Rest in Peace, Not Pollutants: Green Burials Say ‘No Thanks’ to Chemicals in the Grave
August 17, 2022
You couldn’t possibly count the number of places in Rhode Island where you can walk in pure silence except for leaf rustle, moving among drowsing wildflowers, and around shrubs and trees situated by the hand of nature, the landscape free of human objects except for a sliver of a path.
But you can count the number of natural outdoor places that also serve as a functioning cemetery: there is one. It is Prudence Memorial Park on Prudence Island, a place set aside and developed specifically for green burials, an eco-friendly way to bury the dead that is gaining acceptance across the country.
A green — also called “natural” — burial is one that prohibits embalming with dangerous chemicals, such as formaldehyde. Containers for the body are a simple fabric shroud or a casket of biodegradable material like pine or wicker with no metal fastenings, exotic woods, glues, varnish, or metal fixtures. Finally, in a green burial, there is no concrete underground cement vault or grave liner that the casket sits inside, as in a conventional burial.
That is the basic definition, but a purist definition may go farther. In a green burial, washing and shrouding of the body may be done by family members or friends. Family members may dig the grave by hand. A green burial may take place on private property.
One main driver of green burials is concern for the health of the environment, and also for workers in the funeral industry. Standard embalming fluids contain formaldehyde, which inevitably leach into the ground from the body, and also enter septic systems or sewers straight from a funeral home’s work rooms. These fluids also have been implicated in higher rates of serious illness among funeral home workers. Similarly, varnishes and metal parts of caskets degrade and leach into groundwater.
The exotic hardwoods for fancy caskets are harvested from sometimes-depleted tropical forests and transported around the world at a high cost of fuel. The cement for making underground vaults is a high-polluting material, because of the effects of mining, manufacturing, and transportation.
Green burials are chosen not only by people who want to protect the environment. Some families are turned off by what they see as the excess and expense of fancy caskets and elaborate staging of conventional funerals. Some are looking for an avenue for family members to play a bigger role in the moment, including washing and dressing the body. Some crave quietness and intimacy.
Before green burial started to become known and requested — in the past 10 to 20 years — people sometimes chose cremation because they see it as a cleaner alternative to a full-dress funeral with embalming, tropical-wood casket, and underground vaults. In fact, cremation is a polluting process, in view of the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning. Emissions also contain pollutants from the body, such as mercury from dental fillings and medicines in the tissues.
Ed Bixby, president of the board of the nationwide Green Burial Council (GBC), said lots of ordinary people, not necessarily environmentalists, are asking about green burial. He said families say, “I want something simpler; I want something that feels good; I want my family involved. I want a memorable experience with my loved ones.”
Green burials are conducted by funeral homes across the country, including in Rhode Island. Despite the DIY quality of a green burial, funeral homes are usually enlisted to help with things like securing death certificates and permits, submitting obituaries, hosting a memorial ceremony, finding a biodegradable casket, and arranging for flowers, music and transportation.
In Rhode Island, green burials are done at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, at Arnold Mills Cemetery in Cumberland, and at Prudence Memorial Park. The first two are “hybrid” facilities, in that they are traditional cemeteries that, in recent years, adapted plots and practices for green burials. Only Prudence is a conservation burial ground.
The park was created and opened for service in 2019 by a three-generation Prudence Island woman who saw a need, pulled on her first pair of work gloves, and went to it.
At 5 1/2 square miles, Prudence Island, at the geographical center of Narragansett Bay, is the third largest of the islands in the bay, with only about 150 year-round residents. For people who don’t own boats, the Portsmouth island can be reached only by ferry from Bristol. The island has no businesses, except a small general store.
Robin Weber’s grandfather bought a summer house on Prudence Island, but she and her brother are the first generation to live there year-round. She worked for 20 years as stewardship coordinator for the Narragansett Bay National Estuarian Research Reserve, headquartered on the island.
Also, the island has no cemetery, which Weber has long thought of as a critical omission.
“Prudence Island is a tight community; if you love it, it really is home,” she said. Lots of people who love Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay would like to use the island or its nearby waters as a final resting place for their body or ashes.
For years, Weber had no luck persuading a local conservation group to solve the lack of a cemetery. In 2018, she said, five lots forming a 3.3-acre plot of wooded land on the island came up for sale. She bought it and began taming the property, adding mulch and a modest shed for gatherings and storage, and removing nuisance plants. It began doing business as a burial ground in 2019.
The memorial park has mulched paths, a few wooden benches, and a gazebo. There are no grave markers apart from fieldstones that lie flat on the ground. Weber owns a Victoria-era caisson for transporting caskets or shrouded bodies. Since 2019, the memorial park has hosted two burials and Weber has pre-sold 30 plots. She said interest in the property is coming from both Rhode Islanders and out-of-state people. All are welcome.
Weber calls the practices of contemporary traditional funerals “grossly wasteful,” but she also loves the idea of green funerals because they are “participatory. It is a healthier way for most people.”
At one of the burials there, she said, kids in the family decorated the cardboard casket with photos and flowers. Another group took an active role in filling the grave.
Weber believes green funerals will become more popular in the future. “There is a kind of cultural denial of the reality that bodies decompose when we die,” she said. “We have managed to pretend it doesn’t happen. But in a green burial, over time, people will give back to the Earth by letting the nutrients in their bodies be taken up by the trees and shrubs.”
Swan Point Cemetery in Providence opened a green burial section called The Ellipse in 2019, based on requests from families, said Anthony Hollingshead, president of Swan Point Cemetery. The Ellipse has 148 grave spaces, and half of them have been sold. The area is grassy, bordered by large, old rhododendrons. There are no memorials on the graves; instead, names, along with birth and death dates, are inscribed on three ledger stones in the center of the space.
People like the green option because it feels “like a return to nature,” Hollingshead said. “Families don’t strongly oppose the traditional burial, but they like the wicker caskets. They like the idea of a peaceful area under a tree. They like that this is plain, not ornate. They seem to be people who have a bit more concern for the environment. This is a very popular option.”
Past to Present to Past
Green burials have been gaining popularity for about two decades, but they actually resurrect the practices of an earlier America, say, before the Civil War. Jimmy Olson, a funeral director in Sheboygen, Wis., and spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association, traced the history of contemporary funeral practices.
In pre-1860 America, Olson said, most people lived on farms and in towns. Burial grounds were on the family farm property or in a graveyard located cheek-to-cheek with the local church. “People lived at the homestead; everyone walked wherever they went; and people died at home,” Olson said. At the time of death, family members prepared the body, held services at home or in a local church, dug the grave, and buried their loved ones.
During the Civil War, people wanted their men’s and boys’ bodies returned from the battlefield for burial. This was the start of embalming, in which blood and fluids are drained from the body and replaced with chemicals that prolong preservation. Early embalming fluids contained arsenic, a poison that, to this day, still leaches from some Civil War-era graveyards. (Funeral professionals don’t miss any chance to point out that Abraham Lincoln was the first president to be embalmed.)
Today, embalming is used to slow down decomposition and to restore a fuller and healthier appearance to the dead person’s face during funeral services. A side effect is preservation of the body, but funeral home directors quickly note that decomposition will inevitably happen.
Around the time of World War I, Olson continued, as the country became more industrialized, cemeteries turned to backhoes and similar heavy equipment to dig graves. Old burial sites sink and create a wavy, uneven ground surface. Cemetery managers — not legislators — began requiring underground cement vaults to enclose the casket to prevent sinking of the ground.
Flat and level ground made possible by vaults allows backhoes, mowers, and trucks to move unhindered through conventional — sometimes called “lawn” — cemeteries. That is the vaults’ only purpose. Funeral professionals always note that cement vaults will eventually fail and allow water and fluids to move in and out.
The cement used in vaults is a major polluter during every stage, from manufacturing to transportation. Vaults can weigh 2,000 to 23,000 pounds. A 2019 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics reported that the cement in a single vault releases 1,860 pounds of carbon dioxide into the environment. The Green Burial Council says that, in the United States, vault manufacturing requires production of 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete annually.
The result of all of this: underground pollution and waste of resources. And, for some people, funerals that feel like a production, not a quiet celebration of a life.
Olson said up to the past decade or so, as green burials have become more recognized and available, the funeral industry offered only two stark and not fully satisfying options: a full funeral or cremation. The latter has become more popular, rising to about 55% to 65% of all end-of-life methods, according to Olson and other professionals. He said cremation flipped to a majority choice about five years ago.
Cremation, which one funeral director called the “McDonald’s” of funerals, is dirty. Natural gas is used to burn the body, and 250 pounds of carbon are released into the air by a single cremation. Emissions also include volatile organic compounds, particulates, sulfur dioxide, and heavy metals.
Tom Olson (no relation to Olson of Wisconsin) is director of the Olson & Parente Funeral Home in Providence. “More and more people are not going for the [conventional] funeral. Families are looking for something more meaningful, smaller, and more progressive. People looking at green burial are more educated and conscious of the environment. It is more important for them to do what feels right than to follow what their parents did.”
He said Olson & Parente has done “a lot” of green burials.
Mark Russell, owner of the Monhan Drabble Sherman Funeral Home in East Providence, said, “It is a philosophical way out.” He noted his company has done only a handful of green burials in the past five years, since Swan Point opened its facility.
Anyone who believes a green burial will be cheap way out will soon be disabused of that idea. An eco-friendly way of living, buying an electric vehicle, for instance, can be expensive, and that is no less true in death.
Bixby, of the Green Burial Council, offered a few price comparisons. He said a conventional funeral costs about $12,000. A cremation costs about $3,000 to $3,500. A green burial costs about $4,500 to $6,000. Of course, these figures vary somewhat by region. Other funeral directors generally agreed with Bixby’s estimates.
In a green burial, the major reductions in cost are the embalming, the cement vault, and the exotic-wood casket; eco-friendly caskets in pine or commercially made shrouds also may cost in the hundreds of dollars. Funeral homes are used in almost all green burials.
Prudence Memorial Park charges $1,500 for burial rights and $500 to open and close the grave. These charges are for graves that may be reopened and reused after 60 years. Perpetual rights, for grave spaces that will never be reused, is $2,250 for burial rights. These charges do not include funeral home services.
At Swan Point in Providence, a space for a basic conventional double-depth burial — that is, for two caskets, one on top of the other, presumable for married couples — costs $4,300, according to Hollingshead. A green burial costs $4,825. The higher charge is because green plots, in the absence of cement vaults, may settle. They may require more inspections, and more filling and reseeding.
(The gradual settling of graves is the reason that you see, say, in movies of the Old West, a curved mound of dirt piled above the grave. The mounded dirt is taken from the grave, and it will eventually sink into the ground.)
A green burial at Arnold Mills Cemetery in Cumberland costs $2,100, said cemetery association president Karl Ikerman. One factor is that a green burial plot requires 100 square feet, under Green Burial Council regulation, which is three times the normal space.
“Funeral homes have no need to feel competition from green burials,” Bixby said. “Green will never grow unless the funeral industry is included. People are asking for this.”
Hollingshead, of Swan Point, agreed. “We want whatever makes the family comfortable.”
The Power Of Dirt
The Green Burial Council was formed in 2005, largely to educate people about end-of-life choices. The council gets plenty of questions about whether bodies in the ground will pollute soil or water resources.
In a green burial the grave is 3½ to 4 feet deep, allowing an 18- to 24-inch “smell barrier” of soil between the body and the surface. This depth allows optimal decomposition. In fact, in such a burial, soil is removed and replaced into the grave in specific layers, allowing layers to return to where they started, including the placement of plant-nourishing topsoil on top.
The council assures questioners that animals cannot smell or be attracted to bodies underneath 24 inches of soil.
Asked if bodies can contaminate groundwater in the absence of embalming, a heavy casket, and vault, the council states: “With burial 3½ deep, there is no danger of contamination of potable water that is found about 75 feet below the surface. Mandatory setbacks from known water sources also ensure that surface water is not at risk.”
The council emphasized, “soil is the best natural filter there is, binding organic compounds and making them unable to travel. Microorganisms in the soil break down any chemical compounds that remain in the body.”
A closing comment is reserved for the writer Mark Twain, from an 1879 essay in which he defiantly confesses his various misdeeds: “The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose.”