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Green Burials

by Katie Rygg

Recently, a Color Penfield Green member forwarded a message about "Natural" or "Green Burials." I had never heard of these and was intrigued, so I set about doing some research.

This is the wildflower meadow that is the site for

White Haven's green burial area.

If you go back a few hundred years, "Green Burials" were just called "burials." When someone died, they were wrapped in a cloth or perhaps laid to rest in a wooden box and buried in the ground. There were no chemicals or embalming fluid. The box was not anything special and the body returned to nature relatively quickly. Many Jewish and Muslim burials continue to be done this way. In recent history, this option started gaining wider popularity, first in England and then in South Carolina in the late 1990s. Juliet and Joe Sehee formed the Green Burial Council in 2005 so that the industry could set standards for the process and educate providers.

While the ceremony of the funeral may still vary in infinite ways, what's key in a green burial is that bodies are not embalmed and they are buried with either a natural fiber shroud or a biodegradable casket. Cremated remains may also have a green burial as long as the urn is biodegradable.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Greater Rochester has excellent resources on this topic. They cite several reasons to consider a green burial (taken directly from their November, 2020 brochure):

  • Simplicity. The idea of wrapping the body in a shroud or placing it in a plain, unadorned coffin appeals to those who prefer their burial arrangement to be simple, natural and unpretentious.

  • Lower cost. Because green burials do not involve embalming, fancy caskets, or concrete vaults, they can be a very cost-effective alternative to conventional burials, lowering the cost by thousands of dollars. If the family supplies their own shroud or coffin, the cost can be further reduced.

  • Conserving natural resources. Each year US cemeteries bury over 30 million board feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel in caskets, 17,000 tons of steel and copper in vaults, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults. With green burial, fewer resources are used.

  • Eliminating hazardous chemicals. For some, forgoing the embalming process is the main attraction, since embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, a respiratory irritant and known carcinogen. In the US about 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are used every year, and funeral home workers are exposed to it routinely.

  • Preserving natural areas. Love of nature and a desire for “eternal rest” in a forever-wild meadow or forest are frequently cited reasons for choosing green burial. The burial sites restore or preserve a natural landscape populated by native trees, shrubs and wildflowers; the sites offer food and refuge to birds and other wildlife. Many green cemeteries do not use fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides. So a green cemetery can be an important component in the acquisition and conservation of native habitats.

Rochester happens to be a hot spot for green burials: four Green Burial Council-certified cemeteries are in this region.

Want more information?

Check out Fitting Tribute Funeral Services brochure on green burial providers in the NY and surrounding areas which includes prices.

The Democrat and Chronical published a great, detailed article on the subject in July, 2018: More Cemeteries are Going Green by Meghan Finnerty.

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