“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead
Last week, we looked at the legacy you leave behind when it comes to your stuff.
Today, in Part 3 of our Spring Cleaning series, we’re going to stick to the theme of post-life clutter and talk about funeral planning—most specifically, the complications and impact that come with traditional burials.
I can already hear my mom pushing back on this idea and agree this probably isn’t for everyone … even though it could be.
In the United States alone, traditional burials use the following resources to Planet Earth: 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete … And those are just the numbers in the millions.
So, yes, if you’re in the US, your carbon footprint after death is not insignificant.
And the worldwide impact is even greater.
Now, if an ornate mausoleum is your dream of a final resting place, I’m not going to judge you—I am, however, going to invite you to consider the cost of your departure in more than dollars and look at the overall impact.
If you care at all about your eco-footprint AND if you have children or even care how your choices will impact future generations, you may want to think about the steps you can take to shrink your impact.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF HUMAN DEATH
We often think about death as a natural process without any negative downstream repercussions to the environment, right? Ashes to ashes, after all …
And all animals experience death.
We all live in a closed system where organic materials are decomposed and recycled.
That is the circle of life.
Except that humans have, as we often do, complicated this cycle with our burial processes.
Embalming, for example, involves filling the body with chemicals to delay decomposition. Most people think it’s a necessary step for public health, or simply out of respect.
Generally speaking, embalming isn’t necessary. It doesn’t make death any safer or easier to cope with. And even if you’re buried in a vault or mausoleum, those chemicals will eventually end up in the ground.
Embalming, concrete vaults, and traditional burial containers all hurt our environment, whether we like to think about it or not. Even cremation has a carbon footprint similar to a 500-mile journey by car.
Fortunately, there is another option.
THE BURNING GHAT OF VARANASI—AN EASTERN ALTERNATIVE
While traveling in India a few years ago, I was allowed to witness a funeral pyre at the Burning Ghat in Varanasi, in eastern India.
Tourists are not welcome at these private ceremonies and I feel humble and grateful to have had this opportunity—for it profoundly changed my life.
To witness a family releasing their last hold on the body of a beloved matriarch was quite intense, both in its simplicity AND in its severity.
And for me, this was so much closer to the “ashes to ashes” I have heard at gravesides since I was small.
The details of this ritual may be too graphic for some, so all I’ll say is here, on the bank of the Ganges, it was completely unadorned and deliberate.
And it shifted how I feel about this amazing body I am living inside and what I want done with it when it no longer sustains me.
INTRODUCING: GREEN BURIALS
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m an essentialist—not a minimalist.
So when it comes to death, what is essential? What aligns with our religious or spiritual, familial, and personal values … and what is just more stuff?
For many of us, what may be essential is giving our loved ones a place to visit after we’re gone, and responsibly disposing of our remains.
Green burials reduce our post-life waste by eliminating as much unnecessary “stuff” from the process as possible: embalming fluids, elaborate—and expensive—coffins, concrete, metal, carbon emissions … You get the idea.
Bodies are generally wrapped in biodegradable cotton shrouds and placed directly into the ground.
If a coffin or casket feels like something you need, sustainably-sourced simple wood options biodegrade better than metal-lined versions.
The funeral service and gravesite won’t change much unless you want them to.
Conservation cemeteries are designed to replenish nature while creating green spaces for the living to visit in memoriam to lost loved ones.
There are options to reduce your impact at every step, and you can go as big or as little as you want.
You can even become one with nature … literally.
Capsula Mundi is an Italian concept that involves placing the body in an organic container to feed a tree planted above it. Or there’s Eternal Reefs, a type of undersea urn that provides habitat for marine life.
The point is, green burial isn’t one-size-fits-all. So before you think there can’t possibly be an option that’s just right for you … do a bit of research and find out if that’s true … or just one of your 200 lies for today.
If the green burial concept has your wheels spinning, there are plenty of resources online to help you do your research.
Here are a few of my favorites:
- Green Burial Council: A nonprofit that encourages environmentally sustainable funeral and burial practices. They are on a mission to demonstrate how interment can facilitate ecological restoration.
- Guide to Green Burial: This article from Lincoln Heritage gives an excellent walkthrough of the wide range of options available.
- Green Burial Locations: Find a conservation cemetery near you with the Natural End map.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Funeral arrangements can be deeply personal and also rather matter-of-fact—the end of life is coming whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
And there are many religious, spiritual social, and emotional customs that may influence your specific burial arrangements.
Regardless, death and burial do have a downstream impact on our environment.
All those chemicals and inorganic materials take a toll that future generations will be forced to live with, even if we won’t.
Green burials are one way to declutter your death while replenishing the earth.
There are tons of different ways to go about it, and what’s right for you may not be right for someone else.
I invite you to do your research AND be open-hearted and open minded about the choices you make.
Even—and especially—the ones that outlive you.
On top of everything else, green funerals are often MUCH less expensive than traditional ones. For other tips on mastering your financial life, check out our 90-minute masterclass on getting your finances under control.