Sara Snow helps move a woven-bamboo casket at Fernwood Cemetery in California.
I attended a funeral earlier this week and it got me thinking. A short while back, I did a segment for an episode of Get Fresh with Sara Snow on green funerals. First off, I never thought it would fly as a segment. I thought for sure my producers would put the kibosh on it, calling it too dark or dreary for an eco-lifestyle show. But I had recently had a personal experience with a rather green burial, and I wanted to share about it. And I wanted to find out what else was out there for people looking to lay their loved ones to rest without chemicals and without taking up precious pieces of land.
In the end, my producers agreed and it became a beautiful segment and a favorite of mine, as it was for a lot of viewers. It's always been funny to me that that it became so many people's favorite segment. I mean, I was talking about death and burials, not warm and fuzzy stuff. My best guess as to why is that it got people thinking in new and different ways, and that people like their minds to be bent a bit from time to time. Also because everyone deals with death at some point in their lives and those who are taking so much care to tread lightly and live responsibly now, certainly don't want that to be undone in their final moments.
My grandpa didn't. Which is why when he passed away a few years ago we took the man who had been our grandpa, dad, husband of 60 years, and life-long environmentalist and had him cremated. We then had a small memorial service for him out by the organic gardens beside his and my grandma's house. It was his favorite place. After a life spent in a New York City office poring over financial documents, this was where he tended his vegetables, turned the compost, collected rainwater, monitored the weather, and kept his eye on the world around. Beside his ecologically sound and suitable home, his garden was surrounded by the grass he mowed with a manual blade-mower, so as not to waste fuel. All of it—the garden, the house, the great outdoors--was his home.
Sara Snow (bottom right) at age three with her grandparents (top) and great uncle.
Our act of laying him to rest was unconventional by most standards. But it was beautiful and fitting in our eyes. We all took turns turning his ashes into the compost. And in this way, we returned him to the earth and to the soil, where he belonged. My mom still has a small reserve amount of his ashes, and every year she puts a little more into her compost pile.
That's my story, but it's not the story most people come home with after attending a green funeral. The cremation wasn't typical of a green burial, and the compost pile is certainly beyond of most people's boundaries.
So what exactly is a green funeral?
First, consider this. Every year in the United States, we bury more than 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, which is made up of formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and other solvents that can leak out and contaminate the soil and ground water in the surrounding area. Embalming fluid, incidentally, is not required in most states. Along with our deceased, we also bury 104,000 tons of steel, more than 1.5 million tons of concrete, and 30 million board feet of wood. The vast majority of this is used in caskets, containers, and vaults. Conventional practices serve to memorialize our loved ones, but they also use up a lot of precious resources and precious land, and unfortunately most people don't see or can't understand that there are alternatives to these standard traditions.
When I shot the segment on green burials and green funerals, we visited the Fernwood Funeral Home, Crematory and Cemetery in Mill Valley, Calif. Burials at Fernwood and other "natural burial" sites involve no embalming fluids, no vaults, and no expensive headstones. Instead, the deceased are buried in a biodegradable casket (a simple pine box or a woven-bamboo casket) or burial shroud made from linen or organic cotton. Burial shrouds can also be old quilts or blankets. The requirement is typically that the casket be made from untreated wood or cardboard, with no glues, metals or lacquers. Vaults are never used. Graves at Fernwood are marked with rocks, wildflowers, or trees and shrubs that are indigenous to the area. Because these trees and rocks can blend in with the existing surroundings, each grave is set with a computer chip, archived in a computer system and on paper, and then can be tracked via GPS device.
It's a beautiful site and a beautiful process. But Fernwood isn't alone in the growing arena of funeral homes offering green and natural burial services. Memorial Ecosystems in Westminster, South Carolina, Final Passages in Sebastopol, Calif., Full Circle of Care in North Carolina, and a number of others are beginning to offer greener options when it comes to funerary services.
I understand the sense of responsibility and tradition that a lot of people feel after losing a loved one. But I also argue for preserving our land, protecting our water, and honoring and memorializing people in ways that allow the deceased to return to the earth, rather than be suspended in a box of concrete, steel, and lacquered wood.
Dealing with death is difficult no matter when it happens or who's involved. And, let's face it, we will all deal with it at least a handful of times in our lives. But by allowing the departed to be celebrated and memorialized with the same eco-convictions with which he or she lived, you may be alleviating sorrow and replacing it with the commemorative act of honoring the earth, and all that is natural as well.
Learn everything you ever wanted to know about green funerals, green burials, and cremation in How to Green Your Funeral.