Gazing out at the park-like greensward that is a modern American cemetery, it would be easy to imagine that the American way of death is an environmentally friendly business -- but nothing could be further form the the truth. From casket manufacturing to funeral embalming, cemetery maintenance to flower disposal, the entire process is saturated with dangerous chemicals and heavily reliant on fuel-guzzling transportation. However, a growing number of companies are working to make the process less costly and more green. So if you're interested in leaving the Earth a little healthier than it was when you arrived, here are some of the best options:
Burial at Sea
One of the most romantic forms of interment, burial at sea, can be especially evocative for Navy veterans. And, with prices for sprinkling ashes at sea starting at $100, it can also be extremely affordable. Many companies use biodegradable containers and old-fashioned burial shrouds, reducing the environmental impact. What's more, by giving the bereaved the GPS coordinates for their loved one, many at-sea burial companies make it possible for return visits.
While even the basic burial at sea is environmentally responsible, there are some ocean burial options that actually help improve the environment. For example, Eternal Reefs, a Georgia-based company, combines the ashes of the deceased with cement to create a concrete reef ball. This huge, porous ball is then lowered into the ocean, where various aquatic creatures can make their homes on its rough surface. Loved ones can take part in the reef ball construction, and multiple family members can be buried inside a single reef ball. The price for interment starts at $2,995, but larger reef balls can accommodate up to four family members. To make it easier for loved ones to visit, the reef balls have built-in GPS transmitters and plaques commemorating the inhabitants.
Traditionally, caskets are made of highly-polished wood or metal, which means that even the most basic burial comes with a lot of mineral spirits, lacquers and other caustic chemicals. However, with a little bit of forward planning, you can arrange for funeral vessels that are cheaper and greener than what your local funeral home has on hand.
If you're in the market for environmentally friendly coffins, the Natural Burial Company is a good place to start. For those with simple tastes, their natural pine coffin is sturdy and attractive, in a rustic kind of way. Better yet, it features untreated wood, rope handles, and simple tongue-in-groove construction, which means that it carries nothing unhealthy into the earth.
For those interested in something a bit more attractive, Natural Burial also has an impressive line of coffins woven from willow, seagrass, bamboo and wicker. All these plants are fast-growing and renewable, and the prices -- while not rock-bottom -- are still well below the cost of a traditional casket.
If you're put off by the idea of wasting time, money and materials on something that you're only going to use for a day or two, there are numerous options to maximize your enjoyment of your casket. Casket Furniture offers an impressive selection of coffee tables, bookcases and entertainment centers that do double duty as funeral vessels. The prices aren't exactly cheap -- at $700, the "Adam's" coffee table is on the low end -- but compared to other furniture, not to mention caskets, many of the items are a bargain. If you want to save even more money, some companies offer kits or plans that you can use to make your own casket.
If you want to avoid the expensive, artificial, fertilizer-heavy standard cemetery, natural burial is an attractive option, Originally developed in the United Kingdom, the movement has spread to the United States. Although it isn't available everywhere, it seems to be growing in popularity. Currently, 22 American cemeteries allow natural burial, and 7 more natural burial parks are in development.
Green cemeteries represent a radical return to the burial methods of the pre-industrial era. They don't allow crypts and frown on wooden coffins. They prefer cloth burial shrouds, as these are more biodegradable and don't use as many resources. Some green cemeteries don't allow embalming, and many use natural flagstone grave markers or group markers to minimize the human impact on the grave site. Finally, they generally avoid traditional grounds-keeping, as it can add tons of artificial pesticides and fertilizers to the watershed.
All of this translates into a far less noxious burial procedure. Natural burial can still retain the ceremony and many of the trappings of a traditional funeral, but it seems to circumvent the artificial nature of most contemporary cemeteries. It also costs a lot less, as you are not paying for the upkeep of a traditional grave site. And you won't pay for a coffin, embalming, or many of the other services for which morticians charge a premium.
Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings editor. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.