The Color of the Grave is Green
Several people have asked me about green burial. Is it really a thing?
The Green Burial Council defines green burial as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.” The body is not treated with chemical preservatives or disinfectants such as formaldehyde, and is allowed to decompose naturally. The deceased is buried in a natural fiber shroud or biodegradable casket—wood is acceptable, but wicker or cardboard are preferable. An outer burial container, e.g. a vault or grave liner, is not used, and the grave may be dug to a shallower depth of three and a half feet to facilitate the aerobic activity of decay.
The practice isn’t new at all. Traditional Jewish and Muslim burials have always been “green.”
Truly green burial as defined by the Green Burial Council isn’t available everywhere, but many funeral providers can at least offer blended services—some combination of green and traditional practices. Embalming laws vary by state*, but anyone can use an all-wooden casket. If you’re interested in a green or blended interment, cemetery requirements are important. Most modern cemeteries and memorial parks require the use of—and payment for—an outer burial container. These containers are mostly concrete, sometimes metal or fiberglass, and designed to keep the ground from settling over the grave. This makes landscape maintenance easier. (It might also reduce the chance of someone twisting their ankle while visiting a grave, but really it’s about the lawn.) Some cemeteries require caskets for every interment. Others may allow “butterdishing,” or inverting the outer container so that the body touches the earth but the grave is still supported.
The modern memorial park style of cemetery was established in the early twentieth century, intended by founder Dr. Hubert L. Eaton to be an alternative to what he called “unsightly, depressing stoneyards.” (As a goth, I consider memorial parks antithetical to my aesthetics, of course.) Whether or not you find them more cheerful, those sweeping lawns require irrigation and maintenance, including the use of herbicides and pesticides. In comparison, my local green cemetery (or “natural burial park,” as they call themselves) is several acres of native trees and shrubs, with flat field stone markers. The grounds aren’t watered or mowed. There are trails and benches for visitors, but otherwise nature does as it wills.
In addition to environmental concerns, the green burial movement also leans toward home funerals, and generally involving the family in deathcare and reducing the reliance on traditional funeral homes. The intent is to both ease the financial burden that modern funeral services may entail, and promote cultural death acceptance.
For those who are very, very serious about returning to the earth, human composting is now legal in some states. Bodies are laid in special vessels in a controlled environment of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and moisture until the organic material breaks down into soil. Green burial is a more leisurely way to go about decomposition. Cremation, by comparison, uses far more energy and leaves only inorganic remains, which can’t be used as fertilizer.
People ask about “best” funeral practices. My only answer for that is to do what makes you happy. And hopefully what won’t put your family into debt if they follow your wishes. While there may be no wrong answers where final disposition is concerned, some options are less practical than others. I love the idea of having cremated remains launched into space, but I can’t in good conscience promote that kind of energy usage or littering. Becoming a permanent frozen landmark on Mount Everest fills me with morbid delight, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Speaking of options, Holly asks via Twitter: What is the Necromancer’s favorite “strange” death practice?
There’s not much to be found in the breadth of human funeral rites that feels truly strange to me, and certainly not in a pejorative sense. If we take this to mean practices that are uncommon in the United States today, I have a few favorites.
I’m personally very much in favor of green burial, but it does leave me with a conflict of interest. I’m an embalmer. I love the art and alchemy of embalming. While it may not be necessary, I do find it practical in many cases. Sadly, my very favorite mode of disposition, sky burial, precludes embalming.
Sky burial is the practice of placing the corpse on a mountainside or elevated structure for scavengers and the elements. Green burial feeds the earth, and presumably many critters in it, but the thought of being consumed by a flock of carrion birds or other cute sharp-toothed scavengers makes my little black heart sing. Of course, to quote Richard Adams by way of Skinny Puppy, “I hope you make sure we’re properly dead before you start, old rip-beak.”
Sky burial is not legal in the United States, to my great sorrow. The nearest alternative I can think of is donating one’s remains to a body farm. A perfectly respectable disposition, but somehow not as gratifying.
Tableau embalmings also fascinate me, where the deceased is posed standing or sitting or in some “lifelike” way. The opportunity for makeup and fancy dress is one of my favorite things about embalming. I would love the professional opportunity to work on a case like that, and personally I just want to have one more costume party on my way out.
I also sometimes toy with the notion of being cremated just so I can have my ashes pressed into a record. Some Girls Wander By Mistake would be thematic, but First and Last and Always is really a superlative album. Perhaps I could haunt a phonograph, and play The Sisters of Mercy on repeat in death as I did in life.
If you have questions for the necromancer, write them in ink made from ashes and bury them at a crossroads beneath the new moon. You can also submit questions via the Deadlands website, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or ask @stillsostrange on Twitter. Whichever is most convenient. From the ethics of the funeral industry to the physical minutiae of the agonal phase, every month we’ll ask even more about the Unanswered Question.
* I’m licensed in the state of Texas, and can only speak to legal issues here. Embalming is not required by law in Texas.
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.