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Dust to Dust

By Emilie-Noelle Provost
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Alongside the increasing number of people in the Bay State who are striving to live more sustainable, eco-friendly lives by opting for locally grown and organic foods, driving less, recycling more, and choosing to purchase fewer consumer goods, has come another, less-talked-about trend. Perhaps surprising to some, an increasing number of people are choosing to decrease their carbon footprints at the end of their lives by choosing green burials.

The green burial movement in Massachusetts began in 2014, when Mount Auburn Cemetery, the nation’s oldest garden cemetery, located in Cambridge and Watertown, became the first cemetery in the state to offer “green” burial services.

Sometimes referred to as natural burials, bodies interred using this method are not embalmed and, oftentimes, are buried covered by a shroud rather than inside of a coffin. If a coffin is used, it is typically made from a biodegradable material such as untreated wood or recycled cardboard.

Because natural graves are generally in locations that don’t require the use of large equipment (such as industrial mowing machines), concrete burial vaults, used to line conventional gravesites to prevent sinkholes, are not necessary.

Regina Harrison, an executive assistant and sales coordinator at Mount Auburn, says, “We began offering natural burials as a response to consumer demand. Sales [for natural burial sites] have increased each year since 2014.”

Grave markers for bodies buried using natural methods are typically understated. At Mount Auburn, natural burials are sometimes marked by memorial plaques placed at ground level or on exist- ing trees nearby. In some cases, natural burial sites are unmarked and can be identified only by using the GPS coordinates associated with the unobtrusive aluminum markers assigned to them by the cemetery.

Contrary to what many people believe, embalming a body before burial is not required by Massachusetts law. Neither is there any legal requirement that a body is buried in casket or with the use of a concrete grave liner. But individual cemeteries and municipalities often have their own regulations regarding both.

As demand for green burials has increased, several cemeteries across the state, in addition to Mount Auburn, have begun to offer them. Green burials are currently available in 20 of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns, including Boston, with the most recent addition being West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard in November 2019.

Although the idea of natural burials is disturbing to some, its proponents are attracted to the practice’s environmental, emotional, and financial benefits. Similar to supporters of the local food movement, green burial advocates see the practice as a return to more sustainable, intimate, and natural traditions of the past. And for some family members, knowing the bodies of their loved ones will return to the earth and help propagate the cycle of life provides comfort and peace of mind.

Conventional Burial Practices

Although the practice of preserving bodies by embalming them dates back at least to the time of the ancient Egyptians, according to the website of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, modern embalming practices stem from the mid-19th century, when New York City physician Dr. Thomas Holmes, who had been researching chemical embalming methods prior to the Civil War, was asked by the Union Army to embalm the bodies of fallen soldiers in order to allow their families to see them one last time.

In the days before refrigeration, embalming became so popular— and was so lucrative for its practitioners—that it quickly became standard practice. Although other less toxic and invasive, but equally effective, methods of preserving bodies for a short period of time prior to burial are available today, such as cooling with dry ice, embalming is still the norm.

One of the chemicals used in present-day embalming practices, formaldehyde, is a known carcinogen. Frequent exposure to it poses serious health risks for workers at cemeteries and funeral homes. Once a body had been interred, embalming chemicals, including glutaraldehyde and methanol, eventually leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater.

According to the Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience, edited by Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck, up to three gallons of embalming fluid are used per conventional burial, introducing nearly five million gallons of toxic chemicals into the environment each year.

In addition to toxins, according to the natural burial website, every 10 acres of cemetery land in the United States contains more than 1,000 pounds of steel, 20,000 pounds of concrete, and enough wood to build more than 40 homes.

An increasing number of people concerned about the environmental impact of conventional burials are opting instead to be cremated. The projected number of Americans choosing cremation over a conventional burial in 2020, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the National Funeral Directors Association, is 56.4 percent, up from 47.9 percent in 2015.

But cremation requires burning nearly 30 gallons of fuel per body, releasing approximately 540 pounds of carbon dioxide as well as toxic chemicals, if the body was embalmed, into the atmosphere, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance.

And then there is the cost. According to a November 2019 Washington Post article, a conventional funeral and burial can cost up to $12,000, while the cost of a green burial averages between $2,000 and $4,500.

The Way Nature Intended

Some people choose to have a green burial because being in harmony with nature is important to them. The Green Cemetery Initiative—a partnership between Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust in Athol and nonprofit Green Burial Massachusetts, based in Greenfield—wants to establish the first all-green cemetery in Massachusetts. The cemetery would be open to anyone wishing to be buried without being embalmed; all caskets would be biodegradable, and grave markers made from natural stones.

Land set aside as a green cemetery would allow for the permanent preservation of open space, provide habitat for wildlife, and offer a peaceful natural setting for family members to visit as they remember their loved ones. The Green Cemetery Initiative is currently searching for an appropriate site of at least 50 acres for its cemetery to be located.

“We see natural burials as the future at Mount Auburn,” Harrison says. “While we have limited space for conventional burials, natural burial sites can be located in the older part of the cemetery where no large machinery is used. It’s a defacto natural burial area already, and the historical setting is appealing.”

By all accounts, the green burial movement in Massachusetts is still in its early days, but it has a great deal of potential to help protect the environment and the health of workers in the funeral industry. Equally important, natural burials provide individuals and families with an eco-friendly, affordable alternative to conventional burials, offering comfort to some at one of life’s most difficult times.