Going Green After Death: Alternative Burial Movement Taking Hold In USA

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By: Kristen Warfield | Medium

death life

Kate Kalanick was living in Ojai, California in 2011 when her mother passed away unexpectedly. While coping with the shock of the news, she and her sister scrambled to make funeral arrangements. Their mother’s body was picked up and brought to a mortuary to be autopsied.

Knowing the toxicity of the chemicals used for embalming, Kalanick was totally set against having it done to her mom. She always tries to do what’s best for the environment … She prefers organic foods, has solar panels on her house, and at the time, even drove an electric car. She wanted to keep her mother’s body in its most natural state, and knew her mom would have wanted the same thing.

Besides, whenever Kalanick accompanied her mother to a funeral, her mother would make remarks on how unnatural the embalmed body looked.

“She didn’t like what embalming did to people, so I knew my mom would be uncomfortable if we said we wanted to fill her with chemicals,” Kalanick said. “That wasn’t what she wanted.”

But as the wait for an autopsy ensued, a problem arose. The coroner pushed Kalanick to have her mother embalmed. She kept refusing, yet the coroner kept insisting.

“I felt like I was locked into a contract that I never signed up for,” she said. “I was so unsettled.”

The coroner reluctantly agreed not to embalm, that was, with one stipulation: Kalanick and her sister were told they would no longer be able to host a visitation for their mother.


“I never saw her. To me, it was mind-blowing that they made us choose between embalming and a visitation. I remember feeling like ‘this just isn’t right … this just isn’t how it should be.’ I just had a feeling that there should have been more options.”

— Kate Kalanick


She was deeply bothered with how impersonally she was treated by the professionals there that were supposed to help. At one of the most difficult times, she was not given the options she felt she deserved — and with that, she was set out to do something about it. She began researching the options and rights consumers have while making funeral arrangements.

Unknown to her at the time of her mother’s death, a growing number of people were taking death care into their own hands. They knew their rights and options.

Related Article: How Transcendental Consciousness Can Help Take Away Fear Of Death  

Kalanick learned that she was never required by law to have her mother embalmed and learned about a national community out there sharing her same concerns with the practice. Even more, she realized there were more options.

Kalanick became a passionate advocate for alternative death care, a movement with two main parts: The “green burial” option, which involves no embalming and burial in a biodegradable casket or shroud, and home funerals.

Though a home funeral does not always result in a green burial, both practices aim to make handling death more personal. In home funerals, family members and loved ones care for the body and host the funeral at home. Green burials allow the dead to be buried in a more natural setting and biodegrade without chemical or material byproducts.

Kalanick was surprised to discover that the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that educates people about consumer rights and certifies green cemeteries, was headquartered in her hometown. She got involved, and now serves as the council’s executive director.

From this, she realized that not everyone knows their options or about alternative funeral practices. Though they aren’t for everyone, she said both green burials and home funerals are challenging the way of death Americans are used to: a pricy, hands-off approach.

When it comes to conventional funeral rites, Americans have become the costliest, most resource-dependent customers in the world. The U.S. funeral industry is estimated to earn $20.7 billion per year with over 19,000 funeral homes in the country as of 2015, according to the National Directory of Morticians Redbook. Among the finished caskets and expensive services, however, a growing paradigm shift is taking hold throughout the country that is once again bringing simplicity to the way in which we care for the dead.


Going Green After Death

Growing up in a generation where everyone had a traditional burial, the thought of green burials never crossed the mind of Richard Hermance, the director of the Rosendale Plains Cemetery in Tillson, New York. For over 10 years, Hermance has seen countless glossy caskets, vaults and elaborate headstones go into conventional funerals at the cemetery and never knew of any other options available.

But after hearing about green burial a few years ago from an episode of “Modern Marvels,” he knew they would be a perfect fit for the small-town cemetery.

“We’re very prided on being non-denominational, where we will give anyone a place to be buried,” Hermance said. “And we figured in line with that, we ought to accommodate the people that want a green burial, because we absolutely have the land for it.”

Related Article: Do Not Live In Fear Of Death, Fear Only A Life Unlived: 5 Ways To Wake Up To Your Life And Treasure Each Moment    

Traditionally, burials entail a casket, a vault and a headstone. Below the ground, the casket, typically made of metal and finished wood, is laid in a concrete vault covered with a thick concrete lid. In contrast, green burials use shroud or a biodegradable pine or cardboard casket. The dead are lowered into the dirt, where they can naturally decompose.

“People always ask me to explain the process to them and they’re expecting some big story,” Hermance said, “You dig a hole in the ground, put the body in something biodegradable, and lower them in. There’s no new technology here — if anything, there’s less to no technology at all behind it. There’s no metal, no finished caskets — it’s all natural.”

North of New Paltz, the Rosendale Plains Cemetery houses a miniature city of traditional stone monuments and headstones from 123 years of conventional funerals. Its uniform and tidy rows look busy but serene at the same time. A drive through its path sends flashes of countless grey and black stone all around making the graves seem endless.

The path ends at a wide-open grassy field with a large boulder at its entrance. Farther back, tall rows of trees loom on for as long as the eye can see. This vast field houses the only green burial grounds in Ulster County, where the dead can be buried in either the open field or in the woods underneath the trees.

The forest plot is just 300 feet from the Wallkill-Valley Rail Trail, a popular haven for local bikers and hikers. The green burial section of the cemetery has attracted around 10 plot buyers so far since its inception in 2014, Hermance said, all of which are looking for a simpler way to be memorialized.

he first client to sign up was 104-year-old Kesii “Journey Truth” MacKaye of Rosendale. MacKaye, who chose a plot in the field section, said she believes the relationship people have with the planet is sacred, which is why she wants to “give her body back” when she dies. Putting every ounce of life’s energy back into the earth that has provided humans with everything they need, from shelter and food to clothing and more, is MacKaye’s last will to show her appreciation for all earth has done for her.

“This planet is beautiful and there should be nothing between you and it,” MacKaye said. “I just want to go back to the Earth from which I came — it’s that simple.”

This spiritual connection to the planet lends itself to another driving factor behind why people are going green when they die: green burials are an act of conservation.

While most environmentalists make conscious efforts to take care of the earth while alive, the choices they make involving their body after they die also can have a powerful impact, Kalanick said.

The primary ingredient in modern embalming fluids is formaldehyde, a substance classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a known human carcinogen, or cancer causing substance. The National Funeral Director’s Association estimates that two million Americans are embalmed each year, translating into a near seven million gallons of formaldehyde deliberately being placed into the soil per year.

“When you use embalming fluid, it doesn’t stop decomposition, it just delays it,” Kalanick said. “Because it slows down that decomposition, that lack of oxygen creates methane and changes the way decomposition is happening. This creates a decomposition process that is more damaging to the environment than traditional decomposition.”

When someone is buried without being embalmed, the risk of harmful chemicals entering into waterways is eliminated, Kalanick said. Aside from this, the chemicals can enter the atmosphere through cremation. Research from Dr. Ted Chiappelli, an Associate Professor of Health Sciences at Western Carolina University, shows that cremating embalmed remains releases formaldehyde into the air, which can remain for up to 250 hours.

“Severely curtailing embalming would have a number of immediate benefits for the public at large,” Chiappelli writes. “It would remove a minor, yet blatant, source of pollution.”

Aside from the pollution, embalming chemicals also pose health risks to those who use the chemicals on a regular basis. Research from the National Cancer Institute suggests that long-time exposure to formaldehyde puts embalmers at an increased risk of myeloid leukemia compared to the general population.

Embalming serves as a staple of the modern funeral industry in America — the only country where the process is widely used. Despite its popularity, the practice is not legally required in the United States unless the body will be shipped over state lines or overseas.

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  1. 242861546071608@facebook.com' Courtney Lashbrook says:

    Oh really interesting I must say

  2. 1609317016058858@facebook.com' Paddy O Dailey says:

    Just throw me overboard.

  3. 10154213941459516@facebook.com' Brenda Marie Vendelboe says:

    Brittney A. Taylor

  4. 10209142746344150@facebook.com' Chuck Sykes says:

    Yep.

  5. 126626101077250@facebook.com' Steven Rice says:

    In a heart beat.

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