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What is Green Burial?

Green burial’s primary purpose is to ensure that the bodies of our deceased can return to the earth in a way that does not poison it. The process simply requires that a body be interred with nothing that could hinder the decomposition process. No gasketed coffin, no cremation, no embalming chemicals, no concrete and rebar lined gravesite, no hard-plastic grave liner. Green burial ensures that we return to the earth simply, inexpensively, and in a way that best benefits the environment.

Green burial is not new. To the contrary, we have been burying our un-embalmed dead in a simple hole in the ground since the dawn of humankind. Until just 150 years ago, most Americans were born, lived, and died close to home. When they died, they were usually buried on nearby land, in a shroud or simple pine box.

The Civil War changed all that. Suddenly, young men were required to travel far from home to fight in the war. Casualties on both sides were enormous, with 620,000 soldiers dying from a combination of combat, accident, starvation, and disease. With the staggering number of casualties came another pressing question – how to get the dead back home to their families, so that they could be given a proper burial?

Enter the embalming industry. Enterprising individuals with a basic understanding of chemistry quickly figured out that a body pumped full of embalming fluid decomposed at a much slower rate than a corpse left untreated. This in turn meant that dead soldiers could be shipped home and buried by their families. Competition quickly became fierce, with embalmers setting up shop near battlefields, and even displaying examples of their latest work.

From this point forward, caring for the dead became a business. Families that previously buried their loved ones themselves began paying funeral service companies to do it for them instead. These funeral companies quickly realized that the more products and services they sold, the more money they made. Coffins quickly evolved from simple pine boxes to oak and bronze units with plush velvet interiors. Instead of displaying the body in the front parlor of their home, people instead paid to have their loved one embalmed and dressed in their finest clothes, with an open casket viewing at the local funeral parlor. The graveyard business grew quickly as well, first selling plots, then adding services such a concrete and rebar lined burial vaults. Monument companies evolved from simple headstones, to ever more elaborate pieces.

The modern funeral industry now hires approximately 130,000 employees, and earns over $20 billion in fees annually. In the rush for profits, however, the funeral industry has utterly ignored the fact that the products and services they sell (cremation, embalming, concrete burial vaults, plastic grave liners, varnished coffins and the like) poison the earth.

Enter green burial, a disposition method specifically designed to ensure that our last act on the planet is to give back to it. We at Return Home think of this as paying the gift of life forward.

The narrow definition of green burial means simply placing a person in the earth with only biodegradable materials, and no chemicals or embalming fluids of any kind. That said, we at Return Home take a more expansive view of green burial, and include all disposition methods that accelerate the natural conversion of human remains to earth without the aid of chemicals or fossil fuels, mirroring the way nature transforms death into new life.

There are currently 3 green disposition methods that will be legal in Washington State as of May 1, 2020. They are listed as follows;

  1. Green burial. The body is not cremated, embalmed, or preserved with any chemicals whatsoever. A coffin or shroud (if used) is completely biodegradable, and the body is interred without a burial vault of any kind. The body is then left to return to the earth.

  1. Alkaline hydrolysis, (water cremation). The body is placed in a pressurized vessel that is then filled with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide, and heated to over 300°F. This breaks the body down into its component parts, leaving a slightly basic liquid that can safely be disposed of through the sewer system, or in a garden or green space. There is a small amount of bone residue that can be returned to the family, much akin to cremation.

  1. Human composting (terramation). Terramation involves placing the body into a specially purposed vessel, along with alfalfa, woodchips, and sawdust. The body is gently terramated into soil over approximately 60 days, without the use of additives, corrosives, or chemicals. The resulting cubic yard of soil may be used identically to that of cremated remains.

Each of these disposition methods has their respective advantages and disadvantages. To learn more about each of these methodologies, please check out subsequent articles in the ‘Education’ section in the Return Home website.

Insofar as the environment is concerned, all of these disposition options are fantastic choices. That said, these decisions are deeply emotional for the individuals and families involved, and at the end of the day the key is to choose a disposition method that feels right. After all, this is the last act each of us will make on this earth, so make sure it’s one you both feel good about, and that leaves the earth a better place then you found it.