A. Conventional burial (embalming, expensive casket, concrete vault)
B. Cremation with embalming
C. Cremation without embalming
D. Sea burial in a metal casket
E. Green burial (no embalming, pine/wicker/cardboard coffin or cloth
shroud, burial in a natural or private cemetery)
If your choice is not listed, it’s probably illegal.”
The survey results proved interesting, as some decided to have fun with it. One individual requested burial with “a granite sarcophagus, a gold-lapis-turquoise-coral death mask, and three levels of gold outer sheathing”; another requested a backyard pyre. One friend wanted to be cremated and pressed into vinyl LPs, preferably records that he played on, that would be owned by “smokin’ nubile babes.” Another person said, “Just drag me outside and put me under one of the rocks,” and another desired to have his bones picked clean by birds: “string me up in a forest canopy that is frequented by corvids,” following his preferred method of death—tickling. Another said, “I want to be set adrift in a flaming Viking longboat”; one said “the idea of being mummified Egyptian-style appeals to my crafty side.” Finally, one individual opted for “non-embalmed cremation, preferably for the process to heat a hospital or run a generator at the same time,” or “an organic, cloth-shroud burial or birch bark casket in a thriving tree-filled park that children play in, not a stone-and-sadness-filled graveyard that takes up common green space. Compost me!”
Many who chose between the five legal options felt strongly about one of the choices, but some had difficulty deciding between two of them.
Here’s how it summed up:
Five percent requested a conventional burial, three percent wanted cremation with embalming, 39 percent wanted cremation without embalming, seven percent preferred sea burial, and a plurality, 46 percent, desired a green burial. (Keep in mind that this is Hudson Valley, and the people I encounter on a daily basis are probably more progressive and environmentally conscious than, say, the good citizens of Booger Holler, Georgia.)
An in-depth analysis of the five options in my survey would take more than one magazine article. For the curious, there are several books on the market that reveal shocking information about the funeral industry and its methods. The 1963 bestseller, The American Way of Death (Simon and Shuster) by Jessica Mitford, is a scathing critique of the modern death care business. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003, W.W. Norton) by Mary Roach is morbid, fascinating, and hilarious at times. Indisputably the bible of any natural death care advocate is Grave Matters (2007, Scribner), by environmental journalist Mark Harris, which takes readers on a journey through the industry, beginning with the “tired, toxic send-off on offer at the local funeral parlor.” His detailed chapter on conventional preparation and embalming is enough to make you sick (many people are unaware that embalming is not required by law). Harris then presents chapters on more natural options: green cemeteries, sea burials, memorial “reef balls,” EXPL home funerals, and backyard burials.
Desiring more local information on what the majority of those polled are interested in, I turned to funeral directors themselves. I cracked open the Yellow Pages to discover a whopping 80+ funeral homes listed in the Hudson Valley and spent a week phoning mortuaries at random. Though some didn’t know much about green burials, others had kept abreast of, or at least knew something about, the topic. However, most rarely perform green services outside the Jewish or Muslim faiths, simply because it is not requested. (Within those faiths, embalming is generally shunned as unnatural and they often have their own private cemeteries or special sections within public cemeteries.)
I was perplexed. Nearly half the respondents to my survey desired a green burial, yet green burials are rarely performed. I surmised that the general populace believes that green burials are too complicated or non-existent. One person in my survey had said, “I’d love a green burial, but isn’t that illegal?” This made me wonder if the survey was too leading. If I had merely offered the two undetailed options of burial or cremation, most would probably have opted for cremation, not realizing that many people are first embalmed for viewing purposes prior to cremation, and thinking that “regular” burials are complicated, costly and, perhaps, environmentally unfriendly.
Though several funeral directors interviewed were more than eager to whip out the GPL (or General Price List, aka a Chinese menu of products and services with big dollar signs attached), most of them ask first what the family and decedent would wish, so they can better guide on selection for a funeral service. “Are we burying or cremating?” is the first question they will ask.
Many people believe that cremation is the greenest way to go because it doesn’t take up land space or use wood caskets. But how “green” is cremation, really? Modern-day crematoriums, which reduce a body to approximately five pounds of ash and bone fragments, run on natural gas, propane, or oil, and scour combustion gases before releasing them into the air. Normal operating temperature is between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and the process takes two to three hours to complete (one could drive nearly 5,000 miles on the equivalent energy). Carbon monoxide and soot comprise the primary emissions, but sulfur dioxide and trace metals may also be produced. Of all emissions, mercury from dental amalgams poses the biggest threat, as it is linked to brain and neurological damage.
Pushing up the daisies
There are those who would like to start their own green cemeteries, but the process is difficult. A minimum of 10 acres in a rural area is required to start a public burial ground. As much of the Hudson Valley is located in the New York City watershed, green methods would possibly be met with investigation, followed by opposition. Until last year, only five natural, or “all-green,” burial grounds existed in the United States, the closest being Greensprings, in Newfield, just west of Ithaca. But the growing interest in green burials has now brought the natural cemetery tally up to 12.
Greensprings (www.naturalburial.org), which is dedicated to environmental stewardship and renewal, is 100 acres of hilltop meadows bounded by two 4,000-acre forest preserves on either side; it will forever remain a natural burial site. The administrators request simple biodegradable caskets or burial shrouds, non-embalmed bodies, and natural stone grave markers that are flush with the earth and/or commemorative plantings of native trees or shrubs on the grave sites. Walking the grounds, you’d never know that Greensprings is a cemetery, as there are no standing tombstones, closely mowed lawns, or pesticides and/or fertilizers used.
Another green option is backyard burial, but the process is a bit tricky. To create a domestic burial ground, it must be in a rural area and a certain distance from water, neighboring residences, utility poles, and the like, and meet the exact regulations dictated by the county and town, which normally start with a land survey, registration with the county or town clerk, a fund to maintain the grounds after your own death, and approval from the zoning board and board of health. The benefits of having family buried in your own yard are obvious, but one huge drawback would be the added difficulty of selling property with a cemetery on it, knowing that new owners could declare the cemetery abandoned and move the bodies elsewhere.
Another natural burial option is an established cemetery with a green section. With the help of the undertakers I interviewed, I was able to locate a number of nonsectarian cemeteries that will bury a simple pine box (available at funeral homes for around $150, but most likely not on their GPL) without a concrete grave liner or vault (mandated in most cemeteries, as the eventual collapse of a coffin requires “backfill” dirt maintenance as the ground sinks). A few of these local cemeteries are Montrepose (Kingston), St. Peter’s (Poughkeepsie), Tongore (Olivebridge), St. Remy (Rifton), Wiltwyck (Kingston), St. Mary’s (Kingston), Cedar Hill (Newburgh), and Woodlawn (New Windsor). Parish-owned cemeteries may have some restrictions; others may charge an additional fee for backfill.
A green burial through a licensed mortician (required by New York State law) would need to take place quicker than a conventional one. Without embalming, services would happen within two to three days, as most homes don’t offer refrigeration. Funeral director licenses are governed by the health department, so the rapid breakdown of body tissues can be a problem.
One local individual is currently studying for a funeral director’s license for the purpose of conducting all green funerals and burials in the future—Alyssa Kime, director of the Hudson Valley Green Burial Association. “I’m very passionate about the cause,” says Kime. “Right now, it’s everything I live, eat, sleep, and breathe.”
The student of mortuary science grew up in a funereal setting, her mother being a restorative artist. “Growing up in the environment of a mortician certainly doesn’t make me shy away from it,” she says, “but it also wasn’t something that made me want to jump into it. It was after watching [the HBO series] ‘Six Feet Under’ and reading Grave Matters when I realized that we needed to have a better future for our children and our children’s children, and that we couldn’t continue along the lines that we presently are. There have to be other options, and I feel the best option is green burials. It’s a necessity for the future of our planet. To sit here and continually think that we can do things to the environment without a moral obligation to future generations is just wrong. Green burials need to be accessible to everyone. That’s why I’m choosing to go to school and make a difference.”
New to the local environmental scene, the not-for-profit, grass-roots Hudson Valley Green Burial Association is an information and advocacy group formed in the winter of 2007. Endorsed by the Green Burial Council in California, HVGBA’s current mission is to stay updated on the issue of green burials, as well as aspects of the modern-day funeral industry, and to provide answers wherever requested. As demands for green services increase, Kime hopes to open an all-green funeral home in the Hudson Valley.
According to the organization, although a green send-off has been the way for most of mankind’s history, it is now commonplace to drain the veins and puncture the organs, pump the body full of chemicals, wire the jaw shut, plug up the anus with a plastic screw, place the body in a $5,000 casket, lower it into a concrete vault, and cover it in chemically fertilized turf. The HVGBA website (www.myspace.com/nygreenburials) includes a shocking list of natural resources and chemicals buried in modern-day cemeteries in the US annually: 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, 90,272 tons of steel caskets, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze caskets, 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete vaults, 14,000 tons of steel vaults and 30 million board feet of hardwood (including tropical wood) caskets. They claim that with the wood that has been buried on a typical 10-acre cemetery plot, 40 houses could be constructed.
A benefit concert for Hudson Valley Green Burial Association will be held on November 15 at 7pm at the Living Seed Yoga Center in New Paltz. Performing acts will include singer-songwriter Meryl Joan Lammers, The Virginia Wolves, Quitzow, Venture Lift, and other special guests. A minimum donation of $10 is requested, and additional donations will be gratefully received. For more information, visit www.myspace.com/nygreenburials.