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Eco-Friendly Burials Take ‘Green’ to the Grave

September 10, 2008 06:55 AM
by Cara McDonough
“Green” burials are gaining in popularity as environmentally conscious baby boomers begin researching end-of-life options.

Modernizing Tradition

Burial practices may be steeped in tradition, but they are not always environmentally friendly. Increasing demand for alternatives may be changing the industry, however, and soon, burying loved ones in biodegradable wicker or cardboard coffins may be as popular an option as the conventional wood and steel coffins typically used.

E/The Environmental Magazine writes that dozens of funeral homes and cemeteries across the country are becoming more eco-friendly as demand for “green” options increases.

For instance, in addition to the wicker or cardboard coffin options, a funeral home may offer a casket made of sustainable wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Those desiring green burials are offered eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional embalming fluid formaldehyde, a toxic chemical that can leach into the ground.

Proponents of green burials are rethinking cremations, too, which have been on the rise because they are cheaper than traditional burials. But environmentalists believe that cremation releases toxic chemicals into the air, and are speaking out against the construction of new crematories.

“If you look at your typical modern cemetery, it functions less as a natural, bucolic resting ground for the dead than as a landfill of largely nonbiodegradable—and in some cases toxic—material,” said Mark Harris, author of a book about green funeral practices, to The Indianapolis Star.

An added bonus? Green funerals often cost a fraction of the cost of a traditional funeral, according to the Star. Though the green funeral business is still small—with only 12 certified green cemeteries and about 60 certified green funeral homes across the country—the Star reports that it is certainly growing.

“Do we need to expend that kind of energy on a box we are going to use for one or two days and then bury forever?” said Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, a group that advocates for green end-of-life practices. “Does that really jibe with our values? An increasing number of Americans are saying, ‘No, it doesn’t’”

Related Topics: Baby boomers and competition in the market

According to the Financial Times, “as the generation of baby boomers begins to confront its own mortality, talk about ‘green’ burials is no longer off-limits.”

As baby boomers age, green burial businesses are expected to be a “growth industry.” Government figures suggest the death rate in England, for instance, will rise from 2012 onward. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the number of U.S. citizens aged 65 and older is expected to double from 38.7 million this year to 88.5 million in 2050, and the 85-and-older population is expected to grow to 19 million in 2050, tripling the current number.

Still, as the numbers grow, some in the green burial business are having trouble getting the word out about what they offer. In fact, as green burials rise in popularity, there may even be competition in the market.

Julian Atkinson, who runs what he claims is the U.K.’s first carbon-neutral coffin manufacturing operation, is trying to convince consumers that his locally made coffins, built from certified sustainable wood, are more environmentally friendly than imported willow or bamboo coffins “of uncertain provenance that are shipped halfway around the world.”

“The challenge to me as a manufacturer is to run the company viably, but I always wanted to do the right thing for the environment,” Atkinson said.

Reference: The Green Burial Council; end-of-life planning


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