Back to the Earth: When it comes to after-death care and burials, green is the new black

Illustration by Brian Britigan

It might not be the most pleasant topic to think about, but it is a part of life: we are all going to die. But how can we die better? 

Many Americans are reflecting on this question and recognizing that their carbon footprint extends past death, shunning traditional burials in the process.

Over half (53.8%) of respondents to a 2017 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association said they are interested in natural, or “green,” burials to reduce the environmental impact of end-of-life rituals.

“If we look at conventional style burial that includes caskets that are made from precious metals, hardwoods, foam liners, and satins that get put into a vault liner that is in a reinforced cement steel container that goes into the ground, that may not be in line with people’s values,” says Anne Murphy, celebrant and after-death care guide. Her business, A Thousand Hands, works to create a more hands-on approach to death through ceremony, ritual, and education.

Green burials allow the body to decompose in the soil naturally. A green burial includes removing pacemakers and anything not biodegradable from the body, performing a formaldehyde-free embalming process, and providing shrouds of burlap or paper and/or caskets made of untreated wood, wicker, or cardboard.

According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota, there are now about 150 natural burial grounds in 40 states. Minnesota offers two hybrid burial grounds, Mound Cemetery of Brooklyn Center and Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville, that allow burials without a casket and vault in addition to traditional burials. Since 2010, green burials on an exclusively natural burial ground have been available in Minnesota at Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco Gardens, founded by Tony Weber and his sons, Ryan and John.

John was looking for a home site to build on and found a 13-acre piece of land in Inver Grove Heights. When he started researching the property, he saw that the land had already been plotted out for use as a cemetery. With all the hard zoning work completed, his family saw a business opportunity and the cemetery was born.

The Webers say that when you look at what a standard burial entails, it doesn’t take long to think that there has to be a better option. According to Cornell University research cited by the Green Burial Council, the environmental impact of traditional funerals is significant. Burials each year in the U.S. use about 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid (827,060 gallons of which is formaldehyde and benzene, which are known carcinogens, as well as methanol, a toxic alcohol that can cause birth defects), 20 million feet of hardwood boards, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel. The median cost of a traditional funeral in the U.S. in 2017 was just under $9,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

This significant investment of resources hasn’t always been the case, however. For most of human history, all burials were “green burials.” The formaldehyde embalming process used by today’s industry became popular in the mid-19th century to slow the decomposition process, making the timing of open-casket funerals more flexible. “It’s been ingrained in people’s minds over the past 30 or 40 years that you need to do things a certain way,” says John Weber, arguing that metal caskets, cement, and above-ground monuments are not necessary.

Simplifying that burial process further, Prairie Oaks uses engraved slabs that are flush with the ground and natural boulders as plot markers in order to minimize the environmental impact and maintain a natural setting. John continues, “You don’t need a big, fancy metal casket, and we do not allow concrete vaults. It’s just taking out the extra costs that really saves people money, and then being green is really a byproduct. You are actually going back into the ground like you were supposed to.”

The business is run side-by-side with the family’s existing insurance brokerage that started in the 1970s. “They kind of feed off each other,” says Ryan. “If we have a customer who comes in for the cemetery and they want to finance that purchase through life insurance, for example, we can facilitate that as well.”

“I didn’t want to be a cemetery owner—dealing with life insurance was morbid enough for me,” continues Ryan, who wasn’t completely sold on the idea of entering the funeral industry at first. “It’s been amazing,” he says, after getting into the work. “You talk to people and it’s not nearly as stigmatized as you think it would be. People are incredibly curious when you tell them about what we are doing. They’re inquisitive about why this is not more common.”

Illustration by Brian Britigan

People often come for the green aspect of what Prairie Oaks provides but are sold when they find out that a green burial is approximately one-third of the cost of a traditional burial. “That might not have been a factor in the first place, but it doesn’t hurt anything,” says Tony.

The green burial grounds attract a diverse clientele, serving all types of people from a variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds. “We thought we would have a green, very hippie audience and found that it’s really pretty universally adopted. It’s really more about education and simplicity than it is about truly having an overwhelming green impetus,” says Ryan.

The Inver Grove property houses the remains of approximately 70 people and has 13,000 plots total, approximately 1,000 of which are already sold. The business is rapidly expanding as they capitalize on growing demand for simple, low-cost burials. The Webers already additionally have land in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, and are opening green burial plots in Rochester, Duluth, St. Cloud, Brainerd, and Little Falls all by the end of the year.

Minnesota resident Diana Konopka took part in the eco-burial for her aunt in Gainesville, Florida, and found it to be a special experience. “The opportunity to see her go back to the earth from whence she came and to bring the soil to her was deeply meaningful,” says Konopka.

Both pragmatically and ceremonially, the green burial option is in line with Konopka’s own beliefs and values and has informed her thinking about the logistics and desired direction of her own end-of-life care. “It is my hope that I will be buried next to my partner and that we will be eaten by worms together,” she says with some humor and joie de vivre.

Another consideration for those who wish to be holistically green upon dying is recycling their body through organ and tissue donation. According to Donate Life America, 22 people die each day because the organ they need is not donated in time, and one tissue donor can heal the lives of more than 75 people.

“Do you think you need it after you die?” poses Patrick Becker, an ocular tissue procurement technician at Lions Gift of Sight, a full-service eye bank that obtains, medically evaluates and distributes donor eyes for cornea transplants, research, and education.

Becker encourages thinking about social responsibility in death and registering to be a donor. “The more I’ve done this job, the more I realize that our bodies are just vessels that we happen to be inside of,” he says. “After you die, your parts—if they are useful to someone—they might as well go to someone else.”

Murphy works to educate people about the different options around end-of-life care, including green burials. She explains that growing secularism in the United States has left many people without cultural traditions and rituals to process death. “In North America, traditionally over the past 200 years we have handed that process and the ritual right over to funeral directors, and they have done, in a lot of cases, really excellent jobs. There are plenty of religions and spiritual systems that have very intact practices following death; however, there are a good number of people who have lost that rooted connection to after-death care.”

She encourages everyone to exercise “after-death care choices that are most aligned with their values and belief systems.” Murphy explains, “If you were someone who was a staunch environmentalist or recycled and made sure that you composted and had bees in your backyard and made your own beer, I want your death to have some similar qualities to that.”

For the do-it-yourselfer, the North House Folk School in Grand Marais offers a three-day course in building your own casket, which can be a meaningful experience and result in a useful aboveground furniture piece (bookshelf, coffee table, entertainment center, etc.) with a post-life plan. Another common green option is being buried in a shroud, or, perhaps more meaningfully, a favorite family blanket, quilt, or afghan.

A third relatively unknown choice is a “green cremation.” Sometimes called “water cremation” or “biocremation,” the Department of Anatomy at Mayo Clinic offers the service at no cost to whole-body donors. The process converts tissue and cells of the human body into a watery solution, leaving mineral compounds. Since it’s not a combustion process like traditional cremation, it is environmentally friendly and does not produce toxic gases or air pollutants.

“There are all these different options that are now emerging in our neck of the woods that are really inviting us to slow down, look for simplicity and find ways that we can be kinder as far as our impact on the planet,” says Murphy. Continuing, she reflects that “a lot of people regard death as such a mystery, and I think it’s a huge teacher. If we don’t take time to really get to know it and really relate to it, then we are missing a huge part of life.”