GREEN SPACE: The Ultimate Recycling Project- Our Remains

It may be the last thing you ever recycle, but a very important one at that!

Published February 9, 2014 5:00 AM
3 min read


By The Rye Garden Club Conservation Committee

It may be the last thing you ever recycle, but a very important one at that! For thousands and thousands of years, human beings have been devising new ways to dispose of themselves. For a variety of reasons, there has been a growing movement toward green burials that allow us to say goodbye to our loved ones without leaving an excessive footprint on our increasingly crowded earth.

With the coming wave of baby boomers, there will be a huge demand for death-care options like Asian funerals. At the most basic level, there will simply not be enough space to bury people in cemeteries. As a result, some people are choosing to forgo traditional burial, which historically has involved embalming, bulky coffins, cement vaults and large monuments. Some advocates of “green burials” maintain that conventional burial pollutes the earth with toxic chemicals from the embalming process and uses up valuable land in a wasteful, inefficient manner. Even beyond the land considerations, the production of brass coffins and concrete vaults is a tremendous energy/resource intensive process. And for those Boomers who choose to be cremated, it takes a whopping 75 trillion BTUs to heat those furnaces to 3,500 degrees for three hours.

There are an increasing number of alternatives for those opting for a greener burial.  In its simplest form, what we now call “green burial” used to be called “burial”. It is just a return to nature the way the Pilgrims did it: with a simple wooden box or shroud and a tree planted over the grave. There are already over 40 environmentally friendly cemeteries in the United States, up from just a few only a decade ago. The Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization working to encourage environmentally sustainable death care, now certifies cemeteries.

There are a few far-flung ways to dispose our remains in environmentally friendly ways that may be worth considering as well. New England Burials at Sea will scatter ashes at sea in compliance with U.S. Coast Guard regulations, which requires scattering ashes at least three miles from shore and dumping bodies at least 25 miles out.  Another option is to become a “reef ball” and provide a habitat for sea life. By mixing remains with environmentally friendly concrete, Eternal Reefs creates a cast and then deposits them at sea. These reef balls are meant to help strengthen the ocean’s declining ecology. Thus far, they have placed more than 1,700 reef balls in 20 locations off the East Coast.

Another way to accommodate the growing demand from baby boomers for burial grounds is to work with land trusts.  The land trusts dedicate part of their holdings as burial grounds and use the proceeds to purchase more open space. Even if the land trusts sold plots of land for a similar amount as the local cemeteries, consumers would still save money because they would not be paying for concrete, embalming or caskets. Even beyond the financial savings, many individuals would derive intrinsic pleasure knowing their last act made the world a slightly greener place!

If you’re interested in learning more about this movement, “A Will for the Woods” is the first feature-length film to deal with the greening of the death-care industry and using burial as a means to protect natural areas. It received many accolades, including “Best Environmental Film Award” from Duke University, last year.

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