To go green, some Americans are willing to scale back on lifestyle luxuries, such as keeping the toilet bowl mellow if it’s yellow or air-drying laundry. But when it comes to being treated well in the afterlife, individuals, or the families of the deceased, often spare no expense—and the expense can be considerable— when it comes to lacquered coffins and giant grave markers.
With this crowded planet getting more overpopulated every year, it’s difficult to say what will happen if every dead body is embalmed, put in an expensive casket, covered by a cement burial vault and marked with a virtually eternal gravestone.
According to Sarah Robinson, representative for the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Hawaii, “There is enough cement buried in the U.S. each year to build a two-lane highway that would wrap around Oahu seven times…and there is enough metal buried annually to build the Golden Gate Bridge.” As for the embalming process, which became popular during the Civil War and experienced another boom in the 1960s, what of the negative impact the chemicals may have on our water chart?
If it seems hard to convince Americans to go green for burials, it’s a good reminder to remember that many religions traditionally practice green burial, as in Buddhism and Islam. Don’t forget that Jesus was simply swathed in a cloth and put in the ground.
A truly sustainable burial means the body isn’t embalmed and is put in a pinewood or cardboard casket (or no casket at all), and legally must be buried within 30 hours of death (this is contradictory to traditional Hawaiian burial practice of waiting three days). We are fortunate that Hawaii still allows whole body burials on private property.
Whole body burials at sea are still legal, as long as it’s done at least three nautical miles from the shore and at a depth of at least 600 feet, according to Alex Wong of the Clean Water Branch of the Department of Health. Rex Mitsunaga, program manager of the DOH’s Sanitation Branch, said that if burial at sea is to be more than three nautical miles from shore, a letter is required to be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency.
While the cremation process itself isn’t so sustainable considering the fuel required to burn the body and the casket it’s required to be in (Ultimate Cremation Services on Oahu is the only institution here that doesn’t require one), it is probably more preferable to the more grandiose commercial ceremonies available in the states. There are other ways to be greener about cremation, including using the greener caskets and scattering the ashes, or at least using a minimal container to hold the ashes. “The funeral business goes in trends,” said Patrick W. Souza, vice president of Family Services and Community Relations Division at Mililani Memorial Park and Mortuary, “There are more cremations now.”
“Two out of three deceased are cremated in Hawaii.” said Robinson. “We have the highest rate of cremation in the U.S.”
If it seems too much of a leap to ditch the body viewing and burial ceremony, perhaps a look to Europe may provide a space saving green burial model. Burial plots are leased for 25–30 years. After the lease is up, the metal and burial accessories are dug up, the remains are covered lightly in dirt, and another body is buried for another lease period. We can all use a lesson in sharing, right?