Ballpark Estimate: $1,000 to $3,600 (higher and lower alternatives exist)
Since death is a natural part of the cycle of life, it seems fitting that some people are seeking a natural way of celebrating the end. They are foregoing most of the hype and high expense that is typically associated with an elaborate burial ceremony and turning instead to eco-friendly funerals, which are simple funerals that are done without embalming fluids, markers and metal caskets in order to let the body decompose naturally. Proponents applaud this alternative for being kinder on the environment and say an added bonus is that they also often cost less (though not always) than going a more traditional route. But while opponents agree that this may be an economical strategy, they argue that the ecological benefits are not so clear cut.
Concept of Eco-Friendly Funerals
You probably associate the words, “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust,” with a typical funeral ceremony. But this phrase takes on even greater weight when it comes in the context of a green funeral, which helps the human body transition back to its simplest form in death rather than relying on chemicals and hazardous materials to try to preserve the body. How this approach is done can vary a great deal, depending on how “green” the funeral actually is. This can range from simply asking a funeral home and cemetery to incorporate more eco-friendly choices all the way to a more extreme burial and/or cremation that is done at home without any professional assistance.
Regardless of which end of the spectrum appeals to you, keep in mind that this is not a new trend, but rather a return to a way of the past. Such natural funerals were common before the Civil War, and are in fact still widely popular in Great Britain. Further, the Jewish faith has long practiced such a simplified approach to burying their deceased, using a wooden casket and skipping the embalming process.
The Need to Go Green
More people of all religions in the United States today are beginning to explore socially-conscious alternatives to some of the rituals that currently exist in traditional funerals that can cause a negative impact on our environment. Consider these facts:
- Critics charge that U.S. cemeteries build caskets, grave liners and vaults with enough metal each year to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, and with enough concrete to build a two-lane highway that could stretch from New York all of the way to Detroit.
- They also point out that close to a million gallons of toxic embalming fluid is used annually to preserve bodies that are buried in the ground in American cemeteries.
- In addition, the EPA lists companies that manufacture caskets as high on their list of those who generate dangerous chemical waste. This is because of the chemical sprays use to cover the casket frames.
- Environmentalist point out the irony in a system that puts the living at risk while trying to protect and preserve the bodies of those who are already dead.
Many Shades of Green
In an attempt to eliminate this range of negative effects, eco-conscious people are choosing some of the following approaches.
A Green Funeral in a Traditional Setting
The most moderate approach to a eco-friendly funeral is to work with an established funeral home that is sensitive to the desire for ecological preservation. More funeral homes today are beginning to adapt their practices to the preferences of people who want a chemical-free burial and prefer caskets that allow the body to decompose naturally. In addition, some established cemeteries today are offering designated special chemical free sections.
Burial in a Green Cemetery
There are currently fewer than a dozen green cemeteries either in operation or underway in the US (compared to about 200 in the UK right now). These are usually special meadows, preserves or wooded areas that are left in a more natural state and allow un-embalmed bodies to be buried either in a biodegradable casket of cardboard, wicker or pine or simply wrapped in a cloth shroud and buried directly in the ground. Graves may be dug by hand to best protect the land. In addition, green cemeteries usually rely on flat stone grave markers and/or map plots by using a geographic information system.
Cremation is a process in which a dead body is burned and the ashes are collected in an urn or special casket. This is an option many people select as part of a traditional burial, but it is also considered green as well, since it allows the body to be returned to ashes and it conserves resources as well. Some green cemeteries allow for ashes to be buried on their grounds. Or, you can select to have the ashes saved or scattered somewhere with special meaning. Some people who decide to be cremated do so following a traditional funeral service, while others choose to pass on the formalities and select a more unconventional experience.
Do-It-Yourself Home Funeral
The most extreme kind of green funeral is one that is arranged completely by the family at home, with no professional assistance. Keep in mind that this option is not legal in all states. Some states require a funeral director to be involved in the process. In addition, burying a body on private property is prohibited in most cities. In those rural areas where it may be allowed, you will likely need special permission from the zoning board. Be sure to find out the current regulations in your area and proceed with care.
Cost of Going Green
The costs for a green funeral can be significantly less expensive (often cutting the costs in half) than a traditional funeral. This is because you can eliminate many of the traditional expenses, including the embalming, the ornate metal casket, the grave liner and the headstone.
Here are some ideas of prices for the different options:
- A typical American funeral costs about $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. But when you add in the expense of a cemetery plot, burial fees and a headstone, this number can be close to double that amount.
- A green cemetery in the northeast charges $1,000 for a plot and burial fees, while burial in a one green cemetery located in the South starts at $3,600, which includes the plot, burial expenses and the cost of refrigerating and transporting the body. Other green cemetery prices can fall somewhere in the middle. (However, in California, where land is much more expensive than most other places, it can cost $9,000 to purchase a green cemetery plot.)
- A biodegradable casket can range from $100 for a cardboard box to $600 for a simple pine box. But if you really want something extravagant, you can spend on up to about $3,000 for a top of the line, hand-painted option.
- If you opt for cremation, expect to pay about $1,000 or more for the process alone, plus a special box to house your remains, which starts at $20 for the least expensive one.
- The price of an at-home funeral and burial may be just the price of the casket or urn you select, as well as for any help or services you require from professionals.
So the bottom line is that a green funeral can cost anything from free for a do-it-yourself option on up to $9,000 or more just for the plot, but the average range is between $1,000 and $3,600.
Things You Should Know
Many people today, even those who haven’t consciously decided to go green, are choosing to have their remains cremated. This is indeed an environmentally-conscious choice, since it uses less in the way of resources than a typical burial would. But keep in mind that crematoriums cause much pollution themselves. This is because the process of burning the body relies on using fossil fuels which emit carbon monoxide into the air. In addition, if the body has dental fillings, these can produce mercury when burned, which can actually get into the food chain and cause its own hazards. To offset these negative impacts, some crematoriums are looking into alternatives that will help them to reduce their carbon footprint.
It is also important to note that if you decide to go with a green burial, you need to research some of your options before hand, because like cremation, some of the other environmental choices can also have other negative effects that you might not anticipate. For instance, cotton liners that come from third world countries may seem good on the surface but these may not be the best choice, since the production of cotton in these areas have polluted rivers with harmful chemicals. And bamboo caskets that rely on bamboo from China can negatively affect tigers and panda bears that rely on this for food.
Finally, these things aside, these are some challenges that are inherent with a eco-friendly funeral that have to be expected and overcome. For instance, going without embalming means that the body needs to be buried more quickly than is common in many religions.
In addition, in the winter, the ground is frozen in some areas and makes it difficult to dig, yet without preserving the body until the ground thaws, this poses a problem. But some cemeteries are using ground warmers powered by propane heaters to get around this issue. And the embalming process is also meant to stem the spread of bacteria and disease, so some worry that there is danger of ground contamination if you skip this step. Public health experts say this is not a significant threat, however, although bodies should be buried away from water supplies as a precaution.
If you decide that you want a green funeral, even if this may not be the be-all and end-all that will allow you to save the earth single-handedly, you can make small choices that will limit the damage that is done to the environment. Look for materials (coffins, gowns, liners, transport methods and cremation or burial practices) that consume less energy, use fewer chemicals and allow the body most easily to revert back to its natural state. Further, if you are buried in a green cemetery, remember that you will not only be conserving resources but will also be making a positive contribution for future generation since in your final act, you are supporting a natural setting and protecting it from future building development in the end.