Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Shades of Green

Richard A Santore
Practicum Strategies

We should be concerned with our environment!

Green happens to be my favorite color. I drink Green Tea, love the Green Bay Packers, Green Acres re-runs on TV and as a kid, I read Green Lantern Comic Books, and I recycle, but, Kermit the Frog said it best, “It’s not easy being green”. The problem is being Green can also be expensive. There are people out there that seem to go out of there way to take my concern for the environment as an opportunity to over charge for Green Products because apparently they feel I should pay a premium to be green. Green insulation, made from recycled denim and cotton (cellulose) for my home costs twice as much as the old fashion fiberglass kind which by the way replaced the practice of stuffing walls with crumpled newspaper (cellulose) in the early part of the 20th Century. You are also being encouraged to go back to cotton diapers to cover the baby’s bottom because the new kind has a plastic liner and formaldehyde is used in the production of the absorbent paper part of that diaper as well as the plastic liner. What you’re not being told is the amount of energy consumed to manufacture and clean the old fashion cotton kind out weighs the negative effects and convenience of picking up a package of diapers at the supermarket.

It is pretty much accepted that burning fossil fuel is bad for the environment but don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking our need for petroleum is going to go away with the coming of alternative fuel sources to power your car or heat your home. Petroleum is used in the manufacture of numerous products, mostly plastics.

Something else that isn’t going away anytime soon is formaldehyde. As a funeral director you have come to equate formaldehyde with embalming. The fact is the production of formaldehyde based resins accounts for a good portion of formaldehyde consumption. It is a component in polyurethane paints and is used in the manufacture of explosives. The textile industry uses formaldehyde-based resins as finishers to make fabrics crease-resistant. It is used in the manufacture of adhesives. It has been found is outer space. Simply put formaldehyde is here to stay; we just need to understand that we are dealing with a potentially dangerous chemical compound and need to use care and restraint; while taking advantage of its benefits.

The point of all this is, there are Shades of Green. And there are people and groups that will distort facts and spread fear for their own personal gain. I could go on sighting examples of Shades of Green but I am specifically concerned with the funeral industry and the emergence of Green Funerals. Am I against Green Funerals? No! Am I against Green Cemeteries? No! Am I against marketers that would spread fear to unsuspecting funeral directors and their clients? YES! Am I against consultants that profess to have all the answers so they can charge hefty fees? YES!

Let’s look at the facts. The green burial movement is protesting the use of formaldehyde, which oxidizes to formic acid, the toxin in red and fire ants, adding what may be considered pollution to the ground as embalmed bodies decay. The EPA, along with the Green Chemistry Program, promotes the research, development, and implementation of innovative chemical technologies to support chemical technologies that reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous substances during the design, manufacture, and use of chemical products and processes. But the greening of chemistry is a slow shift, not a revolution. Most chemists lack basic training in understanding environmental hazards while seeking safer solutions.

The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 established a national policy to prevent or reduce pollution at its source whenever feasible, and provided an opportunity to expand beyond traditional EPA programs and devise creative strategies to protect human health and the environment. Green chemistry is the use of chemistry for pollution prevention. More specifically, green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.

Shortly after the passage of the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) explored the idea of developing new or improving existing chemical products and processes to make them less hazardous to human health and the environment. In 1991, OPPT launched the "Alternative Synthetic Pathways for Pollution Prevention. to research projects that include pollution prevention in the design and synthesis of chemicals.

Utilizing this Green Chemistry Philosophy, the body is prepared without chemical preservatives or with environmentally friendly chemicals and buried in a biodegradable casket or simple shroud. A natural burial preserve often uses grave markers that do not intrude on the landscape such as shrubs and trees, or a flat indigenous stone upon which can be some engraving.

Planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers on or near the grave establishes a living memorial and helps form a protected wildlife preserve. Irrigation is not used, nor are chemical pesticides and herbicides applied. Irrigation by the way prevents soil erosion which can cause ecological damage. Cemetery legislation protects natural burial preserves in perpetuity from future development while the establishment of a conservation easement prevents future owners from altering the original intent for these burial grounds. For people who are mindful of the cyclical nature of life, a natural burial is an alternative to conventional burial methods. However, the truth be told, the Green Chemistry Philosophy can be applied to every existing cemetery.

The Green Burial Consil offers the following statistics to justify their existence while also promoting and certifying other Green Burial Products.

Each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:
30 million board feet of hardwood used to make caskets
90,272 tons of steel used to make caskets
14,000 tons of steel to make vaults
2,700 tons of copper and bronze to make caskets
1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete to make vaults
827.060 gallons of embalming fluid, principally formaldehyde

The fact is I have problems with these statistics!

The Green Burial Consil claims there are 22,500 cemeteries in the United States. Since I have no desire to try to count them, I’ll accept their number as correct; but I find myself wondering, are these all active cemeteries or are many old church yard, inactive cemeteries. Let’s assume The Green Burial Consil did their homework and each is an active cemetery.

The casket Manufacturers Association estimates that last year there were 1,771,845 casketed human remains. Assuming that the Green Burial Consil figure of 30 million board feet of hardwood was used in their manufacture; that would only amount to 200,000 caskets. Or 11.3 % of all caskets manufactured. But this is an unverified statement so the actual amount of hardwood used could be substantially less. The Casket Manufacturers Association also doesn’t differentiate between those casketed remains being buried or cremated so I will assume all are buried. Bear in mind that currently the cremation rate nationally is close to 40% and the projected rate of cremation by 2025 will exceed 50%. So, by my assuming all casketed remains are being buried I am being very generous.

The Green Burial Consil claims that 90,272 tons of steel was used to manufacture caskets. This would mean that 1,031,680 steel caskets were buried. But this number as well as the numbers for steel vaults, and copper and bronze caskets is unimportant as these products are manufactured from minerals that are found naturally in the ground.

Likewise the same can be said for concrete vaults; concrete vaults are manufactured from earth friendly materials; sand, gravel, and cement. Concrete solidifies and hardens after mixed with water. The water reacts with the cement, which bonds the other components together, eventually creating a stone-like material. Concrete is used to make pavements, building foundations, roadways, and building blocks Concrete is used more than any other man-made material in the world. As of 2006, about 10 billion cubic yards of concrete are made each year. More than 55,000 miles highways in the United States are paved with reinforced concrete. Only about ½ a cubic yard of concrete is used to manufacture a vault. So I fail to see the significance of mentioning this earth friendly material; unless it is to state that a concrete vault will keep a grave from settling thus requiring less maintenance of a grave site or to protect harsh chemicals (formaldehyde) from seeping into the ground

So, now we are down to the only true potentially harmful material, Embalming fluid.

Allow me to assume that 1 pint, 16 ounces of concentrated formaldehyde mixed with water is used to make two gallons of embalming solution, and 1 pint, 16 ounces of concentrate is used for cavity treatment. That means 118,151 gallons of concentrated formaldehyde can potentially be harmful to ground water. But we need to factor in that earth friendly material (concrete) that will prevent that seepage. Now let us assume that only 25% of all casketed burials are also placed in a concrete vault. That means that the risk of ground water being polluted is also reduced by 25% or 29,538 gallons leaving 88,613 gallons of concentrate. Now going back to the 22,500 active cemeteries and divide that concentrate equally between them you now have 4 gallons of formaldehyde that can contaminate the ground water under each cemetery. Assume that each cemetery is approximately 25 acres the result is, you have approximately 20 ounces of formaldehyde contaminating each acre. I contacted the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to determine if this was within acceptable limits. It is!

In the final analysis; if your client wants Green Burial you should comply with their wishes, because you are there to serve. Just be sure you clearly express the facts and they are not being motivated by fear. Fear that they are harming our environment by having their loved one embalmed, placed in a metal casket and a concrete vault. They are not.

Cemeteries are not restricted to using only chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. There are many organic or natural, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, available. The point is you can have a Green Cemetery and still have the lush rolling lawns and a park like setting.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Aristotle


  1. Planting bodies dressed in synthetic clothing in expensive metal or resin coated hardwood coffins made in China pumped full of toxic chemicals is already completely archaic.
    Cemeteries that look like golf courses are just as wasteful circa 1959.
    Cremation is just as bad.
    You are hanging onto the past in your arguments.
    The tide of sane & simple choices made by the people is passing you by.
    American made 100% biodegradable burial shrouds ( are the embalmers friend for preparation ( don't embalm -but shroud everyone for every purpose including removal.)
    (P.S. Its the Green Burial Council- a consul is a foreign dignitary)
    Thank you

  2. Santore, reads like you have missed the whole point of Green/Natural Burial. And who is "spreading fear"? The fear should be a funeral professional that is not able to assist families that want an alternative to toxic embalming and cremation. The Green Burial Council is a friend to the industry. The GBC has never attacked anyone and dosen't look like they intend to. There is nothing to gain by agressive articles like yours.
    P.S. I do like your negitive take on NFDA (Asia Expo! WHY!). They are the real fear spreaders.

  3. A ‘green’ funeral is a term often used to describe a simple ceremony followed by burial in a grave in a woodland or meadowed area. Often for these funerals the use of a cardboard or other form of biodegradable coffin is considered more environmentally friendly than using wood.