When you "shuffle off this mortal coil, turn your body back to soil" as Loudin Wainwright III acidly puts it in the lyrics to "Suicide Song", will you still have a carbon footprint? How green is your cemetery? The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Eastern Massachusetts is a strong believer in going out the natural way and according to the March 12th Berkshire Environmental Action Team newsletter is seeking a partnership to establish a "green cemetery" in Massachusetts.
"A green cemetery is a natural burial ground that conserves land while providing an alternative to standard burial. It is a cemetery that encourages sustainable and ethical practices by banning the use of toxins and non-biodegradable materials. Green burial is interment without embalming, metal or hardwood caskets, casket vaults or cement liners, and often without permanent markers (although in some cemeteries, natural stone markers are permitted). An un-embalmed body may be wrapped in a shroud and placed in the ground or buried in a biodegradable casket. Typically, family and friends of the deceased have the opportunity to be more directly involved in the burial.
The FCAEM is looking for a conservation group to partner with on this effort. As a conservationist who spends a good deal of time thinking about land use and management questions, I confess I had not been paying close attention to the green cemetery movement. The Litchfield Hills Greenprint considers rural cemeteries to be permanently protected open space, since a change of use is highly unlikely and there are demonstrated habitat and recreational values provided by these spaces. I have written here about America's rural cemetery movement and the rare species and habitats that persist in old pioneer graveyards where the prairie has never been plowed, or where frequent mowing has mimicked the natural disturbance of suppressed fire regimes. The conservation benefits of these places has not been a question for me, but their management and the actual burial practices associated with them is a new angle.
There are protocols for green golf courses that I'd imagine would be applicable to rural cemeteries. My friends at the Ecological Landscaping Association could doubtless offer some pointers and best management practices for these spaces. I believe the main challenge besides changing consumer expectations and behaviors would be in local zoning and public health ordinances that might not be aligned with winding shrouds, and biodegradable caskets. Coincidentally, there was a piece on a UK manufacturer of Ecopod coffins on Marketplace this morning that raised this point, as well as questioned whether importing these things from Britain really resulted in a reduced carbon footprint when compared to wooden caskets made locally. As for how all this compares to cremation, there is certainly an immediate carbon release into the atmosphere but less land required for burial and decomposition.
If you have an opinion on which is the greener option, you can jump into this thread at Live Earth where they had a fine old time getting down and dirty on this topic. I would caution those who advocate a tilt over the side to Davey Jones, however, that burial at sea is not always forever.