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Green goodbyes: The growth of eco-burials

Faced with expensive and garish funerals, many search for a more traditional resting place.

Last Modified: 06 Aug 2013 17:38
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London, United Kingdom - On a beautiful sunny afternoon, Eva Moseley wanders through a tranquil wooded area in Massachusetts, pointing out various beauty spots amid the dappled sunlight and spreading trees.

It's a visit with a purpose - she is looking for the spot where she would like to be buried in a simple woodland ceremony.

Ms Moseley plans to be laid to rest in a shallow grave, without a large headstone, in a simple wood and cardboard coffin.

Her funeral plans are a far cry from the traditional American burial, which has become increasingly elaborate in the past 150 years.

In funeral showrooms across the US, salesman push grieving families towards the heavy, polished metal caskets used in more than 60 percent of burials in the country.

Mourners pay their respects at an eco-funeral in the UK
[Photo courtesy of Westall Park Natural Burial Ground]

Two million of these caskets are buried each year in the US alone - enough to rebuild the Golden Gate bridge, according to the Green Burial Council.

Families are also encouraged to have their loved ones filled with carcinogenic embalming fluid to briefly delay decomposition, and to protect the coffin with an underground vault made of concrete.

Cremations, which are often thought of as a more environmentally friendly option, use huge amounts of energy and release toxins collected in the body into the atmosphere, along with significant amounts of mercury from tooth fillings.

It all adds up to a huge ecological expense - and it is not cheap either, with the average American adult's funeral cost running to an average of $10,000.

"There is this whole thing that if you're not buying some elaborate box and spending a lot of money, you're not really honouring your loved one," said Moseley.

"I mean there's a lot of plain bulls**t about this stuff."

She is one of a growing number of campaigners for the "green burial" movement, which aims to roll back the excesses of modern western funerals.

A new rite

"What we call 'green burial' is really what all of us simply called 'burial' 150 years ago, and is pretty much what Jews and Muslims practice in their burial traditions," said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers' Alliance in the US.

"I always like to point out to people that it isn't a technological new way of doing things but more a return to old-fashioned simplicity."

The movement can trace its beginnings to the publication of a powerful exposé of the American funeral industry in 1963. Its author, Jessica Mitford, accused funeral directors of taking advantage of the grief and shock of the bereaved to push them into paying huge sums for overblown memorials and gruesome procedures to prettify corpses.

Her book led people to start questioning the need for costly and environmentally damaging memorials.

Though there is no official definition of a "green burial", it's generally agreed to be one in which the deceased is not embalmed and is buried using only renewable and biodegradable materials.

Bodies are usually buried closer to the surface than the traditional six feet under, so as to allow the decomposing organic material to nourish the top layer of soil, from which plants feed.

Many green burial advocates also argue that graves should be marked with a plant or tree, instead of a stone memorial, and that the cemetery should be managed as a nature reserve instead of a manicured garden.

Green burials are still a minority pursuit, accounting for only around one percent of funerals in both the US and UK - but they are growing in popularity.

There are now more than 200 green burial sites in the UK, and the United States has around 150, as compared with just a handful a decade ago.

'Simplicity'

In a testament to growing awareness of the trend, today's eco-funeral planner can also choose from a wealth of coffin designs. They range from the simple cardboard or pine wood coffins to elegantly curved ecopods made from recycled paper, or caskets woven from bamboo or banana leaves.

In a world where we are all increasingly conscious of our carbon footprints in life, it's no wonder that many people also want to make sure that their death does not leave an unduly heavy ecological burden.

But environmental factors are not always the top motivation.

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"To some people, the simplicity of it, the dust-to-dust death to the earth is appealing, as well as the environmental factors - and for some people it is a religious choice," said Slocum.

Rosie Inman-Cook of the UK's Natural Death Centre agreed, saying that, according to research carried out by her colleague, "the green issue came about fifth of sixth down the list of reasons.

"At the top were making a statement more about their individuality, and having the freedom to arrange a ceremony that fitted the deceased rather than feeling shoehorned into a 20-minute slot. It's the freedom and the ability to be creative and express and reflect the personality who died."

It's a sentiment echoed by Martyn Tanner, from the UK county of Hampshire, who recently faced the difficult decision of choosing funeral arrangements for his elder brother, William.

He had been struggling to find a "fitting and respectful" memorial to his 72-year-old sibling, who died earlier this year - without leaving any funeral instructions.

Both of them had been upset by the cremations of their parents some years earlier, which they had found impersonal and hurried.

"Neither of us at that time really liked what we saw," he told Al Jazeera. "It's a bit like a stainless steel kitchen in a high class restaurant."

While he was still undecided, he heard a radio programme on green burials by chance, which led him to the discovery of a natural burial site in the Hampshire woods which the brothers had often explored together as children.

"What I saw was so close to what I think should really happen. Up there it is all so natural, it just seemed the right thing to do," he said.

He is confident that his brother would be happy with his final resting place, where graves are quickly covered with a thick layer of wild strawberries and flowers.

"My brother is at rest; he is at peace, and I am at peace as well because I have done the right thing," he said.

Many green burial sites allow mourners to take a far more active role in planning and carrying out the funeral ceremonies than traditional undertakers.

Families can carry out part or all of the service, and can even help dig the grave.

Reading from her own funeral plans in Massachusetts, Moseley said: “Mourners may decorate the coffin. Sing, play music, talk about the dead or their own feelings, place or whatever matters to them that day.

"I must admit, I wish I could be there - it sounds like fun."

Follow Sonia Elks on Twitter: @SoniaElks

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Al Jazeera
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