You may be inadvertently causing harm to the planet — even after you are gone.
The conventional ways that the United States preserves dead bodies and then buries them into the ground is actually bad for the environment.
First, embalming corpses and even cremating them requires and creates toxic chemicals that go into the air and ground. Second, those golf course-esque cemeteries demand a lot of water to maintain, and plots must be lined with grave-liners: plastic or concrete slabs to prevent the earth from sinking, so it’s easy to mow. Add to that the millions of feet of wood, countless tons of copper, bronze and concrete and all kinds of other materials needed for the process. Casket wood alone would equal about 4 million acres of trees.
There’s another way.
Boulder County is home to various green burial options, and the demand is growing according to Karen van Vuuren, co-founder of The Natural Funeral, an independent, holistic funeral home and end-of-life resource center. As the name suggests, The Natural Funeral specializes in green burials.
“It’s the simplest return to the earth,” van Vuuren says.
Most recently, it became the first and only place in Colorado practicing a new option: water cremation, said to be even more earth-friendly than traditional cremation. (Another Colorado-based funeral home has advertised it offers this kind of cremation but van Vuuren says they don’t practice it yet.)
Water cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, uses water and alkaline compounds to transform the body (everything except the bones) into fertilizer for the earth. Bones can then be ground down into a fine ash and kept in an urn, buried or scattered somewhere, like the ashes from fire cremation. You can also take the sterile, liquid fertilizer remains to pour of your land, or you can donate it to a local farm.
In fact, this kind of cremation dates back to the 1880s (invented by a farmer to use with his animals), but it’s only been legal in Colorado since 2010.
Water cremation doesn’t create any harmful emissions, like fire cremation can (i.e. carbon monoxide and mercury emissions from dental fillings), and it uses one-tenth of the energy, according to The Natural Funeral.
Since it began offering water cremation in August, The Natural Funeral has had three families request it. All wanted the liquid back and poured it on their land.
“It’s a benefit to the earth, not a burden,” van Vuuren says.
What is a Green Burial?
A green or natural burial is simple; it’s how bodies used to be buried until the end of the 19th century. The body is buried in a biodegradable casket or shroud. It isn’t embalmed. The body is typically buried four feet down rather than six so the body decomposes faster.
Because it uses minimal resources, it has a smaller environmental impact than the modern methods. It may also be cheaper, because you don’t need to buy a casket, but that depends on the price of the plot.
You can’t just bury a body like this in any cemetery though. Hybrid burial grounds are standard cemeteries that allow the option of no grave-liner or vault, no chemical embalming and the choice to be buried in a biodegradable casket or shroud. A full “natural burial ground” takes that one step further, with special practices to reduce energy and waste, and it doesn’t allow any chemicals.
Locally, the Foothills Garden of Memory in Longmont has a green burial section, where you’ll find no grave coverings, natural landscaping and the option to be buried in a blanket or shroud. You may also be able to arrange a natural burial on private land; Colorado allows this but the details vary by county. According to The Natural Funeral, you can bury bodies on private land in unincorporated Boulder County, but property owners need to record the gravesite on their property deed. This means that when the property changes hands, the purchasers would need to be okay with having a grave on their land. Also, the family needs to bear in mind that they may not have access to the grave in the future.
Van Vuuren says she wants to educate the community about their end-of-life options so they can make an informed choice. Often, she says, these decisions are made quickly and in a state of stress after a death.
“People are very vulnerable at the time and don’t know what questions to ask. They’re not informed consumers at the end of life,” she says. “We think being disconnected from the choice in that way is disempowering and doesn’t serve people to be with mortality in a way that’s more healing.”
She understands this firsthand.
Van Vuuren lost her younger brother when she was 11, living in England. He was only 9 and had been sick all his life, after contracting hepatitis in a hospital in another country. He died in the hospital on his own.
“There was no service for his life or a funeral. It was literally a phone call that came from hospital they had unplugged his life support and he had passed away,” she says. “It was a non-event for me. No support. Nobody there for my parents.”
When she had her own children, she kept thinking about her brother and what it would feel like to lose a child.
“What I have brought to people and the options we offer are on behalf of my brother, to have something that comes from his death, something that is good and healing,” van Vuuren says. “My work has been making meaning of his life. There was a reason he came into this world, and now I’m trying to do something for families to have an experience as much as possible where they really feel held, like they’ve had creative input in making choices that are right for them.”
The Natural Funeral also helps people plan rituals and ceremonies. Van Vuuren also runs a nonprofit, Natural Transitions, that holds events and workshops, such as a grief and poetry gathering. The Natural Funeral has a community room and works to build connections by working with local artisans for things like urns, shrouds and caskets. There’s also a gift shop and resource center with free tea, a lending library, natural care products, beeswax candles and gift baskets for caregivers. Outside there are plans for a garden labyrinth, lined with stones engraved with the names of people who have died.
“We want to be more than a funeral home,” van Vuuren says.