a boots-on-the-ground view of the change that's a-foot

A Green Death Becomes Us

by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC

Now that I have this death and dying thing on my mind, it brings me back, of course, to the earth and the environment. There’s something frightening about embalming bodies with chemicals and placing them in elaborate caskets, made of non-biodegradable and even toxic materials, to be buried underground. Although there is an important place and purpose behind rituals and ceremony for honoring life and death, we’re polluting the earth and contaminating large amounts of land in this outdated process.

I had already told my entire family that I insist on being cremated when I go – no wasted casket, gravestone, plot or polluting hearse for me. If it fits into your personal and/or spiritual story, cremation seems to make eco-sense. Right?

That was then. This is what I know now. Although technology has improved, the cremation process turns our bodies into air pollutants. In fact, incinerating bodies emits at least 7 toxins and contributes .2% of global emissions of dioxins and furans. It is also a large source of airborne mercury.

So what if you are dying to be green?

“The Green Burial Council (GBC) is an independent, nonprofit organization founded to encourage ethical and environmentally sustainable deathcare practices, and to use the burial process as a means of facilitating the acquisition, restoration and stewardship of natural areas. In a natural burial, the body is prepared for burial without chemical preservatives and is buried in a simple shroud or biodegradable casket that might be made from locally harvested wood, wicker or even recycled paper, perhaps even decorated with good-bye messages from friends.”

Land sites used for natural burials are maintained naturally, without irrigation or pesticides. The grave markers are made from natural parts of the landscape, creating a natural and native landscape that invites wildlife and people alike.

The council is creating a certification system for deathcare providers, education opportunities for consumers and an endowment fund to help create approved “Conservation Burial Grounds”. For more on traditional funeral services, cremation and natural burial, visit here.


After my mom’s funeral a couple weeks ago, Jerry and I continued a standing discussion of how we were going to “go” in pure green style. As mentioned above, cremation saves land space as well as the resources and chemicals that go along with a burial. Just what to do about the air pollution involved in incineration? Jerry said, “I’d like to simply float out to sea.”

Well, it ends up he wasn’t so far off. Air pollution not withstanding, it turns out your ashes can be made into an artificial coral reef which can help restore coastal fishing habitat. Hmm, nice thought. And if you go to the website of Eternal Reefs, there’s a description of a sweet ceremony that goes along with it.

I’m still not satisfied – I’m determined to find a carbon-neutral death if it kills me.

Next Up, green guru, Umbra, from, gives me some hopeful news about a woman in Sweden is perfecting a process that uses liquid nitrogen to reduce the body to dust, avoiding incinerator pollution. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Think about it. Then rest in peace.

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