embalming becoming a common practice.

And green burials are part of a number of religious traditions, including the Jewish and Islamic ones. This suggests the spiritual dimension of the practice. It recognizes the end of life as an organic part of a natural cycle and, in that certain knowledge, encourages humans to approach death with the humility reflected in the words of the traditional Anglican burial service: “We brought nothing into the world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”