Dust to Dust? Green Burial in Great Britain

Oak Grove International’s “Summerfield” line is fairly typical of the caskets American funeral directors sell. Available in nine rich colors, it’s lined with plush velvet trim. And because it’s made of thick, reinforced fiberglass, it’s not biodegradable, “thereby protecting the body from the environment, and the environment from the body, for countless tomorrows,” as the Michigan-based company says on its Internet web site.

Doric’s “Lydian” burial vault, meanwhile, seems a fine receptacle to encase one’s Summerfield. Weighing “as much as an automobile,” this baby is made of special concrete designed to resist 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, and is bonded to reinforced plastic and copper. With an inner liner of fiber-reinforced acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (the same material used in NFL football helmets), and a butyl seal, the unit resists penetration by soil, air, water and practically anything else that might contaminate the body.

Who wouldn’t want to be buried in such beautiful, sturdy, protective containers?

Ken West, for one. A founding member of England’s Association of Nature Reserve Burial Grounds, he finds the idea of “secure” burial “totally repulsive.” Barbara Butler, for another. The proprietor of England’s “Green Undertakings” funeral shop, she is “appalled” by the practice. “Our belief is that the most humane and natural thing is to let bodies return to the Earth and be recycled into trees, grass and shrubs,” she says.

J. Whitmer/H. Armstrong Roberts

West and Butler are part of a small but growing “green burial” movement that’s providing an illuminating British counterpoint to the lavish American burial. Few Americans even think to question the prevalent practice of isolating the corpse from the earth with strong, non-biodegradable containers. Perhaps that’s because the death industry has worked hard to make it so. “The urge to keep our loved ones protected and safe is fundamental to all of us,” says the Indiana-based Batesville Casket, the largest coffin maker in the U.S., on its web page. “No wonder so many families are comforted by the ability to protect their loved ones with the Batesville Monoseal protective casket.”

Batesville spokesman Chris Feeney says the company is simply providing a product consumers demand. But the Reverend Henry Wasielewski, co-founder of the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, insists such products “are continually being designed and pushed upon families by the funeral industry worldwide to increase profits.”

Together, the concrete vault or grave box (required by most U.S. cemeteries) and today’s stainless steel, bronze, copper and fiberglass caskets, make for one imposing fortification. Even wooden caskets buried without a vault have sometimes remained intact for over 300 years. Encapsulated in an airtight vault, they can undoubtedly last much longer.

Then there’s that other environmental matter: Because mahogany, commonly used to make “prestige” caskets, grows sporadically, loggers destroy 28 trees for every mahogany tree they harvest, according to Rainforest Action Network. Tens of millions of feet of wood, particularly hardwoods, are buried in U.S. cemeteries each year.

England’s green burial movement, spearheaded by the London-based Natural Death Centre, has spawned over 80 nature reserve burial grounds in Great Britain, with 40 more planned. In these cemeteries, people are buried in a shroud or biodegradable coffin of wicker or cardboard, or other simple material. Instead of a headstone, a tree is planted over the grave. West, who runs the Carlisle Cemetery in northwest England, says people take comfort in knowing their bodies will decompose and become part of the cycle of life.

Another thing they don’t do in green burial is embalming, or “packing people with poison,” as Butler describes it. In The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford calls embalming unnecessary, just another way funeral directors turn a profit, and cited a pathologist who said it ultimately turned the corpse into a “repugnant, moldy, foul-looking object.”

But embalming does at least enable Oak Grove to advertise its fiberglass caskets as “100 percent environmentally- friendly.” President James Kieszkowski says that’s because they contain the formic acid from embalming fluids and prevent it from contaminating groundwater.

Lisa Carlson, author of Caring for the Dead, says it’s common for funeral directors to misinform people that embalming is required by law. In truth, no state requires it for the first 72 hours after death, and even after that, every state but Minnesota allows the alternative of refrigeration.

In Britain, more than a dozen companies sell inexpensive, biodegradable burial enclosures, ranging from cloth burial bags to wicker stretchers to cardboard coffins. In the U.S., where the industry is geared toward “luxury” caskets, you can find a cardboard coffin, but it isn’t easy. Many funeral directors don’t carry these less profitable items. And many cemeteries won’t accept them. If they do, they will still insist the coffins be encased in a vault or grave box.

When someone announces a new woodland burial ground in England, the community rallies to support them, according to West. When Ken Ulrich tried to open several green burial grounds in the U.S. a few years ago, a different group rallied—the Montana funeral directors. After Ulrich started promoting his inexpensive green burial sites, the Montana Board of Funeral Services, comprised mostly of funeral directors, got the legislature to change the burial laws. Where previously a Montanan could bury anyone he or she wanted on private land, the new regulations decreed one could only bury one’s family. So, what might have been America’s first green burial grounds remain a vision only.

Is cremation an ecological alternative? Nicholas Albery, Natural Death Centre director and an editor of The New Natural Death Handbook, writes, “Anyone with green pretensions should think twice about cremation,” which pollutes the atmosphere “with dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide,” byproducts of the container one is cremated in and the process itself.

Until a green burial movement gains momentum in the U.S., options will remain limited. Americans can be buried on their own rural land, which, according to Lisa Carlson, is legal in most states. Or they can have their remains shipped to a British green cemetery. If neither scenario is practical, Batesville offers optional “nature scene” panels inside their caskets, enabling the dead to at least gaze upon the nature from which they are totally isolated.