Green Illusions

This column originally appeared in the December, 2012 issue of Funeral Home and Cemetery News by Nomis Publications, Inc.

What lies ahead for sustainability in death care?

I borrowed the title for this month's column from author and scholar, Ozzie Zehner, who recently published a book of the same title.  Zehner explains in great detail how every alternative energy technology including solar, wind, nuclear, bio fuels, fuel cells, hydrogen and clean coal are extensions of the hydrocarbon economy.  Solar, wind, nuclear, and bio fuels actually cause more harm than good for the environment.   Fuel cells and hydrogen violate the laws of physics.  Worse yet, the hydrogen car and clean coal amount to little more than a hoax specifically designed to advance a political agenda for commercial gain.

Green Illusions is an intriguing and entertaining read, and I want to share one particularly useful insight by Zehner that applies to our death care industry.  America does not have an energy production problem.  America has an energy consumption problem.  That is to say that Americans use more energy than any other developed nation on earth.  Americans use more than twice as much energy per capita than Europeans or Japanese do.  The worst part is that an estimated 80% of energy consumed in the United States is wasted.  By "wasted" we mean that 80% of the energy we consume brings no enjoyment or improvement to our quality of life.  

How might Zehner's ideas on energy conservation apply to the death care industry?  Let us first take on the controversial endeavor to define green as it applies to funerals and the death care industry.  (I have avoided defining green for the last ten installments of this column.)  There are many definitions of green as it applies to the natural burial movement.  Definitions invoke terms such as biodegradable, non-toxic, carbon footprint, recycled, and organic.  I offer you my definition of green--that being green is a matter of maintaining or improving quality of life for all living things in the environment as they may be affected by the creation, use, and disposition of a product or service.  This is a broad definition that seeks to demonstrate clarity in its purpose.  We need to include all activities that support the cradle-to-grave life cycle of any product or service we aim to market as green.  This definition does not give credit to marketers whose products are just "less" toxic, or "less" harmful to the environment.  Such marketing is akin to marketing low-tar cigarettes as the "healthy" option.

Our broad definition of green gets even broader if we accept the idea that "all living things" should include future generations of living things.  And wider again if by "environment" we also include harmonious politics and healthy economies in addition to the well-being of the earth and the living things in her air, lands, and seas.  This sounds exceedingly difficult and perhaps a chore of calculus reserved only for those with a certain amount of insanity for mundane details or scholars adequately funded to ponder, measure, and publish the details of all the products and services involved in conventional funerals in the United States.

It doesn't need to be difficult.  Being Green can be as simple as following a personal ethic to "do the right thing" and never stop asking questions.  In my own experience making decisions about raw materials, suppliers, and methods of production, I am always asking questions.  Where does this stuff come from?  How is this stuff made?  Who makes this stuff?  What is the measurable impact of this stuff?  There is the magic word: measurable.  I continue to find good science in carbon life cycle analysis.  Every activity on the planet can be measured, to a degree of certainty, as either sequestering or producing carbon dioxide (CO2) or CO2 equivalents.

What might be the net effect on jobs for locally-made caskets?
Being Green should not end with carbon life cycle analysis; we must also include a broader appreciation for quality of life.  For example, a pair of jeans produced in a dimly lit sweatshop by the hands of a child in Indonesia might have a smaller carbon footprint than the same produced in New York City by a boutique seamstress.  We could hardly agree, however, that the effort of child labor is Green if we include quality of life, politics, and economic factors in our definition.  While we might want being Green to be entirely objective and scientific, we need to maintain some degree of common sense and compassion for quality of life in our pursuit to be Green.

Let us explore a few scientific facts about death care through our new lens of compassion.  The impact of producing the raw materials for America's funerals is in the neighborhood of 0.5% of United States annual CO2 emissions.  Caskets and burial vaults account for 30 million board feet of lumber, 90,000 tons of steel, and 1.6 million tons of concrete annually.  Add the impact of assembling, storing, and shipping caskets and burial vaults and the United States funeral industry is responsible for as much as 2% of total CO2 emissions annually.  We could reduce carbon emissions by 80% or more by simply using "green" caskets made from sustainable, local, air-dried lumber.  As an alternative to 2700 lb concrete burial vaults, polyethylene vaults are 95% lighter (140 lbs), stronger, and longer-lasting than concrete.  Although Polyethylene is not an eco-friendly material given that it creates one to three times its weight in CO2 emissions, the net impact over concrete would result in 80% savings in CO2 emissions annually.  Would these changes take away from the quality of life for all those involved?  What might be the net effect on jobs for locally-made caskets and polyethylene burial vaults?  We could achieve 1-2% reduction in CO2 emissions without spending an extra dime for these products.  Federal spending on wind energy amounted to $14 billion in 2012 resulting in an estimated annual savings of CO2 emissions far less than one tenth of one percent.  Just think about it.