Even in death, there is no rest for your carbon footprint.
From noxious chemicals, landscaping, air pollution and ground contamination, end-of-life rituals can have a surprising impact on the environment, prompting some eco-minded undertakers to innovate new ways—or even popularize old ones—to make our funerals more planet-friendly.
There are now a variety of services available to consumers, including biodegradable caskets, formaldehyde-free embalming fluids and living memorials—such as trees—in lieu of traditional stone markers.
Some are particularly creative: Star Trek’s James Doohan had a portion of his ashes shot into the Earth’s orbit, while outdoorsman John Grayson Rogers had his ashes mixed into a concrete “eternal reef ball” placed near coral reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Green Burial Council, which certifies ‘green’ funeral providers accross the country, writes on its own website: “The Council doesn’t think any end-of-life ritual, form of disposition, or mode of post-mortem preparation is wrong. We only want to ensure that services and products are available to people who wish to minimize the environmental impact of their last act.”
So far, the green-certification trend has been largely overlooked in Massachusetts, with only two certified ‘green’ funeral homes and no council-approved cemeteries in the state. The only certified ‘green’ cemetery in New England, a hybrid model in Danbury, Connecticut, is located about 150 miles outside of Boston.
Certification notwithstanding, New England consumers can still find ‘green’ options. Buddy Phaneuf, President of Phaneuf Funeral Homes based in Manchester, N.H., owns the only funeral home in the state certified by the Green Burial Council.
Phaneuf says he works with smaller cemeteries that also offer eco-friendly burials.
“We received a few calls and inquiries, and thought, ‘hey, it’s a fairly nominal investment [and] something we should be offering,’” Phaneuf said. “...[We came] to find out we were already doing a lot of those things; it was just packaging and branding them as a more consumer-friendly, value-oriented offering.”
In keeping with Islamic traditions, the deceased are not embalmed and are wrapped only in a simple cloth during the burial process. Orthodox Jews also eschew embalment, and are traditionally buried in soft, wood caskets with drilled holes aimed at hastening decomposition.
Phaneuf said he’s noticed an increased interest in the ‘green’ funeral trends over the past decade, but said customers often find the costs of eco-friendly funeral services prohibitive.
“I think there’s a misconception that ‘green’ equals ‘inexpensive,’” he said. “That’s absolutely not the case.”
For example, the wicker coffins offered at Phaneuf’s funeral home are hand-made and can cost upwards of $1,300—more than twice the cost of a low-end $600 coffin. High demand for limited plots in small, eco-friendly cemeteries can also radically increase the price of internment.
Still, the trend continues to gain traction—even the Historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C. was certified as a “hybrid service provider” by the Green Burial Council.
The environmentalist blog Treehugger maintains an extensive guide to ‘green’ funerals.