For many Buddhists in Tibet, the final journey of the body after death is assisted by the wings — and beak — of a vulture. This tradition, known as a “sky burial,” includes a period of prayer, followed by careful dismemberment, after which the corpse is offered up to the carrion circling overhead.
Now THAT’S recycling.
It also makes sense, given soil conditions commonly found at Tibetan altitudes. Have you ever tried to dig a six-foot-hole into sedimentary rock?
After vivisection, the stripping of flesh and the grinding of bones, the body –considered by the faithful to now be just an empty vessel, as useless as your Aunt Enid’s flower vase you just gave to Goodwill — is handed back to nature as food.
A bonus: Your dead flesh might save some little mountain mouse from an early demise.
Here in the Western world, throwing a pitch-in supper for the featherless bipeds and then dragging the dearly departed out into the back 40 to share with the local turkey buzzards is not only frowned upon, it’s downright illegal — as is the idea of a home in-ground burial in states like Indiana.
The Hoosier state, along with Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska and New York, requires a licensed funeral director be involved in the Final Arrangements.
Alas, you can’t simply wrap your loved one up in a sheet, grab a shovel and go all gravedigger DIY without supervision. If you’re from Boise or Birmingham, lucky you: go ahead and plant Uncle Empty Vessel in the yard yourself – as long, of course, as you weren’t personally responsible for the corpse’s current condition of rigor mortis.
Then you’re not burying somebody. You’re ‘hiding the evidence.’
A toxic zombie
So here are the grim facts.
Someone you care about, hopefully after a long life well lived, passes away. Hopefully this happens in the middle of a night’s sleep, without any real pain. There’s a hilarious and/or inspirational obit, a service, a dinner party and then the late loved one is lowered into the ground.
Where they may well begin their new life as a toxic zombie.
Okay, I know, that’s a bit hyperbolic. A traditional burial isn’t an environmental disaster on the order of a melting Fukishima nuke plant or, say, Bayonne, New Jersey, on a random hot Tuesday, but if you’re the kind of gal or guy who believes in continuing the stewardship of our little ball of blue hurtling through the cosmos, consider the following:
According to National Geographic, 30 million board feet of really lovely hardwoods are sawn into caskets every year here in the States, although other sources put that number closer to 45 million. While we’re on the subject of trees, the average cemetery has to clear away those shady bowers in order to make room for your plot and your headstone.
Put off by the notion of a rotting box in the earth, nearly three-quarters of us opt for a metal box, so says the advocate group, Green Burial of Boulder County. Enough steel is used in the vaults and metal caskets to build a brand new Golden Gate annually – that stat’s from Planet Green. Metal caskets are painted with finishes that are toxic themselves.
Also from Discovery Channel’s Planet Green: the concrete used in those aforementioned vaults would be just the right amount for yours truly to build a highway from my home here in Indy to my mom’s house in Lancaster, PA.
Those vaults keep the ground above from sinking into an unsightly crater in local cemeteries when whatever’s beneath starts to give way.
The formaldehyde used in the embalming fluid is carcinogenic and about a gallon or two — depending on how many cheeseburgers the goner ate whilst on this mortal coil — winds up in the tissues of the deceased.
And eventually, corpses…leak.
Still not sufficiently aghast? As author Mark Harris points out in the promo materials for his book Grave Matters: “Over time, the typical ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground, for example, contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 houses, nearly 1,000 tons of casket steel and another twenty thousand tons of vault concrete. Add to that a volume of toxic formalin nearly sufficient to fill a small backyard swimming pool and untold gallons of pesticide and weed killer used to keep the cemetery grounds
Oh, yeah, and let’s not forget: all that stuff that went into your funeral has to be cut, welded, mixed, assembled, shipped. That also chews up resources.
Maybe the biggest resource that gets used is the one in the survivor’s wallet. The average cost of a traditional funeral is around six thousand dollars, money better spent on beer and canapés for the wake.
Exploring the options
There’s a happy middle ground, so to speak; ways to dispose what’s left of us that doesn’t include mountainside dismemberment or dropping 300 pounds of steel and mahogany into a concrete box in the ground. Your options run the gamut.
The Batesville Casket Company here in Indiana offers a program where if you buy a coffin, they plant a tree. Batesville estimates they’ve planted 11 million trees since they started the program in 1976.
So what about cremation? Sure, your remains can rest in an urn on the fireplace mantel instead of a non-biodegradable can in a concrete case, but the amount of energy needed to get an individual from person-size to ashtray-size is staggering. Crematoriums need to hit a target temp between 1200 and 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, a two or three hour process that burns 2400 cubic feet of gas per hour. Plus, where there’s fire, there’s smoke– and releasing torched embalming fluid into the atmosphere is an icky proposition.
A flame-free option being offered by some funeral homes comes from a company called BIO Cremation, a division of Matthews International in Pittsburgh. According to their website, “The body is placed in a stainless steel cremation chamber where water (95%), an alkali additive (5%), heat and pressure are added. BIO Cremation uses this combination of water, alkali, heat and pressure to perform the cremation, gently reducing the body to bone fragments and a sterile solution that is recycled to the earth.” It’s also called Resomation – the body is cooked down, remaining bones are crushed into a lovely powder and handed back to the survivors.
If you’ve got a flair for the dramatic – or you just like the idea of breaking stuff – the folks behind a process called Promessa will freeze you in liquid nitrogen. The fluids in the body evaporate, and the shriveled, brittle raisin that used to be you is then vibrated. When an icicle meets a tuning fork, the tuning fork wins, and you’re literally shaken to pieces. Your dental fillings and that clamp that your lousy doctor left inside you during your appendectomy are then picked up, and what’s left of you is buried in a container made of cornstarch. In about a year, you’ll become compost for the tree that’s been planted over your remains.
If you’d like your final voyage to include a cruise, what’s left of you can be mixed with concrete – hey! Jimmy Hoffa! – and molded into what the folks at ‘Eternal Reefs’ call a ‘Pearl.’ That Pearl becomes part of a larger undersea structure that’s a fine habitat for all manner of aquatic wildlife. There are also products that take what’s left after burning, crushing, shattering or par-boiling and speeds those bits into compostable materials.
Yesterday’s aunt can be tomorrow’s tomatoes.
Suppose you like sharing. And science. And you’re still a big Peyton Manning fan. Go ahead and donate your body to #18’s alma mater – the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Department. In what may be the ultimate example of inverse farming, your body is allowed to rot, and the skeleton is then harvested so that law-enforcement folk and white-lab-coat-types can learn how to identify things like gender, ethnicity and your dentist’s prowess.
Congratulations – you’re now a training tool for CSI peeps in real life.
Local low impact
Kessler Woods is a rarity: a natural cemetery in Indiana. Located on the grounds of Washington Park North, it’s a corner of the graveyard where the deceased are laid to rest in a setting that looks more like a forest and less like a golf course. Another can be found in Lafayette. The Preserve is part of the Spring Vale grounds. In these bucolic patches, flowers, trees, fallen leaves and even weeds are the rule rather than the exception.
Here’s how it works: You can be temporarily preserved with a fluid free of formaldehyde. This allows for a viewing so that the restorative arts can still be practiced. The body is then placed in a biodegradable container; Barb Milton says some of those caskets are exactly like the pine boxes you’ve seen in Westerns.
If you want to go local, one company out of Goshen, Green Legacy Caskets, constructs their products out of ash, cotton and bamboo. They’re up front about pricing and options, you can get into one of their boxes for just under 600 bucks.
Suppose you want to harm zero trees in the unmaking of your body? You can be buried in a shroud. Linen, silk, a family quilt, your favorite blanky…as long as it’s earth-friendly, you can be rolled up to go. “We’ve had individuals of Indian descent that were wrapped in tribal blankets that were very important to them,” adds Milton.
No matter the casing, the graves in Kessler Woods are simply a hole in the ground that’s filled in, marked by a mound of Earth and your choice of memorial: a biodegradable marker of wood or sandstone, or even just a locator on a gridded sheet of paper in the front office.
So who’s doing this? Milton replies: “It’s really been surprising…the Jewish population has always been interested in this idea, the Baha’i population, Indian cultures … and now there’s a group of committed environmentalists who are choosing this option.”
Her figures put those who currently choose cremation at about 30%, but that number’s begun to drop as more and people opt for an even greener disposal method.
But what’s legal?
Alas, some folks who are thinking ‘green’ become a bit perturbed when they realize they already own a traditional burial plot, whether it’s been willed to them or a loved one’s already purchased it.
Traditional cemeteries are doing more to offer alternatives, but those graveyards have to maintain level ground — vaults are still used — and, as we’ve seen, the manicuring of those pastoral lawns is a lot less kind to flora and fauna than a purely natural setting.
Any discussion of the final resting – or composting – place leads to the question of legalities. Yes, a funeral director with the proper papers has to be along for the ride, but there’s some good news for Hoosiers who want to exit without a last meal of chemistry: embalming isn’t required back home in Indiana.
Some states regulate the embalming of a corpse with regards to time, transport and diseases that may have hurried along the loved one’s demise, but not so here at the Crossroads.
As far as where you can be buried, the law states, verbatim:
…the remains of all individuals who die in Indiana or are shipped into
Indiana shall be deposited:
(1) in the earth in an established cemetery;
(2) in a mausoleum;
(3) in a garden crypt; or
(4) in a columbarium;
within a reasonable time after death, except as ordered by the state
department of health. (IC 23-14-54-1)
If you’re interested and you want to do a quick fact check on what’s green and what’s simply been green-washed, a great resource is the Green Burial Council. Greenburialcouncil.com lists all the truly environmentally conscious sites, products and services, even rating burial goods with a leaf-as-rating system. The more leaves a casket or an urn earns, the less impactful it will be.
Look, we all gotta go – why not ensure that the dust you become is just like the dust that conjured you?
Green Casket Companies
Forlora Designs deals in tree-free funerary hardware. Offerings include funeral shrouds which are locally made, unbleached, and made from organic cotton and hemp fibers; and biodegradable caskets made from virgin wool and cotton around a durable recycled fibreboard frame.
Green Legacy Caskets reflect simplicity and economic soundness. These biodegradable caskets are made from locally harvested ash wood, with optional cotton interior liners and pillows.
Green Cemetery and/or Funeral Providers
Flanner & Buchanan is a joint cemetery/funeral provider with 3 locations throughout Indianapolis. Loved ones can be allowed to decompose naturally in either a forest or a prairie, in addition to cremation and standard cemetery plots. Biodegradable shrouds, caskets and urns are also available.
Hippensteel Funeral Home in Lafayette, Ind., will work with you to find several environmentally friendly options from the cemetery to the burial shroud.
Meeks Mortuary & Crematory in Muncie, Ind., is the only environmentally friendly burial service in Delaware county, though they also perform traditional funeral rites. Let them know if you or your loved ones want a natural sendoff.
Spring Vale Cemetery of Lafayette, Ind., features both a conventional cemetery as well as the all-natural option. The eco-friendly Preserve doesn’t do vaults, grave liners or chemical preservation, and only allows remains to be interred with biodegradable accoutrements.
Yeager Funeral Home in Ligonier, Ind., offers a variety of earth-friendly options, and works with the Living Memorial Program to plant a seedling in commemoration of the deceased. Optional services include vault-free funerals, and biodegradable funeral urns for ground and water scattering.
Extra Information Cont.
So what about your animal companion? Suppose Fido or Fishy or Kitty or Thor the Parakeet passes (yeah, we had a parakeet named Thor … long story…) and you’d like your pet exit in as green a manner as possible?
In the state of Indiana, you’re in luck: according to the website regarding regs from the state Board of Animal Health:
BOAH has approved six carcass disposal methods for animal remains: burial, incineration, composting, rendering, exotic animal feeding, and anaerobic and chemical digestion. (NOTE: These rules do not apply to small animal species, such as fish, reptiles, dogs, cats and small game. Wildlife, i.e., creatures not under someone’s care, as well as dead livestock being transported by the owner to a diagnostic facility are also exempt from this rule.)
Rules regarding home burial of pets differ from county to county, but Marion County appears to feel it’s just fine to let Spot do his natural thing and become one with the Earth. If you’ve wrapped the little guy in an eco-friendly shroud and said a few kind words, feel free to dig a hole in the ground – just make sure it’s at least three feet deep.
You’ll want to make sure you’re not cutting through any utility lines and if you’re on well water, check with an expert. BE ADVISED – if you don’t put the pet in a casket that’s going to seal in the scent, a fenced property that other carnivores can’t gain access to is best. ‘Accidental disinterment’ is a great way to terrify the kids.
Again, cremation is an option. You’re using less materials for a smaller creature – unless you’re torching Mr. Ed, and the Indiana BOAH has many rules regarding larger animals. There’s a wide range of options – and prices – here, and most vets are really helpful when you’re facing Fido’s final journey.
If you’re looking for a green burial somewhere other than the backyard — obviously a must for apartment-dwellers — your options are pretty limited. Green pet cemeteries are few and far between, as is evidenced by the listings on greenpetburial.org. Still, it has a
wealth of info on the subject.