Hey Mr. Green,
In preparing for the inevitable, I would like your recommendations as to the greenest way to “dispose” of the remains of deceased human beings. I recognize that there are laws that govern the “disposition of remains,” but what are some green choices for honoring the deceased as well as the earth? –-Read, San Pablo, California
There are now at least as many types of green dispositions of mortal remains as there are levels of Heaven and Hell for immortal remains in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The choices range from the ultimate eco-burial, unembalmed, without a coffin, and with minimal disturbance of habitat in the natural world, to cremation, to a more conventional funeral but with a simple wooden coffin in a green-certified cemetery that uses no pesticides on its vegetation. You can even procure a coffin make from sustainably harvested wood by vegetarian Trappist monks http://www.trappistcaskets.com/
Obviously, however, no single method or combination of methods is environmentally perfect. If you can’t find a natural burial spot close to home, you’ll increase your carbon footprint having yourself hauled to a distant one. And obviously, cremation, while demanding little or no space and material, consumes energy and emits carbon dioxide.
Fortunately, there is an organization, the Green Burial Council http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/, that can help you sort these matters out, and find, among many options, eco-certified graveyards, natural sites, and even low-emission crematoria, enabling you to select a program for disposal that is both green and spiritually satisfying to you and yours.
Your question is certainly a valid one. Embalming is probably the nastiest part of this business because it relies on toxic, carcinogenic formaldehyde. However, if you really do want to be embalmed so that you can lie in state for protracted post-mortem veneration, there are even nontoxic embalming fluids. And, since you mentioned laws, there is no law in any state that requires all deceased to be embalmed.
As for other environmental burdens, my calculations indicate that lots of resources are dedicated to conventional caskets and burial vaults: more than 100,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and around 35 million board feet of hardwood each year. Granted, that’s but a small fraction of the material used in building, roads, and automobile construction. A three-ton SUV contains 10 times as much steel as the casket you’ll ride in if you get killed when the vehicle rolls over. Nevertheless, if you want a greener way to go, the heavy-duty vault and casket are certainly items to consider bypassing.
Also, it is quite possible that the greener burial is actually the cheapest way to. Jessica Mitford, who wrote the classic exposee of the funeral industry in The American Way of Death, told me that she got the idea for that book because her husband, a lawyer for the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union, noticed that a huge chunk of the workers’ hard-won death benefits were being shelled out to undertakers who oversold fancy coffins and other paraphernalia.