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The rise of green funerals and cremation: the options you need to know

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Our planet looks vastly different than it did when Egyptians created embalming over 5000 years ago. What was once a scientific anomaly is now a detriment to the health of our planet. Every year over 800,000 gallons of carcinogenic embalming fluids are buried in our ground. And that’s not even accounting for all of the cement, wood, and steel that accompanies it. Traditional burials use an immense amount of resources and a recent survey we ran found that 46% of Americans would prefer to have their cremains scattered or preserved in a unique cremation option, like a memorial forest. It is clear that consumers increasingly want a sustainable alternative. With a green funeral or burial, your end-of-life plans can protect and conserve our planet.

A Re-introduction of Green Burials

Green burials are not a new concept. For most of history, burials would have been considered green. We didn’t always fill burial vaults with cement or use varnished caskets. When someone died, a grave was dug, and the body was placed in a biodegradable coffin or natural shroud to decompose and return to the natural world. It wasn’t until the 1900s that burial as we know it became the norm. Today, traditional burials are far from sustainable — involving large swaths of land, resources, and chemicals.

Now an increasing number of people want modern, sustainable options that help protect nature and give back to the earth. You’ve probably heard of terms like “green burial”, but what exactly is a green or natural burial? And what are your options if you want cremation instead? Below we’ll introduce you to a few options that fall into two categories: a natural (or green) burial and sustainable cremation options.

54% of Americans say they’re considering green burial (this may also be called a natural burial). Eventually, all bodies will decompose, and consumers are looking to mitigate the environmental impact of their end-of-life plans. As outlined by the Green Burial Council, a green burial foregoes embalming fluid, vaults, and varnished coffins. Instead, green burials aim to be minimally invasive and use natural coffins or shrouds. Green burials allow you to leave the planet as you found it — without contributing additional pollution to the ecosystem.

If the idea of being buried doesn’t sit well with you, you’re not alone. Cremation is the most popular end-of-life option today. The flexibility, lower cost, and smaller carbon footprint make it the obvious choice for many consumers. It is worth noting that cremation historically has its own carbon footprint caused by the incineration process. However, with more modern options available, you can now mitigate the effect of these emissions by choosing a sustainable final resting place – like a memorial forest. Memorial forests offset the effect of these emissions by conserving forests that sequester CO2 – cleaning the air we breathe.

We’ll dive into a few green burial and green cremation options below.

Green Burial Options

A natural burial can be incredibly meaningful for those that feel a close connection to the natural world. If you’re happiest in nature, away from the noise of day-to-day life, your final resting place should reflect that. However, though natural burials do away with embalming and vaults, they aren’t always more affordable than their traditional counterparts. The cost of green burial varies widely depending on location, type of burial site, and local regulations. Additionally, green burial isn’t yet widespread. There are only 72 cemeteries and 213 funeral homes that pass the rigorous green burial standards set by the Green Burial Council, so it’s important to check if you have these options nearby.

Hybrid Cemetery

For many of us, our final resting place must be close to home or our loved ones. Some of us may even have a dedicated family plot, but often these aren’t in a natural burial ground. Hybrid burials allow you to have a green funeral at a conventional cemetery. According to the Green Burial Council, a hybrid burial prohibits the use of vaults; utilizes sustainable burial containers, such as untreated wood caskets or shrouds; and omits toxic embalming fluid. Hybrid burial is a good option for those that want to stay close to home while respecting the environment.

Natural Cemeteries

Natural burial grounds are a holistic approach to traditional cemeteries. According to the Green Burial Council, natural burial grounds bar the use of vaults, chemicals, and unnatural burial containers. They also minimize waste, conserve energy, and restore the area without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. These natural cemeteries are rare — with only 24 Green Burial Council approved sites in the United States. Natural burial grounds may have strict rules, such as not allowing markers or gifts. Make sure you understand the burial grounds regulations before purchasing a plot.

If you’re interested in natural burial but don’t live near a natural cemetery, you can minimize your carbon footprint by omitting the embalming process and using a natural casket. If the cemetery allows it, forego the vault to encourage natural decomposition.

Green Cremation Options

Cremation rates are rising, with over 80% of Baby Boomers planning to choose cremation over traditional burial. Cremation is considered the more flexible, affordable and sustainable option that makes it a clear choice for many nature-loving consumers. Its rising popularity is resulting in unique cremation options, like cremation jewelry and tattoos. We can go on and on, so below are a few of the most environmentally friendly options.

Alkaline Hydrolysis

Sometimes called green cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is a sustainable alternative to its namesake. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota, alkaline hydrolysis emits less carbon dioxide than cremation and only uses 1/8 of the energy. The alkaline hydrolysis process uses water and a water-soluble alkali solution to decompose the body in a pressurized chamber. After 2 to 3 hours, the body tissue decomposes and human remains reduce to bone fragments. These bone fragments are then churned into ash and returned to the family.

Memorial Reefs

If your most precious memories are in the ocean, you might consider a memorial reef. A memorial reef is an artificial ocean reef created with cremation ashes. To create a memorial reef, ashes are mixed with concrete and fit into a mold shaped like a “reef ball.” In the ocean, the reef ball imitates natural reef formation — attracting marine life and encouraging reef rehabilitation. Once the memorial reef is placed, the family is given GPS coordinates to the burial site. Due to the nature of memorial reefs, loved ones won’t be able to pay their respects like they could on land.

Memorial Forest

For those who choose cremation, a memorial forest may be the option that fits you if you want a combination of ensuring a legacy of protecting nature while giving your loved ones the option to come visit. Memorial forests have memorial trees instead of your traditional tombstones. At each memorial tree, ashes are mixed with soil and the mixture is spread at the base during a memorial ceremony. Elements of your ashes will nourish the tree, and over time, become a part of it. It’s a wonderful option for those who seek to complete the cycle to life by returning to the Earth –– perhaps the one that most closely brings the concept of “ashes to ashes” to life.

Your tree will remain a serene environment for loved ones to honor your memory – for years to come. A customized memorial marker is placed at your tree, so that loved ones can easily find your tree whenever they come to visit. They are welcome to visit the forest, walk the trails, have picnics and spend time in the serene environment of the forest.

Of course, this is the option that best represents what we do here at Better Place Forests. At Better Place Forests, we protect your legacy by working with local communities and stakeholders to maintain the health of our forests. Our experts ensure that we’re following forest management best practices to mitigate the risk of fire and disease.

We also allow your impact to extend into forests around the country. In partnership with One Tree Planted, we plant 25 – 400 Impact Trees for every memorial tree reserved. Thanks to our customers, we planted 50,000 Impact Trees in 2020 in fire-affected areas to help with reforestation efforts. By choosing a memorial forest, you return to the earth – leaving it a healthier place.

Making your end-of-life plans is never easy, but by choosing a green resting place, you’re preserving the planet for future generations and creating a legacy that protects our air, water, and soil.

If you’re interested in memorial forests, learn more about how you can preserve your legacy with Better Place Forests by booking a free tour.

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