Is it Greener on the Other Side?

Death duties can be applied to the question of what is one’s duty after death in making plans for the funeral and beyond with concern for the economy and the environment.
Ariella  Brown
Flowers on a casket at a funeraleyfoto/iStock

What happens after a person's death?

This is not a question about what happens to the soul but of what to do with the body.  There are more choices today than there have been in the past so that people who make plans for their funeral, burial, or alternative containment can factor in concern for the economy and the environment. 


The high cost of funerals

According to figures published on PBS in 2013, there is an average of 2.4 million funerals each year in the United States. Their costs add up to an estimated $20.7 billion. 

Where does all the money go? The typical American funeral costs close to $10,000. The sitefossi gives the average cost breakdown as follows:

  • Casket $2300
  • Funeral Director's Basic Services Fee $1500
  • Embalming and Body Preparation  $600
  • Funeral Ceremony and Viewing  $1,000
  • Miscellaneous  (hearse, death certificates, obituary, etc.) $600
  • Grave Space and Cost to Dig Grave $2,000
  • Headstone  $2000

Much of the high cost is due to the excessive markups in the funeral industry. For example, PBS points out that caskets with a wholesale price tag of around $325 typically are sold for about four times at funeral homes. 

They even get people who opt to just rent a casket for viewing. The typical charge for that is $1000. The cost is even higher for sealed caskets than for open ones despite the fact that the increased cost on the manufacturing end is minuscule.

What about the cremation option? 

Cremation is certainly a popular choice in the United States, one made by over 40% of the population, according to the data PBS had at the time. It projected that by 2017, over half of Americans would opt for cremation. 

That prediction proved accurate, according to CNN. In 2017 it reported that in In 2016, 50.2% of Americans chose cremation, which made it more popular than traditional burial, the choice of 43.5%. 

What the remaining 6.7% do, it didn’t say. It goes on to say that the balance actually tipped back in 2015 when 48.5% of Americans opted for cremation and only 45.4% were still set for burial.

The cremation trend continues to grow, and currently, the cremation figure in the United States is estimated to have reached 55%, a figure attributed to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) in an article entitled Grave Situation: Lehigh Valley Cemeteries Consider Merger to Survive as More Families Opt for Cremation.  

The article quotes Kathleen Ryan, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, who explained that as cremation grows more popular, cemeteries lose business because ashes can be scattered or just left in an urn and don’t require a plot.   

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The motivation for the families of the ceased includes significant savings: “Once you eliminate the need to bury, you’re taking $4,000 to $5,000 off the cost of a funeral,” she said.

That jibes with what Jeff Jorgenson who established a funeral home in Seattle said in the CNN article: Those in the business were concerned about what they called “the 'cremation problem,' " that was much less profitable to the industry than burial. 

But cost savings are not the only reason why people opt for cremation, according to Ryan. She said that some are motivated by concerns about the environmental impact of burying metal caskets or erecting burial vaults made of concrete.

A more mobile society is another reason people don’t feel motivated to invest in a cemetery plot. As people are less inclined to remain in the same neighborhood in which they grew up today, they would not find it convenient to travel to the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried, and so there is much less incentive to shell out the extra money for a permanently marked resting place.

What is not green about burials and cremations

Among the reasons given for the increasing popularity of cremation is concerns for the environment. That is largely due to the toll on the environment that standard burials have become associated with. 

Some of these practices are not essential, even for those opting for traditional style burials, and some are looking at greener options. That means skipping the caskets that contain metal or harmful chemicals and saying no to embalming.

Due to the popularity of delaying funerals and open views of the deceased who has to be made presentable, many Americans are embalmed to look picture perfect for their last public appearance. That, combined with the steel used on caskets and the structure of vaults, over tons of the metal also interfere with the grounds of cemeteries, as does the concrete involved. 

According to the figures compiled in the book, Funeral Planning  Basics, these practices have resulted in over 827,000 gallons of formaldehyde-containing embalming fluid being placed in the ground across tens of thousands of American funerals each year. That formaldehyde is labeled a carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

However, cremation is not necessarily a greener practice. It involves a tremendous amount of fossil fuels. In fact, putting through just a single body consumes as much fuel as it takes to fill two SUV fuel tanks. That’s a lot of emissions.

What makes a funeral green? 

As cremation is not automatically greener, and burials have issues, many people are now looking into options for green funerals. An increasing number of funeral homes specialize in these practices and can direct families toward minimizing their carbon footprint with respect to the funeral.

The NFDA defines a green funeral as follows:

A green funeral incorporates environmentally-friendly options to meet the needs of a family requesting green products, services or burial.

A green funeral may include any or all of the following: no embalming or embalming with formaldehyde-free products; the use of sustainable biodegradable clothing, shroud or burial container; using recycled paper products, locally-grown organic flowers or food; carpooling; arranging a small memorial gathering in a natural setting; natural or green burial.

 Los Angeles-based funeral director Shari Wolf of Natural Grace Funerals.explains what they do differently in the video above. In addition to the green practices included the NFDA definition, they consider ways to keep the land as undisturbed as possible, marking graves only with natural stones that are native to the area, for example, and abstaining from building any structures that will change the landscape. 

Getting even greener

But for some concerned about sustainability, even those gentle green practices do not go far enough. In this TED talk, mortician and funeral director Caitlin Doughty presents  green ideas for burial like "recomposting" and "conservation burial" that are meant to return human bodies to the earth in the most planet-friendly way possible



As the title of the US News & World Report article declared, on May 21, 2019, “Washington Is First State to Legalize Human Composting" The legalization went into effect when the governor signed Bill 5001 into law.

The rationale, as explained in the article is gearing up for more deaths with more environmentally friendly solutions:  “More than 3.6 million Americans are projected to die in 2037, which is 1 million more deaths than in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.”

Washington also allows for alkaline hydrolysis, which is also sometimes called “water cremation” or  “liquid cremation,” a processed legalized in 19 other states. As explained in the video below, it uses a combination of water and potassium hydroxide to decompose bodies. 

The advantage here is that, like in traditional cremation, the reduced remains don’t need to take up land for a burial space, and that is achieved without the fuel consumption and pollution involved in burning.

Green is also the color of money in the United States

True, there are motivations to preserve the planet behind the bill. But there are also business interests. 

Even while traditional funeral homes are losing profits because of the rising trends toward less environmentally taxing practices, there are rising green funeral homes who claim that the actual financial cost should not factor into greener plans. 

 Among these is Dennis McGee who is one the presenters explaining green funerals in the video below:

His argument is that as most people who cremate are more affluent, saving money is not their motivation. He claims that they are like the shoppers in Whole Foods who are, in fact, willing to pay more to purchase options they believe are better.

While all that sounds logical, it is not at all consistent with the general data that does identify cost savings as the prime factor in people’s decision not to plan for a burial with the standard coffin, viewing, headstone, and the rest of the paraphernalia associated with setting up a final resting place. What he says, though, does show that a shift in gears for funeral practices can prove very profitable, indeed.

That could explain, in part, why the founder of Recompose, reported feeling elated about the bill’s passing in Washington. As reported in The Stranger, the founder and CEO of Recompose with the aptonym of Katrina Spade looks forward to the boost her business will get from the bill.   

Recompose describes its services as “recomposition,” which they explain is about converting “human remains into soil, so that we can nourish new life after we die.”   That sounds a lot nicer than the actual practice that involves placing bodies in steel containers for a month during which time they are converted into loam by microbes. 

In the wake of the new bill that Recompose supported,  it is now going full steam ahead in drawing investor attention and building itself up. Spade told the Brew that her company expects to raise $6.7 million.

Once it’s in business, it expects to charge $5,000 per recomposition, a price point that falls out below traditional burial, but still higher than cremation. So the green option will still be somewhat economical while also making money for the new players in the funeral industry. 

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