"When I first laid eyes on it I was like, 'Oh my God, I have to have that,'" said Amy Cunningham, 58, as she ran her hand over a biodegradable, wicker coffin. It resembled a large, woven picnic basket lined with white muslin. "It was like seeing a beautiful dress on Saks Fifth Avenue," she added with a radiant smile.
Cunningham is not a typical funeral director. She's a fashionably dressed mother of two who used to write for women's magazines. Swapping editorials for embalming was a lengthy training process. But now, her team at Greenwood Heights Funeral and Cremation Services in New York is part of the latest green revolution: environmentally friendly eco-burial.
Every year, cemeteries across the U.S. bury over 100,000 tons of steel and approximately 1,500,000 tons of concrete from coffins and re-enforced vaults, according to the Casket and Funeral Association of America. Cremation releases carbon emissions and mercury from dental fillings into the atmosphere. Embalming with formaldehyde has been linked to higher risks of cancer and respiratory problems in mortuary workers. With the death rate set to rise as the baby boomer population ages, the traditional funeral industry is becoming more and more of a strain on the environment.
The green burial movement is championing sustainability and a more natural approach to death. Forgoing the embalming process, they advocate biodegradable coffins made of untreated wood, cardboard, or wicker. Shallower graves expose the body to the layers of soil most richly populated with decomposing organisms. Burials take place in protected, natural burial grounds outside urban areas, with graves marked by GPS or simple carved stones. It's a move back to the more ancient burial traditions practiced until the Civil War (and still favored by Jewish and Muslim communities).
"It seemed somewhat perverse to me that someone can come into the world in a natural way and go out poisoning it," said Herby Reynaud, a 42-year-old software developer, who stumbled across the idea of green burial after the death of his mother, Marie, last year. He felt that the practice aligned better with both his environmental principles and their Haitian background, he said. When he visited Sleepy Hollow Green Cemetery and National Park for the first time, a herd of deer was grazing on what was to be his deceased mother’s burial plot. It felt like a good sign.
On the day of the funeral, around thirty friends and family crowded around in the September sunshine to celebrate Marie's life with readings, songs and stories. They filled the rugged grave by hand. The children planted flower seeds. "My cousin said it was artisanal–crafted," said Reynaud, "and I think that’s what a green burial allows for–you can create something that's specific to your experience." Explaining the unconventional service to his conservative, Catholic family ended up being part of the charm. "Everything was a conversation piece which allowed us to weave a story and give the service meaning and context and richness and texture," he said. "Everyone appreciated it. I appreciated it. It was definitely something different."
Green burial is all about reconnecting death and nature, explained Cunningham. She pushed up the sleeves of her earth-colored cardigan and flipped through a catalog of green-burial products. Besides woven caskets, there are soluble salt urns and seed-filled scattering tubes. There's even the option to transform the remains of a loved one into a hand-crafted piece of amber jewelry. Products can be adorned with photographs, drawings or hand-written messages. It's less rigid and more personal, Cunningham said. Taking part in the burial process is also encouraged. Families can dig or fill graves and plant memorial trees. "Having these kinds of alternative burials helps families feel they are doing something innovative and creative," explained Cunningham, who had just returned from the latest green burial convention in Tampa. "It's an experience, it's not the conventional funeral and families look back on it as something uplifting."
"I think people recognize that something's not quite right with traditional funerals," said Joe Sehee, a former Jesuit lay minister who founded the Green Burial Council in 2002. They regulate practice and educate the public on the green options available. "There's a paradigm shift which is about to take place in this field. We're in a really interesting period because people have the ability to really change things and that doesn't happen very often," he said.
"Consumers know what they don't want. They know they don't want the funeral they saw their grandmother have: very formal, very stuffy, very clinical," explained Darren Crouch, president of Passages International, a green funeral product service. The use of biodegradable materials also substantially lowers funeral costs. "The products we produce are soft, warm and have rounded edges so they have a very different feel to traditional funeral products, which tend to be cold and heavy marble or metal."
Cunningham steers families looking to "green up" cremation toward innovative organizations such as Eternity Reefs, based on the Florida coast. They work to enhance ocean ecosystems by mixing the ashes of the deceased into environmentally friendly reef ball formations. Dropped onto the ocean floor, they encourage the growth of coral and sea life. "We have numerous examples of people scheduling dive expeditions and boating excursions to visit their loved one’s reef," said George Frankel, the CEO of Eternal Reefs. "In fact, we know of entire families who learned to dive so they can participate."
Injecting some imagination into the burial process has produced some scientific innovations. Harvard-educated artist and environmental researcher Jae Rhim Lee is cultivating a breed of "infinity mushroom." The sci-fi sounding fungi can decompose bodies, absorb toxins, and deliver natural compost back into the soil. She gave a TED talk in the U.K. dressed in a prototype of what she has named "the mushroom death suit," a shroud infused with the mushroom spores. It looks like a pair of "ninja pajamas," according to Lee. But as well as speeding the breakdown of the dead body, the mushrooms will also absorb accumulated pollutants such as preservatives, pesticides, and heavy metals. "I imagine the infinity mushroom as a symbol of a new way of thinking about death," said Lee, as she entreated the audience to take responsibility for their impact on the planet. "By trying to preserve our bodies, we deny death, poison the living and further harm the environment."
But attempting to spark an environmental paradigm shift doesn't come without controversy. One green burial practice generating debate is Alkaline Hydrolysis, or "Resomation." It’s being touted as the more eco-friendly version of cremation. Currently legal in only seven states, it involves dissolving the body in acid under high pressure. After reducing the corpse to a syrupy, brown mixture, most of the liquid is then drained off and the remains collected. The idea of loved ones being "flushed" into the sewage system has raised eyebrows and ethical concerns in the US. European markets, on the other hand haven't been deterred, praising the environmental benefits and the lower costs of the procedure.
"Everyone has their own personal preference," said Cunningham. "Some people really don’t like the idea of the body disappearing into the soil and they're fighting it in every single way. But why use a lot of energy to make the body's own energy potential inert?"