Small Business & Startups and Sustainability

Cemetery digs into green burials

Study shows 53.8% of Americans are considering environmentally friendly practice.

August 9, 2019
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Green Burial
Clients using the green burial service at Ridgeview Memorial Gardens must purchase eco-friendly products such as untreated wooden caskets for the burials. Courtesy Ridgeview Memorial Gardens

More Americans are recognizing their carbon footprint extends past death and are shunning traditional burials that involve formaldehyde embalming, treated caskets, concrete vaults and more.

Over half (53.8%) of respondents to a 2017 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association said they are interested in natural, or green, burials to reduce the environmental impact of end-of-life rituals.

The groundwork for a green burial is laid in a funeral home that should be Green Burial Council (GBC)-certified. Staff in such an establishment are required to remove pacemakers and anything not biodegradable from the body, perform a formaldehyde-free embalming process, and provide shrouds of burlap or paper and/or caskets made of untreated wood, wicker or cardboard.

The GBC — which also certifies burial grounds and funeral product suppliers to ensure they comply with sustainable practices — lists a page on its website of certified goods that include nontoxic, nonhazardous, plant-based embalming chemicals that provide temporary sanitation and preservation of remains without leaching dangerous chemicals into the ground.

Funeral homes can go that route, or they can skip embalming altogether and freeze the body until the day of burial — a technique already used by scientists to preserve cadavers indefinitely.

Ron Zartman is executive director of Ridgeview Memorial Gardens at 5151 Eighth Ave. SW in Grandville, one of about 70 GBC-certified cemeteries in the U.S. and the only one in Michigan.

Ridgeview is classified as a hybrid burial ground, which means it performs both traditional and green interments in separate areas on its property.

Ahead of burial day, Zartman said his workers dig a 4-foot-deep grave. Contrary to popular belief, very few graves today are dug as deep as 6 feet, he said. Depositing the body at 4 feet puts it in soil that contains decomposition agents, whereas a deeper grave would have more sterile soil. A green burial returns the body to nature quicker and nurtures the ecosystem instead of negatively impacting it.

According to the GBC, depending on soil type, oxygen content and moisture present, it takes an average of six weeks for soft tissue to decompose and two years for complete decomposition of remains, although bones can take up to 20 years to absorb into the soil.

The natural burials at Ridgeview are done on plots measuring 6 feet by 9 feet to guarantee at least 3 feet of undisturbed earth in all directions between graves.

“We use large graves, which assure us that it’s unlikely we would come across a body that had been interred there in a natural state without a vault. The body would not be protected,” Zartman said. “So, we have a large gravesite, and we keep excellent records. … We try to put safety and consideration on our side.”

Ridgeview also only allows flush granite markers in the natural burial ground — not standing headstones of bronze, marble, limestone or sandstone — per the GBC guidelines for minimizing environmental impact and maintaining a natural setting.

According to Cornell University research cited at greenburialcouncil.org, the environmental impact of traditional funerals is significant. Burials each year in the U.S. use about: 

  • 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 827,060 gallons of which is formaldehyde and benzene, which are known carcinogens, as well as methanol, a toxic alcohol that can cause birth defects

  • 20 million feet of hardwood boards, including rainforest woods

  • 1.6 million tons of concrete

  • 17,000 tons of copper and bronze

  • 64,500 tons of steel

The report said caskets and vaults leach iron, copper, lead, zinc and cobalt into soil and groundwater, despite claims the caskets are sealed and safe.

Another less-measured environmental impact is the toll on the environment made by the manufacture, assembly and transportation of elaborate caskets, compared to more homespun coffins that could be made locally.

Zartman said for about 50,000 years of human history, all burials were “green burials.”

The formaldehyde embalming process used by today’s funeral industry originated in the mid-19th century, Zartman said. The practice soon became widespread, thanks to the fact that after his assassination, the body of President Abraham Lincoln was embalmed to preserve it for a two-week, 180-city train tour that took place in the warming weather of April and May.

“It proved to be very popular from that point on,” Zartman said. “The part about the vault was added in the 1940s or so, and then with a nice vault, you could have a nice casket, and that added considerably to the cost (of funerals).”

Zartman said from the perspective of both the cemetery and the funeral home, a green burial — which costs about $3,000 — is far less expensive than a traditional burial. This is because the cost of the previously mentioned add-ons is removed from the equation.

The median cost of a traditional funeral in the U.S. in 2017 — which included transportation of remains, embalming, cosmetology, use of facilities, a viewing and memorial service, hearse, casket and printed program materials — was just under $9,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

Although there isn’t much data on record tracking the rate of green burials today compared to traditional burials or cremations, Zartman said he expects the number will rise commensurate to the shift toward cremation in the past half-century, a practice that used to be considered taboo.

According to the NFDA, the U.S. cremation rate is projected to be 54.8% in 2019, up from about 2% in 1960. By 2040, NFDA estimates the rate of cremations in America will rise to 78.7%. 

In Kent County, the rate of cremations to other types of burials is about 75%, Zartman said.

“Green burial is much like cremation,” he said. “As people realize that the option is there and the costs are different, they’re turning toward it. Ten years from now, I expect it to be much more recognized than it is today.”

He added: “We have to become more conscious of chemicals that impact the environment. As we look around in the Grand Rapids area, there’s seldom a month that goes by that we don’t have some environmental practice either being questioned or outright challenged — you know, Rockford and a few other things. 

“We offer the green burial because we feel it is a safe and recognized practice — an accepted way of dealing with our dead.”

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