Returning to the Earth

Sociology doctoral student Nick Mac Murray studies activists working to change how America views and approaches the burials of their dearly departed.

By Nicole Rupersburg

Few experiences are more painful than the death of someone we love, and the grief only continues as burial arrangements are made. On that terrible day when we have to inter a loved one, it’s difficult enough to cope with the act, let alone think beyond it.

But a group of environmentally conscious citizens in America known as ecological death activists are. UNLV doctoral candidate Nick Mac Murray studies them.

“Ultimately, eco death activists are trying to minimize the footprint of American burials,” he said.

Most people aren’t aware of the impact burial has on the planet. Take, for example, the process of embalming. We generally don’t question it because it’s common practice at this point. It’s just what’s done when someone passes.

But embalming, which Mac Murray noted emerged during the Civil War to preserve soldiers’ bodies for the long journey home from the front lines, is a toxic practice. Embalming fluid contains a mixture of poisonous chemicals including formaldehyde and methanol, which can harm the environment. And embalming is largely unnecessary, Mac Murray noted. No laws require it, and no legitimate public health reasons necessitate it.

Yet embalming remains standard practice in the U.S.

“People view death in a sacred and personal way,” said Robert Futrell, UNLV department of sociology chair and Mac Murray’s faculty advisor. “They carry around entrenched norms and values, making it difficult to push back against these established practices.”

Eco death activists hope to change established practices by encouraging “green burials,” which manage death in ways that limit environmental damage and perhaps even reap an environmental good. Instead of embalming, nontoxic chemicals or refrigeration can be used in the treatment of human remains. Casket alternatives include biodegradable shrouds and wicker basket coffins. Most interments currently involve concrete grave liners and burial vaults, which are used to keep caskets level and prevent machinery or the ground above from crushing them. Eco death activists note that each burial of this type deposits a ton or more of concrete into the ground and that cement manufacturing is one of the leading producers of greenhouse gas emissions, Mac Murray said.

Futrell said changing the cultural beliefs around death management is challenging but not insurmountable. After all, embalming became common just some 150 years ago. And in just the last 50 years, cremation gained acceptance, surpassing burial in popularity in America in 2015, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

The broader issue, as Mac Murray sees it, is death anxiety. Americans are so uncomfortable with death that they feel like the whole process needs to be handled by a professional. But, he pointed out, this too is a fairly new development. For most years of the American West’s history, for example, death care was very personal; families would tend to and bury the body in a grave they dug by hand, and embalming was a crazy fad.

“These practices seem weird in contemporary America, but if you look back in history, these ways were the norm,” Mac Murray said.

Public sentiment is already shifting around funerary practices, driven in part by the desire to make death management more personal and get families more directly involved in the care of their deceased, while some are rejecting the increased commodification of the process; it is a $20 billion industry.

“For some the decision is purely a practical one: what’s cheaper, what’s easier, what makes more sense for me or my family,” Mac Murray said. “If cheaper options are available, there are people who will make those choices with no consideration for environmental issues.”

Still, the concept of green burials is gaining traction as well, with more and more cemeteries around the country offering green burial options.

“We’re starting to see the inroads that eco death activists are making,” Mac Murray said. “These outliers are pushing for alternatives, and those alternatives are starting to be picked up by the funerary industry because they’re seeing that some people do have an interest in them. Green burials seem very alternative and deviant from our current practices, but that could change very quickly.”

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