Unitarian Universalists Embrace Eco-Friendly Funeral Options

Unitarian Universalists Embrace Eco-Friendly Funeral Options

As the climate crisis grows more serious, the moral and even spiritual value of a green burial appeals to many people.

Elaine McArdle
A road sign reading "Natural Burial Ground"
Image: CC David P Howard/Wikimedia Commons

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Listen to this article as read by the author, Elaine McArdle.

Wrapped in a simple linen shroud, the outline of her body obvious to family gathered at the cemetery, the Rev. Judy Welles was placed on a pine board, gently lowered into a hole in the ground, and covered with straw and soil.

No casket, no embalming, no cement vault. Just the natural return of her body to the earth at River View Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, which—like a growing number of cemeteries around the United States—is offering the option of “green” burials.

Welles died at home in 2020, surrounded by her loved ones, and her wishes for how her body was to be cared for after death were carefully considered. “Climate effects were a big part of Judy’s decision,” says her husband, the Rev. Duane Fickeisen. “She did not want to be buried in a casket and vault, and she was considering cremation before realizing the environmental impact of all the natural gas required. So she decided to go with a green burial.” The couple, who co-ministered for fourteen years at Unitarian Universalists of Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania before retiring to Portland, also strongly support the demystification of death; after all, until about a century ago, death was something most people experienced up close and personal, including caring for the bodies of the deceased and even burying them at home.

“When you think about caring for the earth, there is value in approaching and treating life and death as part of a whole process, a normal thing,” says Fickeisen, who is a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland. “I think it helps grieving to have that experience” of a green burial. “You can’t very well deny that it happened; it’s very present.”

Aquamation uses water flow, temperature, and alkalinity to speed the natural breakdown of the body. It has low environmental impact, the fluid can be recovered and reused—sterile water left over from the process can be recycled for another aquamation—and what’s left of the skeletal material is ground-up.

When his own time comes, Fickeisen has chosen a different green option: aquamation, which uses water flow, temperature, and alkalinity to speed the natural breakdown of the body. “It has low environmental impact, the fluid can be recovered and reused”—sterile water left over from the process can be recycled for another aquamation—“and what’s left of the skeletal material is ground up. What the family gets back is similar to cremains from a cremation,” he explains. In contrast to flame-based cremation, it has a fraction of the carbon footprint and doesn’t release toxic substances into the air.

Concern for the environment was the reason that Jim Andrews chose a green burial, at River View Cemetery. “Jim chose a shroud, and he went directly into the ground without a casket,” says his wife, Mary Andrews. “He was placed in a wicker basket that will disintegrate along with his bones.” Beneath the cloth, “the outline of his loving face” was apparent, she wrote in an essay, adding, “No chemicals were used. No pollutants were released into the air.”

Andrews, who with her husband was also a member of First Unitarian Portland, plans to do the same. "When the time comes, my flesh and bones will join [Jim’s], and, together, we will mingle with the soil that surrounds us. We will nourish our good green earth in a lovely place on a hill,” she wrote.

Traditional burials place 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, and 64,500 tons of steel into the ground each year, according to the New York Times, while flame-based cremations—currently more popular than burial—spew hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide and other toxins into the air each year. As the climate crisis grows more serious, the moral and even spiritual value of a green burial appeals to many people.

“It's meant a lot to families at a time of loss, if you feel like you’re kind of honoring your loved one by doing the right thing for the earth,” says the Rev. Thomas Disrud, associate minister at First Unitarian, who, since 2014, has presided over about a dozen green burials, including that of Jim Andrews. “What I’ve experienced is a kind of reassurance and a sense of grace at those services. It feels very different when the grave is dug in the earth and the body is lowered into it without an accompanying vault and casket and all of that that will live on for thousands of years. That elemental sense of returning to earth is present.”

A green or “natural burial” (a bit of a misnomer, since some eco-friendly options don’t involve burying the body) refers to the handling and disposal of a deceased person in an environmentally responsible way. While there are a number of methods and levels of green to choose from, in general it means eschewing such non-sustainable or toxic practices as embalming the body, flame-based cremation, non-biodegradable caskets, and other features of the modern funeral industry.

Oregon is often a leader in cultural change—a group of Unitarian Universalists at First Unitarian Church of Portland helped launch the modern death-with-dignity movement in the United States, when they wrote, and succeeded in getting Oregon voters to approve, the nation’s first aid-in-dying law, in 1997. And last year, Oregon became one of the first states to approve human body composting as another green option for caring for the dead.

Green burials are legal in all fifty states and Canada, notes Ed Bixby, president of the Green Burial Council—and demand is growing rapidly.

In a 2017 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association, 53.8 percent of respondents said they were interested in exploring green funeral services, and the funeral industry is looking to meet that demand. In 2012, there were just thirty-six cemeteries in the United States certified for natural burials by the Green Burial Council, a federally recognized nonprofit that sets the certification standards. By 2021, there were over 320, according to the council, and requests for certification have picked up “substantially” over the past year, Bixby says.

In addition to caring for the earth, green-certified cemeteries offer next of kin a more personal experience, including the option of participating in the green burial process to the extent they are comfortable—carrying the shroud-wrapped body to the gravesite, say, and lowering it into the earth. “It empowers them to care for their loved ones in death as they did in life, to celebrate the life as opposed to maybe being frozen in a place of grief,” says Bixby. “It’s very healing.”

In the summer of 2022, Dana Buhl, director of social justice at First Unitarian Portland, gathered with her family for a celebration of the life of her mother-in-law, who died during the height of the COVID pandemic, in January 2021. Buhl understood that her mother-in-law had been cremated in the traditional sense, so she was surprised to learn that, in fact, she had chosen aquamation, or “wet cremation,” as some call it. At the service, each mourner was given their own small packet of white ashes, the remains of the body after the process. The group planted three lavender bushes, pouring the ashes into the ground and mixing them with the soil. “It was very beautiful,” Buhl says. “We were telling stories of how we remembered her, how she’s continuing in our lives, during this communal process of planting the lavender along with her remains. It was an opportunity for a collective sense of her spirit as continuing on.”

Compared to flame-based cremation, “I’m happy to know we’re not burning up fossil fuels or contributing more to the degradation of the environment,” she says.

Caring for the dead was once a common experience, as ancient as humankind itself and across every culture. People often died at home, and loved ones would wash the corpse and dress it. In some cultures, there was a brief period for mourners to pay their respects—brief because bodies were not embalmed—after which the corpse was placed in a simple wood box or placed directly into the ground in a cemetery or on the family property.

The American Civil War in the 1860s revolutionized the American funeral industry. Families of soldiers who died on faraway battlefields were eager to have their sons returned home for burial, but refrigeration did not yet exist, so the ancient Egyptian art of embalming was revived. President Abraham Lincoln became a proponent; when his young son Willie died, Lincoln had the boy’s body embalmed, and when the president himself was assassinated, his body was embalmed to preserve it during the train ride back to his home in Illinois from Washington, D.C., writes Brian Walsh, an assistant professor at Elon University, in Smithsonian Magazine.

Embalming became a national sensation, and the modern funeral industry was born. The time-honored tradition of families caring for the dying and dead became outsourced to professionals. People died in hospitals instead of in the home and were whisked away to funeral homes to be embalmed, adorned with makeup, placed in often-elaborate caskets, and lowered into cement vaults in the ground or interred in crypts to be preserved for centuries instead of decomposing naturally and mingling with the earth. The process of death became removed from daily life instead of an integral part of it—something to avoid discussing, let alone having the experience of touching a body or preparing it for burial.

But scathing critiques of the modern funeral industry arose, most influentially Jessica Mitford’s landmark 1963 book, The American Way of Death, and its 1998 update, The American Way of Death Revisited, which lambasted the often-exorbitant expense of funeral services and such unscrupulous practices as high-pressure sales tactics to vulnerable families. Others railed against the health effects on funeral workers, who have much higher rates of death from leukemia and other cancers from formaldehyde exposure during embalming. And there was growing concern for the environmental impact: in addition to the chemicals used in embalming, caskets and vaults can also leak iron, copper, lead, and cobalt into the soil.

Flame-based cremation—now chosen by more than half of Americans, perhaps because it’s falsely seen as easier on the planet—is, in fact, not an eco-friendly option, since it uses fossil fuels to burn bodies and emits hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide as well as toxic chemicals.

And then there is the cost of traditional burials. A funeral with embalming and a metal casket costs, on average, $8,000, according to WebMD. Bixby puts the national average at closer to $12,000.

For all of these reasons, people began to clamor for a “new” approach—or, more accurately, a return to the old. “We’re not inventing something new here; we’re going back to our roots, and there’s something beautiful about that,” says Barbara Becker, an interfaith minister and author of Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind, an examination of loss, including death, which is part of the curriculum in two programs at UU Wellspring, a spiritual deepening course for UUs. “The green funeral movement is tapping into this overall attempt to demystify death, not just regarding what we do about the body but having conversations about death and dying.”

In the last ten years, and especially the last few years, there’s been a big increase in awareness of green options, says Karen van Vuuren, co-founder and managing partner of the Natural Funeral, based in Colorado, which was the first to offer aquamation and human composting in that state. She says the funeral industry is lagging behind consumer demand because it doesn’t change quickly. “It’s moribund!” she adds, with a laugh.

Bixby urges consumers to push local funeral homes and cemeteries to provide green services. Indeed, there is a rapidly growing number of green funeral providers, services, and products, ranging from the simplest—direct burial of the body into the ground without embalming—to aquamation, which was the choice of Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he died in late 2021—to human composting, now legal in three states.

Green can also be less expensive. A green burial, including purchase of a burial plot at a cemetery and a grave opening fee, ranges from around $1,500 to $6,000 depending on location, about half the cost of a traditional burial. Flame-based cremation costs about $1,500, which is one reason it is popular, but it is hard on the environment; aquamation averages under $2,000, and human composting costs about $4,000 to $5,500, according to USFuneralsOnline.

For people who choose flame-based or water cremation and want a permanent place to visit their deceased loved one, there’s a new service billed as a natural alternative to traditional cemeteries. Through Better Place Forests, families can select and “buy” a particular tree, typically in an old-growth forest, where they can mix their loved one’s ashes with the soil at the base of the tree. These forests—currently, there are such forests in six states—are permanently protected from development, and for each tree purchased, a number of trees are donated through a partner, One Tree Planted, to support reforestation worldwide. “It’s not only giving people a place to go to honor their loved one but protecting the land,” says Evan Taranta, director of communications at Better Place Forests.

There’s also no need to travel. You can not only scatter a loved one’s ashes in your own yard but even bury their body there, as people often did a century or more ago. It’s legal except in a few states—California, Indiana, Washington, and the District of Columbia—although there may be local zoning or other regulations that mandate setbacks from such things as water sources or power lines. However, some states require that a funeral director be hired to file the death certificate, and states vary on other requirements. A guide to state laws on this is available through the National Home Funeral Alliance, a nonprofit that educates the public about their rights to care for their own deceased loved ones.

“There are things we can do with the body so that it’s not going to burden the earth, and might nourish the earth and use fewer resources,” says van Vuuren. And there are many new approaches to dealing with dying and death—from death doulas to death cafes—that seek to demystify and make more familiar and comforting what is a natural part of the life cycle.

As part of the green movement, the Natural Funeral offers “reverent body care,” by which families can participate in the ancient tradition of cleansing the body while blessing it, what was known as “laying out” the body, in generations past, van Vuuren says. It’s a ritual shared by most cultures, and while families can choose their own level of involvement in the ritual, if they choose it at all, “it’s a lovely ceremony, particularly in cases of sudden death,” she says.

As van Vuuren says, “The hope is that it’s going everywhere, that the natural funeral is going to be all over the United States, and we are bringing out choices. And not just the methods of disposition—what we do with the body—but reverent body care, and this holistic approach to being with death that really goes far and wide. It’s a reclaiming; we are reclaiming it.”

Becker was with her mother when she washed the body of her own mother, Becker’s grandmother, after her death. I remember her holding out her mother’s hand and saying, ‘Imagine, this is the hand that fed nine little babies, the hand that held you when you were little. It was a ritual of honoring my grandmother, of being with her body—and it forever changed me. It was so beautiful, and it’s so not new, right? The women who went to the grave to visit Jesus’s body were going to anoint the body. We are going back to these ancient traditions.”

Becker sees the green funeral movement as not just an ecological but also a spiritual movement. “I think we understand we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and our legacy is to help other parts of the earth to grow after we’re gone,” she says. “And even just a view of our relationship to the cosmos, it’s huge—and this can be the essence of spirituality to people. It’s a way of honoring the great mystery and our part in it.

“I always try to emphasize that, when I’m looking at death, I can’t help but really be looking at life and the question of how do I want to live my life,” says Becker, “and what does hope and what does joy look like. These conversations on death don’t necessarily lead us down a dark place but can lead us to more fulfilling lives.”

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