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How Natural Burial Works

Traditional Burial
Empty concrete burial vaults await occupants at Hoboken Cemetery in North Bergen, N.J.
Empty concrete burial vaults await occupants at Hoboken Cemetery in North Bergen, N.J.
AP Photo/Mike Derer

­On average, a traditional funeral and burial can cost up to or more than $10,000 [source: Goldstein]. That gets you the basics -- embalming and a casket, ceremony and burial; flowers, limos, obituaries, vaults and other trappings are all extras. The financial burden isn't the only problem. The things involved with our traditional funeral practices are deadly to the environment.

Let's start with embalming. Although it's routine, it's not actually required in the United States (unless, in some cases, burial is delayed beyond 24 or 48 hours). Embalming mummifies a body; it involves removing all bodily fluids and gasses and replacing blood with a formaldehyde-based solution for preserving and disinfecting. The World Health Organization classifies formaldehyde as a carcinogen yet the American funeral industry uses enough to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools every year [source: Corley]. As of 2010, formaldehyde will be banned in the European Union because of its carcinogenic effects.

Next, embalmed bodies typically inhabit steel-lined wood caskets, and caskets are often interred in steel or concrete vaults (vaults, like embalming, are common but not required by law). To keep up with American demand, roughly 30 million board feet (71,000 meters3­) of casket wood is felled every year [source: Scientific American]. And we're not talking about pine boxes -- some of this wood comes from tropical hardwoods, such as mahogany. The amount of steel used in caskets and vaults yearly in North America is equivalent to the amount used in the Golden Gate Bridge. And let's not forget concrete -- with the amount used in vaults you could build a highway between San Francisco and Portland. The manufacturing and transport of caskets and vaults requires large amounts of energy.

Burial isn't the only conventional funeral option. Cremation dates back to the early Stone Age; it's still popular today and it's cheaper than traditional burial. In the United States, 32 percent of corpses are cremated. By 2025, the Cremation Association of North America estimates that number could rise to about 57 percent [source: ­Lorek]. Outside the United States, the rates are even higher: 42 percent in Canada, 71 percent in Great Britain and more than 98 percent in Japan [source: Funerals with Love].

Cremation is cheaper, perhaps, but not greener. The process involves embalming and caskets, and the burn releases fossil fuels (dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere and toxic chemicals from the­ embalming fluid (as well as mercury from dental work). It takes a lot of energy to cremate a body -- harness the energy from cremations done in a single year in the United States and you'd have enough to travel to the moon and back 83 times [source: Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve].

­Although it's long been thought that cremation was the more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly option, it's not looking so hot with growing concerns about cremation pollution. Green burials are often the cheapest route -- they can range in price from almost nothing to hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on how fancy they are.