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Today there is a growing awareness that business-as-usual corporate and lifestyle practices jeopardize the health of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain a good quality of life. Awareness in turn has created a confusing array of sustainability-oriented decisions. The Greenophobe takes a skeptical, practical, informed look at a variety of sustainability topics. Explore a mix of common sense solutions and in-depth discussions that demystify how to live green and live well.

01 November 2010

Dying a Green Death

Yes, we also think this nice wicker coffin resembles a zombie picnic basket. 
Dying is a very dirty business but it does not have to be.  Image source.  

It is November and in the next few weeks the remaining stubborn leaves of brown and amber and red that are still clinging to their crunchy branches will break loose to ride the brisk fall air down to the ground where they'll heap in piles by the millions. As they decompose, the leaves return their stored energy to the earth. Unlike the turning leaves of autumn, human beings have gone to great lengths to defy every convention that nature has designed to keep the natural environment in balance. In death we do not simply decompose back into the earth from which we came. On our way out, we put our final arrangements in place and, in accordance with any number of modern burial rituals, we give mother earth one last great big New Jersey salute (that's the middle finger, FYI) just before she fluffs the pillow in our eternal resting place six feet under. After living a full and successful life polluting the earth, you would think that we could at least establish death rituals that didn't damn the planet for another entire human lifetime. But it is not to be.

Now it seems that even in death we cannot escape the guilt of how badly we screwed up the pristine earth while we were alive and have in fact doomed it to suffer on without us in perpetuity. Death involves religious rites, ethnic norms, family traditions, legal issues, and of course grieving. These complex dimensions are a sign that death is a very important thing to people. Of the myriad potential maneuvers in the environmental playbook, why dissect this most sacred thing that human beings have been doing since the dawn of existence?

This issue is a big one because of the simple rule of the power of importance. What's important to people usually carries a huge environmental footprint one way or another. Where lots of money is flowing you can bet there's a lot of environmental wrong happening. It costs a lot of money to die these days -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 in the U.S. Death is important to everyone and we all do it eventually. I cannot think of a more ubiquitous subject to talk about greening up.

While the specific rituals and effects differ by country, religion and tradition, nearly everything about the way we go about dying is unsustainable, toxic, and
unnatural. In the U.S., the nasty chemicals used in embalming eventually seep into the ground. Vast cemeteries manicured like golf courses require constant upkeep, expending fertilizer, fossil fuels and pesticides. Funeral ceremonies unceremoniously contribute to pollution and waste thanks to the traditional automobile-powered funeral procession and disposable accoutrements of the gatherings that follow. Not to mention the overbuilt hardwood coffin, which serves a purpose for a few hours and then becomes expensive termite food. As an alternative to being eaten by worms while trapped inside an ornate casket, there's always cremation. However this method involves burning and where there's combustion, there's also pollution. During traditional cremation, fossil fuels are consumed and lots of carbon is released. Plus, our bodies release mercury and toxic compounds that pollute the air even in very small concentrations.

To grasp the full scale of the problem it's critical to look to Asia where the majority of the world's living and dying population can be found. In India, vast amounts of wood are consumed for open air funeral pyres. With forests in decline and air pollution on the rise, there are other more pressing ways to use those natural resources to meet the energy demands of the living. In China, cremation is prevalent and in the cities, human remains are stored in small cubbyholes in large buildings called columbaria where families can visit and leave burning incense. Space is tight. Some of the new columbaria are planned to hold as many as 50,000 urns of human remains in order to meet demand. Vast amounts of steel and concrete are required to construct these columbaria or the various vaults and chambers used by other cultures worldwide. Just about everywhere on the planet, the land required for traditional cemeteries is becoming harder and harder to come by. Like other products of urban sprawl, cemeteries are being pushed to the margins of city limits where land is cheaper and permits are easier to obtain. As a result families drive farther to pay their respects.

When you consider that approximately 50 million people die each year worldwide, the resulting environmental and financial costs of dying are just huge. Dying a green death should matter to all of us principally because it is a painless opporunity to green up and get some tangible benefits in return. Green funerals carry none of the downsides commonly associated with environmental initiatives aimed at the living. Lack of convenience is chief among typical green product and service trade-offs. After we are dead, the problems and trade-offs that plague us while we are alive no longer matter.

After convenience, cost is the second issue in play with most green alternatives. Today there are an abundance of premium priced green offerings in every category of service and product, targeted at environmentalists and early adopters. The concept of a green funeral does not have to be a costly niche service.  It is an opportunity for everyone to benefit from common sense efficiencies that are as good for the planet as they are for the pocketbook. How about using a cardboard coffin or opting to be buried in a natural plot in the countryside that doesn't require perpetual landscaping? No matter where in the world you look for examples, cost will be a driving factor in the movements toward greener practices. In the long-run we'll see that greener funeral practices emerge as the new normal for the masses, primarily due to resource constraints.  The shift is likely to be driven by demand for materials and energy in developing countries experiencing fast infrastructure growth and wealthier middle class economies.  These countries will lead the movement to more intelligently allocate resources to living people instead of burying them in the ground or sending them up in smoke.  From an individual financial perspective, less costly funerals equate to more money left behind for the grandkids, for charitable giving or whatever pop pop's last wishes instruct.

This is a field that remains somewhat taboo and is therefore still in its infancy. But there will likely be tremendous entrepreneurial opportunity for innovation in the green funeral space in coming years. More people are dying, space is becoming more limited, and there are clear cost benefits. Like most other green initiatives, significant growth in this space depends in large part on government regulation. Stricter air and water pollution standards, land use regulations or a carbon price would catalyze the growth of green funerals in mainstream markets. As ingrained as today's death rituals seem, they too can be influenced by common sense, economic benefits and the convincing evidence that dying a green death presents no further inconvenience for the dead but provides some great benefits for the living.

To see what methods and advice are already available today for those considering green funerals, check out Planet Green's handy list of ways to die a greener death:


We'll abandon the usual mantra of "live green and live well" in favor of the one that's more appropriate for this post (and we don't even have to say it).

1 comment:

  1. Have you heard of the mushroom burial suit? It's fascinating!

    Check out this Ted Talk about it - http://www.ted.com/talks/jae_rhim_lee.html