Natural burial ground at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Courtesy photo

Has the time arrived to free ourselves from the costly cycle of how we bury the dead? Ever hear of “green burials?” At first glance, it’s a morbid subject. But as the saying goes, if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. What sense is the practice of disposing of the dead with such “barriers” as concrete vaults, plastic coffins and endless headstones?

A growing trend we might consider is final burial aimed at the body’s natural return to the earth and its elements, even to nourish a tree planted above. There is quite a variety of natural burials, long practiced in the U.K., and trending in the U.S. and Canada, as well as China, Australia, Europe and elsewhere.

Death is as much a part of life as birth, yet most of us try to avoid thinking of it. On observing life, much wisdom has been handed down, such as Pablo Picasso’s remark: “The meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose of life is to give it away.”

When it comes to death, however, the guidance of great minds is scarce. There is that famous rhythm and blues toast: “May your soul rise up to heaven before the devil knows you’re dead.”

Disposing of what is physically left of us, of our mortal remains, had been a task left to families for thousands of years. In the modern era, this has largely been turned over to professionals with high-priced, packaged arrangements. Our culture’s traditional burial is how 2,813,508 individuals, whom the CDC reports as having passed away in the U.S. in 2017, met their end.

So we end our physical journey on this earth with burial among millions of acres of cemeteries, with almost 2,000 bodies per acre, often stacked two or more high. Cemeteries in turn have become an unsustainable repository for increasing tons of steel, brass and copper, millions of board feet of hardwood, and countless tons of plastic, vinyl and fiberglass, all placed in more tons of reinforced concrete, not to mention the widely used embalming chemicals.

Note that chemical embalming is not practiced among Jews and Muslims, who pose an exception to this widespread practice, and who bury their dead on the day that death occurs. Interestingly, the European Union has recently banned the use of formaldehyde, an embalming agent still used widely here, to the detriment of the environment and particularly our water supply.

Cremation offers a popular alternative, with ashes either buried or spread about selected places or even at sea. There has emerged a surprising trend with ashes, or cremains, in this high-tech, 21st Century. National Geographic recently publicized the work of engineers at Algordanza Labs in Switzerland, who use advanced machines to change the carbon from human ashes into diamonds – not artificial, but real ones – physically and chemically identical to natural diamonds. A geologic process that takes hundreds of millions of years can now be done in a matter of weeks. They produce about a thousand such diamonds each year, at a cost to the family starting at $3,000, for memorial diamonds that are left in their rough state or which can be cut and polished.

Yet even with increasing efficiencies in the cremation process, it is still a polluting method, leaving each time a carbon footprint equal to a 500 mile car journey, according to the Green Burial Council. Some crematories use advanced filtration, but these still require cleaning and disposal. In the face of this, another trend is the use of biodegradable burial urns, such as the ARKA Acorn urn.

But here is where green burials come in: while cremation wins over an embalmed body and non-degradable casket system, it still means losing our chance after death to continue to participate physically in planetary life. So reflect on this: we can arrange, in a personally meaningful way, to give back in death a small amount of nourishment to the earth for all it has given, literally by enriching soil and rekindling life as a forest or a tree. And as the Journal of Science just reported, planting lots of trees is the most effective way to fight global warming.

Would you want to leave the world as you have hopefully tried to live in it, with a sensitivity to the environment? Quite a variety of possibilities present themselves. Take the Capsula Mundi method, recently designed in Italy. It offers one of many, intriguing, green burial concepts: start with a coffin in the form of an egg-shaped pod, made of biodegradable starch-plastic. The body, not embalmed, is placed in a fetal position inside, and buried on the day of death with a tree sapling above it. As the body decomposes, the tree uses it as nutrients for its growth.

Enter Katrina Spade, an Echoing Green Climate Fellow (see website), whose master’s thesis is entitled, “Of Dirt and Decomposition: Proposing a Resting Place for the Urban Dead.” Her scholarship has built upon this green burial trend. Implementing her concept is the Urban Death Project, a new system for gently and sustainably disposing of the dead through the process of composting. It aids families in transforming their deceased loved ones literally into soil-building material. It has the potential to transform an industry that has long been committed to polluting practices. The first Urban Death Project is underway in Seattle, Washington, where it has been well-received.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the work of the Trust for Natural Legacies, a non-profit group based in Madison, Wisconsin. They set up cemeteries that use small pieces of conservation properties for green burials, protecting the rest as natural parks. And the N.Y Times reports in-depth on green burials in an article published on March 22, 2018, “Thinking About Having A Green Burial? Here’s What To Know.”

According to funeral directors here on the Long Island’s East End, there are no green burial cemeteries on anywhere on Long Island, though several operate upstate, such as at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery’s Riverview Natural Burial Grounds. The funeral homes on the East End, though limited in this kind of experience, will help with such arrangements. Changing to green burials locally will take a long time. The traditional approach that has now become the norm for burial locally is so embedded in our culture that our most revered cemetery, Calverton National, has a great number of gravesites, yet to be assigned to anyone, already excavated with a concrete vault in place.

Many practical and emotional reasons have caused resistance to the idea of a green burial. Funeral details are often left to grieving loved ones who do not have the environment in mind. While this trend will arrive slowly on L.I., hopefully it will become more apparent that embalming is worth skipping, opting for a closed casket service and rapid burial. One’s last will and testament, or an advanced funeral document, can stipulate a green funeral.

So there you have an entirely new and different way to regard life’s end. It highlights the last words of the great Buddha, “It is in the nature of all things to take form and to dissolve again.” We can actually give back as we dissolve, just as many give back by donating their bodies to science.

Yes, we naturally prefer to avoid all this talk of what to do with ourselves after death. Some rely on a higher calling to face it. The heroic German minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, explained it best: “Death is hell, and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith, but that is what is just so marvelous, that we can transform death.”

An epitaph on an Irish tombstone is worth repeating:

Remember me as you pass by — For as you are, so once was I –And as I am, you soon will be — So be content to follow me.

Yes, we can be content to follow, but it’s within our reach to follow in a special way. Let’s reflect on this final thought: Since we have to go, why not go green?

This story is free to read thanks in part to the generous support of readers like you. Keep local news free. Become a member today.

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg