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A Green Burial

What happens to you when you die? No, this question isn’t about your soul. It’s much more literal. What happens to your actual body when you die? This is an often uncomfortable question, only broached upon necessity, for the consideration can be gruesome. Yet for Christians concerned about caring well for the environment, how we choose to have our physical body interred after death is an important decision.

Why should we care? The process of traditional burial is surprising in its toxicity for the environment. Consider the following:

  • Each year, 30,000,000 feet of hardwood are used to create coffins. This is equivalent to 4 million acres of forest. 
  • Each year, 1.6 million tons of concrete are used to create headstones and burial vaults. For each 1 ton burial vault created, a corresponding 1 ton of CO2  is produced to manufacture and transport the vault to a cemetery. 
  • Each year, approximately 800,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid are used to preserve the body for a short time. These chemicals leach into the soil and air, as well as expose funeral workers to hazardous toxins. 

“What about cremation?” you ask. “Isn’t that better?” Well, yes. And no. While cremation is generally more environmentally friendly than traditional burial, it is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. To generate the high temperatures needed, cremation requires enough fuel on average to power a house for a month!  Incineration of the body also potentially pollutes the air with mercury and CO2. In fact, it would take a tree growing more than 10 years to combat the CO2 from one cremation.

Grand Rapids based congregation Church of the Servant had made creation stewardship an important part of the church’s ministry. And that ethos extends to providing congregants education on how to make their interments eco-friendly. To that end, the church recently hosted a seminar with Peter and Annica Quakenbush. 

The heart of the green burial movement is to provide an environmentally friendly option to traditional interment.

The Quakenbushs have founded West Michigan Green Burial Nature & Preserve. This conservation burial site is located in Brooks Township, approximately 38 miles north of Grand Rapids. The goal is to provide a simple, natural interment option for those wishing for a beautiful legacy and a sustainable resting place, using the principles of green burial. 

Green burial is both new, generating growing interest among the public and funeral homes alike; and is old, hearkening back to simpler days when funerals and burials were not so much professionally managed affairs but were instead simple, personal and handled by friends and family. The heart of the green burial movement is to provide an environmentally friendly option to traditional interment. According to the Green Burial Council, this means, “...caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.”

In practice, green burials have three distinctives. First, everything that goes into the ground must be biodegradable. Caskets can be made of certain types of wood or of wicker, or in some cases, even a simple cotton shroud. Instead of a large cement vault, there at most only needs to be a cement cover on the top.

Second, no embalming chemicals are used, thus keeping toxins from polluting the ground. In the past, embalming had been pushed as a necessary health and sanitation issue, but this just isn’t the case. Only a handful of states require embalming, and with the hazardous nature of formaldehyde on both nature and funeral home workers is a good case for going without.

Finally, green burials are most often done in a conservation setting, with a focus on preserving the natural environment instead of just creating more large lawn space to be landscaped and mowed. These natural burials allow your body to enrich the earth, plus provide a beautiful memorial forest for friends and family to visit. 

In his poem “Thanatopsis,” William Cullen Bryant reminds the reader that the physical body will return to dust:

“Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim 

Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,

And, lost each human trace, surrendering up

Thine individual being, shalt thou go 

To mix for ever with the elements…”  

So what will you choose for your physical body when you die? Peter Quakenbush points out that, “There is no Christian way” that must be insisted on for interment. As we remember Genesis’ admonition that “From dust you were made and to dust you shall return,” we can take heart that our physical body needs very little after death. Instead, carefully weighing what options are best for our families and for our continuing legacy of creation stewardship will help guide that decision.

Happy Earth Day from the Climate Witness Project!  This Earth Day, we invite you to join us in reflection and worship through a special “Prayer for Earth Day 2022.” 

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