Climate change has prompted many people to live their lives more sustainably, but there’s also an increasingly popular way to protect the environment in the afterlife. Green burials are designed to have minimal environmental impact by using biodegradable materials and forgoing chemical preservatives.
Three main components of conventional burials -- chemical embalming, hardwood caskets and grave linings -- effectively create landfills of nonbiodegradable and sometimes even hazardous materials, experts say.
“If you took all of the materials for all the internments over the course of a year in the United States, it would be the equivalent of two Golden Gate bridges every single year," Mount Auburn Cemetery President and CEO Matthew Stephens said.
Every year in the U.S., about 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and tens of thousands of tons of copper, bronze and steel get buried into the ground, according to the Green Burial Council.
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In a natural burial, un-embalmed bodies are buried directly into the ground in a biodegradable container. The names of the departed often inscribed on a shared headstone or etched on a tree. The idea is that everyone is made from and ultimately returns to the Earth.
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“Green burials are also known as natural burials. It's basically ensuring that everything going into the ground for the burial is biodegradable -- it will decompose naturally," said Candace Currie, clerk for Green Burial Massachusetts, Inc., a nonprofit that is working to create the first green cemetery open to all in the Bay State.
Though legal in all 50 states, green burials are not offered at all cemeteries and are often accompanied by local restrictions. Green Burial Massachusetts and other organizations are pushing to expand access.
“We are part of nature. We are not separated from nature," Currie said. "That's one of the major tenants of green burial and what makes us part of the living, dying and rebirth cycle.”
Green burials are getting more and more popular at Mount Auburn Cemetery, according to Vice President Bree Harvey. The historic cemetery in Cambridge was the first place in Massachusetts to offer the more environmentally friendly option 10 years ago.
“When Nate Fisher in 'Six Feet Under' was buried in a natural burial grave – then we started to see phone calls," Harvey said.