Back to the Earth with Green Burials

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The oldest traditions might be best for protecting our environment

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As individuals, communities and businesses continue to shift their priorities to become more ecologically responsible, some opportunities to protect the planet can come from unexpected practices. Green burials are gradually gaining traction as the most conscientious way to return oneself to the earth. This funeral process uses the least amount of unnecessary energy and resources compared to contemporary casket burials and cremation.

All steps in a green burial are optional, but key choices include: rejecting the use of added chemicals through embalming or cosmetizing the body, selecting a biodegradable casket made from unfinished wood or reinforced cardboard materials and foregoing the use of an outer burial container if permitted by the cemetery. There are a growing number of cemeteries that strictly serve individuals who opt for a certified green burial, but many cemeteries will accommodate requests to mix green burials with non-green burial plots. Cemeteries that exclusively serve green burials take additional steps to maintain the natural landscape.

Goodman-Bensman, a Jewish funeral home in Whitefish Bay that serves people of all faith, (4750 N Santa Monica Blvd.) has been offering green burial services for about a year under the official “green burial” name. Debra Watton, president of Goodman-Bensman explains: “Conceptually, we’ve always offered green burials, but not under the [green] name. In the Jewish faith, burial rites were very modest and natural.”

According to Watton, green burials are often included in the final wishes of the deceased. “It’s respectful and dignified, but it’s not what families are used to,” she says. Often the family fears they may not be doing enough to honor their loved one if the funeral is too simple, especially since green burials are more cost-effective than a conventional funeral. Goodman-Bensman recommends that like any final wishes, individuals officially document their desire to be remembered with a green burial, if they choose.

No one wants to plan a funeral after losing a loved one, especially if they aren’t sure how the deceased prefers to be remembered because no arrangements have been made. Watton has received feedback that planning green burials has given some families a sense of peace “because it became a natural process that eased the discomfort of an otherwise difficult topic.”

The usual practices of American funeral homes often date to the 19th century. Embalming wasn’t common until the Civil War as a way to preserve bodies of fallen soldiers in order to return them home for funerals. Now, because of refrigeration, the embalming isn’t necessary in order to make time for planning and having a ceremony. However, without embalming, the traditional wake cannot be factored into funeral planning. In these cases, families can choose to have a final private viewing before the funeral ceremony and burial.

Green burials are another way to make a minimal impact on the earth for the generations that follow. Above all, Watton urges that before someone dies, “People should talk about it. It’s OK to talk about it. It’s OK to talk about it in advance with loved ones and to ask questions before the time of need arises so that clear decisions can be made.”

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